Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Review: Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry

Jayber Crow opens with a riff on the opening of Huckleberry Finn*, admonishing interpreters and explainers of the novel, taking a more fitting revenge on the offerors of cheap analysis than the summary execution that Twain recommended. (As for me, the subtext is staring me right in the chops, so it's with a heavy heart that I accept my banishment.) It's an interesting contrast. I read Twain with a cutting sense of humor and sarcasm, a conflicted soul and a precise stylist, a sense of innocence that he embraced or lambasted with varying degrees of intent. I confess to a preference for the more playful style, and with Twain I do feel a certain sense of Yankee homerism, as well as a minor resonance with a tone that I often try to achieve. I'd say it's that divided spirit, but then here's Berry again, telling us that someone must be "troubled enough in their own hearts to have something to say." Maybe it's all a matter of delivery. Berry's writing is calm and mature, the narration clipped of any cynicism beyond maybe a gentle head shake as Jayber muses on the past. Words are chosen deliberately, in short sentences, and there are hardly any contractions used in the prose. It is a slow voice, like a beloved grandfather saying: stop, sit, listen. He weights everything with a sad foreknowledge of the future. There's a danger of saccharine here, but Berry is in command of the prose, and his heart is sufficiently troubled. The writing is often beautiful.

The novel, as you can pick up from the cover, is the memoir of an elderly narrator from the river town of Port William, Kentucky. He's a bachelor, a barber, janitor, and gravedigger by trade (which contents him well enough), a man of few words, who is excluded from certain of the upstanding social circles. But using his own sparing language, Berry gradually paints him as a man of deep and sensitive character. Jayber gradually decides to join the "membership" of the community, and tells various stories of its people and himself. Like all of us, Jayber Crow sees his world as hopeful and vibrant at the time of his youth, and as lost and dying when he is old. That the age of this man is meant to accurately reflect the Port William's health is a novelist's conceit. In his understanding of Port William, Jayber sees loss of farm space as an inevitable component of the march of civilization. Introduction of debt financing and a consumption economy (as I've recently babbled) to an agricultural community that was formerly self-sufficient is one part of it, but it's more a matter of overdevelopment, of the quiet and insensate expansion of powerful machinations into quiet rural life. Switters managed to pick the one quote in the whole damn book that rubbed me the wrong way, which used the word "scientific" to describe this progress, and I can't quite agree with that, even though I liked the other 14,000 words on the subject very much. Berry is pushing for simplicity here, and Jayber himself, the literary autodidact and chronicler of natural connections, is a simple man who doesn't by any means embody ignorance. It's a distinction which I appreciate, and if we can find a world where those two concepts don't correlate, it seems like a good one to live in. (Would that it's where this one was going.) But there are crimes of connectedness (just like there are sins of segregation), and the loss of the simpler community is a very real loss. We're offered a eulogy for it here, each departure catalogued as a tug on individual heartstrings.

In order to perform as a narrator, Jayber has to be both an observer and an insider. Berry accomplishes this by giving him a background that's common to novel characters. The familiar stuff is all there: the young orphan, the boarding school, the prodigious and independent reader, the outcast, the nature-lover, the reprobate, the unrequited lover with a hope of something like redemption: these are roles more common to the population of literature (and people who resort to literature) than, I think, to your typical small-town barbers. I suppose you could look at it the other way too, and say that as a habitual reader of novels, that's the format in which Jayber is likely to represent his own life. That story of unresolved affection is for one Mattie Keith (later Chatham), and is telegraphed early, but brought into the story at leisure. The central Port William story is the transformation and fate of the Keith farm over a couple of generations, which I imagine was meant by Berry to be a synecdoche for the casualties of the march of progress. Jayber's life story sometimes seems tacked on around this longish episode, possibly as a vehicle to give more views of the little society. His infatuation with Mattie is, I think, meant to mirror his feeling for the town, and the youthful Odyssey and the establishment of a home by the river** are meant to further fill out his sense of love for the place. It feels a little episodic, but Jayber Crow's understanding of the place feels solid and heartfelt.

Port William at its peak is almost an idealized farm town, and certainly the Keith farm is thrown up as an ideal approach of resource management, independence, and honest labor. I can see the inspiration in there. It's also a southern tobacco-growing town with hardly any black people, suspiciously insulating it from history. (Kentucky didn't really maintain the plantations that other southern states managed, but less-bad is still unconscionable. It's written out because I don't think Berry wants his paean to the farm to include the forced indenture of a whole population.) The town is also carefully isolated by its ruralness, connected to the outside world (in its best times) by only the narrow thread of the river. Although it's filled up with real people, I don't quite believe in Port William, at least not as a typical place. And it's not that I have to: the setting actually feels like well-written science fiction, where consistent application or removal of some real-world constraints can illustrate aspects of the world better the actual muddy past can. Call it America's Shire, and when Jayber goes There and Back Again, it's to witness the filthy industrial machine, the "real world", that'd eventually overrun the place.

