Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver, is about a middle-class family struggling to make ends meet as the 2016 presidential primaries unfold. “One underemployed breadwinner, five dependents,” Kingsolver writes of the Knox-Tavoularis family, whose members are designed to represent variously aggrieved members of the white American electorate. At the center of the novel is Willa, a magazine editor turned freelance writer. In her orbit are her husband, Iano, a tenure-track professor turned adjunct instructor; her son, Zeke, a Harvard graduate turned unemployed single father; her daughter, Tig, a Millennial loner turned leftist organizer; her dying father-in-law, Nick, a blue-collar worker turned Trump supporter; and Zeke’s infant son, Dusty, heir to a doomed future.
The novel, Kingsolver’s eighth, chronicles Willa’s attempt to save her dead aunt’s house, a crumbling Victorian mansion in Vineland, New Jersey. An (actual) old Temperance town whose soil once made it attractive to glassmakers and chicken farmers and the founders of Welch’s Grape Juice, Vineland lost its raison d’être after a line of pesticide manufacturers poisoned the land and fled, along with many of the town’s jobs and a noticeable portion of its white people. The Knox-Tavoularis family has since inherited the house, and Willa sees signs of Vineland’s decline everywhere. When she glances at the yard of her neighbor Jorge, she sees a “vehicle boneyard” and hears “intermittent Spanish expletives of frustration or success” as the boys next door tinker with abandoned cars. Young mothers pass her on the sidewalk “conversing in a musical Asian language.” Her daily walk takes her past “a pawn shop, the welfare office, a Thai restaurant, and the Number One Chinese Market.” She thinks that if she had to pitch an article about the town, its headline would read: “Nineteenth-Century Utopias Gone to Hell.”
If Vineland is supposed to be a microcosm of the United States in 2016, then the house is an excuse for Kingsolver to cram five people with disparate political allegiances under one leaky roof. Family dinners are exhausting opportunities to rehearse the major fault lines in mainstream American politics. Willa wonders why it seems like “there’s less money in the world than there used to be.” Iano bemoans his lack of job security, blaming his failed tenure bids on jealous colleagues and rumors of affairs with students. “Boundaries, everybody keeps saying this word and I never get it,” he complains. Zeke and Tig bicker about finance capital and ecocide, volleying clichés at each other while Willa watches, bemused, and Iano submits clarifying comments. “Grow or die, that’s just the law of our economy, Tiggo,” Zeke says. “There’s no more room to grow,” Tig snaps back. “Supply and demand,” offers Iano, who we are supposed to believe has a doctorate in global politics. Nick mutters racist epithets and rails against Obamacare. The baby puts things in his mouth and cries. This is the American-family novel as Sunday-morning talk show—a character drama with no real characters, only sound bites masquerading as human beings.
The first American novel to treat the 2016 election at length, Unsheltered is stuffed with recognizable people, events, and issues: Donald Trump (whom Kingsolver never refers to by name but calls “the Bullhorn”), Bernie Sanders (whose supporters are “multicolored, wildly groomed, and ready to rock”), the 2008 financial crisis, Occupy Wall Street, student debt, the gig economy, immigration, global warming. The novel seems to know that we exist in a state of desperate inequality and looming environmental catastrophe from which there is no obvious escape. Yet, also like a Sunday-morning talk show, Unsheltered is so busy flaunting its timeliness that it misses the underlying political and economic strains that have brought the country to this pass. “Today’s problems can’t be solved by today’s people,” Tig warns her mother, who cannot quite absorb the lesson. Shocked and injured by her lack of middle-class comforts, Willa is allergic to probing the foundations of wealth and power, and the way they shape people’s fates.
