Michelle Wildgen, But Not For Long (Book Review) by jgn on Tuesday, November 17, 2009 in Reading and Reviews

Michelle Wildgen, But Not For Long (2009). $24.99. [Amazon]

I'm a sucker for a good "end times" novel (see my review of World Made by Hand). This book is about three housemates in a funky Madison, Wisconsin co-op dedicated to localism (as in local foods). 30-something Hal leads the house, with the help of 20-something Karen. Meanwhile, 30-something Greta has moved in, trying to escape her alcoholic husband Will. The thing is, though, that gas prices have shot up, and there have been power outages. Part-way through the book, a lengthy power-outage kicks in that seems like it might be the permanent one. Hinted at is a general ecological decline: yield from community farms is low, chicken eggs from a farm have malformed shells. All is not right in the world.

All of these ecological aspects of the novel are soft-pedaled. In fact, no one really knows why the power has been going off. It is noted briefly that there is still a war going on, so perhaps power is expensive because of that. I would guess that Wildgen's point is that this is the problem with people nowadays: No one really knows why our engagement with the natural world is in such decline; even those of us who try to use fewer resources and think locally, she would seem to claim, can't really get beyond our personal issues.

Towards the end of the novel, the alcoholic Will emerges as a central character. It would seem that Wildgen is drawing a very broad parallel between society's drunkenness on taken-for-granted resources, and Will's grotesquely selfish boozing. (Indeed, if this is a so-so ecological novel, it's a fine novel of alcoholism.) This makes me think that the novel is something of a parable. Having said that, the parabolic nature of the story is so light that it is hard to really care. There are some characters who have managed to escape: Hal's father lives in a cabin in northern Wisconsin, and allows that if the power went out up there, nothing much would change. Karin has a lovely episode visiting a boutique cheese maker (chapter 9), but it doesn't motivate her to get out of Madison. That seems to be the case for all of the characters: They're too frail to break their own habits, and, like Will, their addiction is strangely what keeps them (barely) alive.

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