(I also can't see the Kentucky River agricultural civilization as timelessly as Jayber can. Anyone living there, say, 200 years before Jayber Crow might have had a similar reaction to Whitey wandering by, cutting down all the trees, and scaring away the game. Sustainable local or regional agricultural models do certainly get some better credit than mechanized ones, having in some cases stood for many centuries pre-industry. Farming technology was slow but hardly static in the east and west, and even then not without environmental effects like deforestation and soil erosion, but it still looks like a much better record for stability of human population, at least if you don't mind the occasional famine.)

Eventually we get to the love story. I can be a softie for tales of true love denied, but taken without text, subtext, or analysis, it's an infatuation that came to Jayber's life far too late. Developing an excruciating crush when you are not a teenager can't possibly be healthy, when opportunities to grow into your senses come up considerably less frequently. If you can take the situation objectively, Jayber's feelings for Mattie were a lot like those of a 14-year-old nerd, and I kept wondering what her view of him might have been all those years. His strict hands-off affection must have been obvious and intense, and her own cautious distance was a perfectly logical response. I don't take Jayber as an unreliable sort of narrator--I trust the sincerity and chastity of his feelings--and of course a not-much-deeper reading says that this emotion is about more than just Mattie. A great theme of his story is learning how to love the world that won't necessarily love you back. It forms the essence of Jayber's religious ruminations. Like his younger self, my own agnosticism comes from an unwillingness to accept the Biblical (or equivalent) story as some kind of useful description, accurate history or comprehensive moral map. On the other hand, I very much understand the idea of loving the world so much that it can break your heart. The very idea breaks my heart. Does Christianity really follow from that? Is it too generous (or too insulting) to humanize God that way? I don't quite see it, but then I'm still far from Jayber's age. Or Berry's.

* One of the small handful of things I actually remember from Twain's novel, having last read it when I was 11 or so. I've read other Twain more recently.

** Quite a lot of these associations are switters' fault.

[some edits]

Friday, August 06, 2010

Pay It Forward

Last time it was Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, this time it was Wendell Berry. From 1952, The Space Merchants was satirizing indebtedness in the industrial sector, imagining a system of corporate indentureship where wages, by design, could only contribute to paying debt, which of course accrued faster than the pay could cancel it in the company town. It must have been funnier in foresight. In Berry's novel, Jayber Crow (review pending), it's a look back on the 1950s, when mechanized farming really started taking off, and we're given object lesson in debt and sustainability, where the borrowing against the yield for consolidation and growth broke the land use cycle and stabbed the community in the heart. (If I find a handy pull-quote or two, I'll add them later.) It's an interesting piece of historicity: Jayber's reminiscences take place a good century after America's Populist movement. Agriculture was already getting infected with finance in the eighteen-fifties, with fungible grain and futures trading already starting to deliver their mixed blessings. I'm not 100% sure where I stand with respect to agrarian Populism. I'm certainly sympathetic, and I think centralized industrial agriculture has been civilization-scale fuckup, but I also think shrinking the world with technology and transportation has largely been a good thing. Or could've been at least.

And of course (like the Populists), my interest is self-centered and my worldview is heavily projected. I'm more familiar with the debt traps of the modern knowledge-work economy where we aren't actually making anything, and they're alarming in their own way. Wage growth has been poor over the last thirty years, and has been nonexistent for the past ten. Meanwhile, household debt has skyrocketed (and recently declined a little with house prices, but remains enormous; I'll add some charts later if I can find any that summarize it neatly), and loan-based assets (like your house, your car, and your education) are more essential for existence within the model and have likewise puffed up with dubious prices, and escape-free legal clauses. With new legislation designed to prevent it, we can look forward to more creative gouging from our credit card masters (I need to ask what the "minimum interest charge" was all about). Instead of exchanging our labor for income, we're exchanging it for debt. (Poetically just, maybe, considering what our labor produces, but it's no way to live.) Individually, we may or may not be doing okay, but collectively, we're getting screwed.

