Always Coming Home

I finished it the other day, but I had to sit with it a while to figure out what I want to say about it.  I’m honestly still not sure what I want to say about it. It is amazing. Simply amazing, just as a thing that exists in the world. But I also loved that even though Stone Telling goes to a terrible place where bad things happen, you don’t have to read a litany of bad things happening. There’s not a lot of suffering as plot point in the book. That’s not to say that people don’t suffer, just that it’s not a plot point.

I’m going to have to think on this some, because it seems to me that this is probably the most radical move the book makes (and in a book like this, that’s saying something)–to have a story full of women and children and poor people, with a realistic threat of war, and their suffering is not part of our entertainment.

It makes me wonder how much of Western literature about people who are really different from the author has an element of “sucks to be you” in it, when reading something that doesn’t have that element seems so strange and nice.

I keep thinking about all of the YouTube videos for “It is Well (With my Soul)” (sorry, had to add the echo in there) had either text or spoken words about the circumstances under which the song came to be written. I’m not sure I’m exactly clear on where the source of my discomfort is, but I think it’s in the fact that the recitation of this man’s suffering is clearly supposed to add something to the aesthetic experience of listening to the song. Your learning of his great suffering is supposed to add something to the song for you. It’s supposed to make the song better, more meaningful. More entertaining.

Which is not to say that I think it’s somehow wrong to learn about what happened or to learn about what happened and find that it does make the song more profound for you, since he has been through some shit and if he can find that it is well with his soul, well, maybe we all can.

But you know what I mean? It seems like there’s a difference between learning about what happened to him and having what happened to him presented to you as part of the aesthetic experience of the song.

I also loved Always Coming Home for the narrator, which made me feel a lot more sure about what I’m doing with the Sue Allen piece.

Anyway, good book.

6 thoughts on “Always Coming Home

  1. I’m so glad you found looking at the narrator that way helpful.

    I have a question about your reaction to the book itself, though.Did you get the impression that the society being shown there (not the Condors, but the main one — the Kesh, was it?) was stable, or that it was declining/disappearing?

  2. Neither, exactly. I thought the pressure the Condor culture exerted on the Kesh and other people was tremendous. Obviously the rise of the Warrior and Lamb cults was in direct response to that great cultural pressure. And it seemed obvious that the Kesh were in real danger of the destruction of their culture–both from a Condor invasion and from the rise of those death cults. I wouldn’t call that stability. It seems to me that the Kesh, over the course of the book, did decline and came very close to disappearing.

    But I also think that, when Stone Telling returns to the valley, the Kesh are on an upswing. The Condor people were, to use her phrase, a hinge event.

  3. I know that in cultural terms the Condor people were a hinge for the Kesh. And the strength of the Kesh culture in ousting/reconciling those Kesh most influenced by the Condors was clearly not diminishing. But the impression that I got was that, demographically, the society was unsustainable. When you have a wasting disease that hits a lot of people before they can reproduce, yet also have immense cultural pressure against fathering/bearing more than two children, I can’t see how you don’t disappear over time. But I have never been sure how much Le Guin was just shaky on demography (which would be the only time in her writings I have known her to make that sort of mistake) and she saw Kesh people and culture as there for the long haul, and how much she was thinking about her parents telling her about Ishi and deliberately created a society that was going to die out.

    It’s the one thing that always niggles me about that book.

  4. Hmm. Yeah, I see what you mean. I guess I just assumed that, of course, they’d eventually die out. The valley is riddled with evidence of cultures that came before and died out and we hear the story of the Condor nation not being able to sustain itself.

    So, it just seemed natural to me that the Kesh would be on a long, slow decline. How could they not be?

    But don’t you also think that she left a door open for the possibility that they might not? The smaller animals were all now no longer suffering from the wasting diseases, so it does seem as if it only goes on for so many generations.

    But, yeah, now that’s going to niggle at me.

  5. Ah. I always thought that the former cultures were somehow ancestor cultures of the Kesh. You know, the culture has changed enough not to be easily recognizable any longer, but the people are the same (or, rather, descendants of the same) people. I wondered whether the culture had changed so much because there were fewer and fewer individuals as time went on. I like your more optimistic take on things.

    So, yeah, you can write up a fictional anthropological survey and get your readers to wonder about the future of the people, in the same way that the narrative makes them wonder about the future of Stone Telling’s life. I think you ought to be able to play around with a lot of this for your book.

  6. Yeah, I was glad to see a narrator who is and is not the author repeatedly turn her attention to how the story is being told and what her thoughts on telling it are. I was glad to see how a talented author pulled it off.

    I’m also, weirdly, finding myself heavily influenced by the book of Esther, which, considering how little I knew about it when the three of us discussed it, I constantly find strange.

Comments are closed.