She shares this sensibility with Kingsolver, who is often described as a “political novelist” but who has only the shallowest understanding of political reality. Her novels specialize in self-congratulatory gestures of empathy: the clumsy representation of characters whom she finds obviously distasteful but wants to redeem, modeling the respect and understanding that she believes can open our hearts and minds and subdue our partisan acrimony. The result is not a bad novel—it is perfectly competent at the level of the sentence—but a novel that fails so dramatically to capture the corrosive realities of liberal capitalism that it just might deflate, once and for all, the middlebrow fantasy that stories can help us get through these dark times.
The dark times began for Kingsolver in 2012, the year Barack Obama was reelected and Donald Trump filed a trademark application for “Make America Great Again.” Kingsolver had just published her latest novel, Flight Behavior, the story of a poor, religious woman forced to confront the science of climate change. On the hunt for her next project, Kingsolver began to entertain a “vague feeling the world as we knew it was ending. Soon the feeling was no longer vague,” she writes in a prefatory letter addressed to the reader of Unsheltered.
Shocking new leadership styles were ascendant, fueled by fear and polarization. Things we’ve always counted on were falling apart: civil governance, generous patriotism, a secure pension at the end of a life’s work. That the poles would stay frozen.
The “we” whom Kingsolver addresses in her letter are not just any readers but the members of her socially conscious fan base: readers for whom there existed, until recently, a shared condition of political and economic stability that all of us could count on to protect our interests. For these readers, as for Kingsolver, the unceremonious arrival of Donald Trump represented not just an erosion of the norms of civility. It was a world-historical event, a harbinger of the apocalypse.
As far as accounts of the world’s end go, this one is pretty shortsighted. American politics have become more strident, and inequities more apparent, but the fissures have been spreading and deepening over the past half century. As the critic Lee Siegel observed in 1999, a decade into Kingsolver’s career as a novelist she already betrayed an irritating tendency to flatten her representations of complex political entanglements into occasions to broadcast her moral concern—virtue signaling avant la lettre. The feuding Nicaraguans in Animal Dreams (1990), Sandinistas and Contras alike, were all “plain, earnest people” trying to find “peace and a kinder way of life.” The Congo of The Poisonwood Bible (1998) was not a site of brutal colonial exploitation but a “place of wonders” that encouraged Kingsolver to explore “the great, shifting terrain between righteousness and what is right.” Kingsolver begins Unsheltered by emphasizing the risk she has taken in writing about the present: “It’s impossible to understand a crisis when you’re standing inside it, but good art comes from risking the impossible, so I thought I’d try.”
The responsibility for explaining the crisis falls to Kingsolver’s characters, who take turns perorating about stagnant wages, student loans, white nationalism, “the historical moment of no more free lunch.” Unsheltered’s third-person narrator sticks closest to Willa, who prides herself on her ability to navigate among Iano’s resignation, Tig’s “batshit hopes,” Zeke’s capitalist can-do spirit, Nick’s bigotry, and her own astute perception of her friends and neighbors. Here she is on her neighbor Jorge and his brother:
She had no hard feelings … toward these handsome boys and their friends, who all wore athletic shorts and plastic bath shoes as if life began in a locker room.
On her Italian contractor:
He pronounced [almond] owl-mond. She also noted his resistance to contractions, and the recurrent back inna day. She wished for her pocket tape recorder.
On one of Iano’s students, a young girl who shows up at the house, sick and weepy, intimating that she has had an affair with Iano:
She wiped her runny nose, then fiddled with the steel eyebrow ring, then wiped her nose again, all of which made Willa wince. Even if she’d had doubts about Iano … it was not going to be this one. Iano was a stickler for hygiene.
If Kingsolver intends to carve out some ironic distance between her narrative voice and Willa’s consciousness, it is very hard to gauge: Willa’s cluelessness, a little bit racist and a little bit sexist, seems to merit at most a laugh or a shrug, while the prejudice of characters like Nick is softened, defanged by his old age and feebleness. Sometimes Willa seems to be a mouthpiece for Kingsolver, so precisely does she echo her insulated view of political reality. “It was pretty clear there would be no stopping the Bullhorn, or someone like him,” Willa thinks near the close of the primaries. “Here was the earthquake, the fire, flood, and melting permafrost.” At other times Willa seems to represent Kingsolver’s idea of what middle-class Americans are really like: casually bigoted, painfully smug, and limited in their imaginative capabilities.