Like most technologies, the indecency of debt depends a lot on how it's used. Anyone who's made an online purchase can appreciate how great is that liquidity that easy debt (or really, the easy transfer of funds). It is not difficult to justify borrowing when it's temporary, borrowing a little when times are tough, or for the sake of convenience, provided you can expect to repay in the normal course of things. I want to complain about what I guess is called structural debt, the kind that most of us plebes are stuck with, whether it's the mortgage, student loans, or all those pizzas we ate in college. It's those debts that are caught up inexorably with our working lives that really control us.

From a personal vantage, these running obligations are basically liveable, even though they tend to stay you in your course. We're still doing the same things, approximately: working and getting paid, and, unless we're producing our own essentials, paying for approximately the same things. That big tab sure as shit removes freedom though. Try being without a paid job, downgrading your existence to raise a family, or raise food, or even to actually observe life for a moment as it passes you by. It's like forward differencing, you get the same area under the curve, but instead of working with existing data, each time step is one out into the unknown and poorly modeled future. (Or maybe I'm wanting model-predictive control as my analogy. Do they make economists take control theory? They probably should. Understanding dynamic systems is helpful. e.g.)

Even temporary debt presumes your income will grow or at least remain predictable. Taking on a deficit restricts your future. Debt is the engine that drives the treadmill of the rat race.

People who are not you are have gotten rich off of your debt, of course, and they've fought getting poor when you couldn't pay it. It's diffuse, and there's a great deal of overlap because debt issuers are also employees and consumers and there are a million modes of lending, and a lot of small investors, but if we're looking at the extremes, it's the issuers that generally have the upper hand in society. You can argue that there's mutual benefit when it comes to lending, and I think that's probably true. Lending can enrich the borrower too, enabling him to do things that can produce growth (although even when it ends up win-win, the lender and the debtor are not advantaged to change roles), but I don't believe that this is the equilibrium that naturally emerges when the debt-holders are left out of the rule-making loop, and when the debt-originators become few in number. As human history generally exhibits.

It's appropriate to contrast government debt with private debt. Government borrowing also performs the task of supplying liquidity for social programs, but in addition, it offers the service of a stable investment for excess capital. (It's one of those things that works out in an argument of scale, like insurance pools, conservation, or colonialism, when they fall to the state, or to an agency with similar scope.) In that case, the debt-holders are more diffuse than, say, mortgage lenders, but you can worry about the concentration or composition of power there too if you want to, and a different set of worriers pops up quadrennially in this country. The government (or at least its quasi-subsidiary banks) also has additional powers over its debt, controlling things like money supply, exchange rates, and the overall amount of securities it chooses to issue. I'm not excited about the concentration of those powers either, but in bonds, there's a point to their stability, and the monetary entities are at least countered by the fairly democratic population of bondholders, who'd all be pissed if things changed obviously and quickly.

No one likes a welcher, but weaseling people into debt has got to be the bigger evil. The government also makes laws that govern all of these loan contracts, and can you tell me that, say, fractional reserve lending isn't letting independent banks that hold people's debt fuck with the money supply to their favor? Nominally, the U.S. government represents us marks as well as the sharks, but the large banks have little such interest. Legal conditions that enabled easy and high-level private financing have correlated to tuition and real estate bubbles--is there causation at play there too? Someone is making money off those deals.

The basic idea of the liquidity model that works for my home finances seems to make sense for the government, however. My economic expertise is obviously shaky, but there are some differences there too: the bureaucracy doesn't have to eat, but I suppose it can identify baselines for its services or for its existence. Deficit spending to spur economic growth isn't quite the same mechanism as our household plans, but it's still demanding that the future get bigger. I've worried about this a lot. Given limited resources, that can't really be a good thing.

On the other hand, we can take government spending from a money-is-not-real perspective, and keep in mind that money describes the economy, and not vice versa. Sure, the central deal with capitalism is that money is a good representation of our economic activity, and that under rules of its exchange, we can optimize producing or doing some things. (Just like you can take silly unintuitive thermodynamic variables like "fugacity" or do a coordinate transformation to more easily describe or design certain systems, with the caveat that in physics and engineering, those math tricks still describe real things.) The Populist farmer/economists are interesting in that their understanding of the fundamental relations of money to labor and commodities was a lot keener than most people's. Money is a contract, ultimately a matter of mutual agreement or of law. The dynamics of that can drive human behavior, but to a large degree it's as reflective of our human organization as the law is. People making, doing, or exchanging stuff is what the economy is, and we can spur that in various ways and then define the accounting around it. Arguably, that's the way we always have done it when someone has had greater access to Da Rules. The wealth distribution, even where it goes negative, describes power concentrating or decentralzing as much as it is a mechanism of those processes. By that measure, this place isn't particularly progressive or democratic.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to get to work here.