What Unsheltered lacks in political understanding, it tries to compensate for through historical analogy. The story of the Knox-Tavoularis family is interwoven, in alternating chapters, with the 19th-century tale of Thatcher Greenwood and Mary Treat: Vineland neighbors, amateur scientists, and passionate defenders of the ideas of Charles Darwin against the religious demagoguery of Vineland’s founder, Charles Landis. Thatcher and Mary spend their time together observing flora and fauna, each admiring the other’s intellect and equanimity. And they complain about Landis, a venal, cultish, fearmongering leader who literally shoots someone in broad daylight—Uri Carruth, the publisher of Vineland’s only oppositional newspaper—without losing any of his followers. They fear that Landis will corrupt their American utopia, that it will “ravel at the seams and show itself as a costume covered in naked greed.”
Kingsolver draws the parallels between the past and the present with a heavy hand. The closing phrase of each chapter serves as the title of the chapter that follows. Willa and her family live in the same house that Thatcher owned 150 years earlier, while the house next door, once Mary Treat’s, is now owned by Jorge. In the hope that her house might qualify as a historical landmark, Willa starts researching Thatcher and Mary and discovers in their letters a self-assured model of 19th-century liberalism. Thatcher and Mary are democrats, secularists, empiricists, indignant crusaders for the freedoms of speech and the press, worshippers of nature’s green solitude. They, too, are not characters. They are nostalgic projections of a time when rationality, individuality, moderation, and open-mindedness (not to mention segregation, partial suffrage, and limited indoor plumbing) made progress seem possible. “Mary had been free to examine the world as she saw it,” the narrator says, evoking Willa’s bliss as she “burrowed into that freedom.” Only the resurrection of a liberalism that is pure at heart, undiluted by radical energies, can shelter us from the present.
To transmit this message, Kingsolver must domesticate Tig, whose gentle iconoclasm makes her Kingsolver’s most multidimensional character. At the end of the novel, Tig, who has fallen in love with Jorge, gives up on her dreams of socialist revolution and settles for a more modest future. She and Jorge assume guardianship of Dusty and move into Mary Treat’s carriage house, where Tig is determined to be “a different kind of mom” from Willa. Tig plants a garden, makes Dusty’s baby food by hand, swaddles him in cloth diapers, and fashions his toys out of recycled containers.
“Tig and Jorge are shacking up in Mary Treat’s garage. Is this significant?” Iano asks Willa, but the question is really directed at Kingsolver’s readers, who are prompted to draw certain obvious conclusions: that their children are our future; that political disasters should inspire us to double down on personal responsibility; that the family of the future will be a multiethnic, financially and ecologically responsible gathering of young creatives. We are foolhardy to think we can change our political and social ecosystem, Kingsolver suggests. Like Darwin’s finches, we can only adapt to it, evolve with it, continue to reproduce under its auspices, until the day we are all underwater.
What is depressing about the ending, and what makes the novel feel so curiously dated, is that Kingsolver does not seem to realize that a version of the future she imagines is already here—that it has taken root since the dismantling of the American welfare state began in the 1970s, leaving the family ever more isolated in the struggle to feed, clothe, and shelter children. The ethos of personal responsibility and the ideal of domestic self-sufficiency that Kingsolver presents as Tig’s innovative response to economic precariousness and ecological disaster is 1980s neoliberal family values disguised as present-day do-it-yourself liberation. Despite the relentless contemporaneity of Unsheltered’s proper names and its ripped-from-the-headlines plot points, the novel’s present is already our history, its future our recent past. It does not touch our current predicament.
This article appears in the November 2018 print edition with the headline “Barbara Kingsolver’s Liberal Pabulum.”