My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This 1979 classic novel of time travel and slavery could not be published today.
Imagine it, imagine Octavia Butler temporally jumped to the present and trying to put out Kindred in the current media climate. Assume, because it’s so good, that the novel even finds an agent and a publisher. Then a science fiction press, banking on an excited reception for this relevant, suspenseful, original, and provocative narrative, releases advanced copies to online reviewers. Perhaps the publisher advertises the novel’s plot teasingly, but a bit vaguely: “A modern African-American woman involuntarily travels back in time to the early 19th century, where she has to live among her enslaved ancestors.”
But the advanced readers begin to leak the novel’s true premise on Goodreads and Twitter. Kindred is really about a modern African-American woman forced to travel back in time to save the life of the white man who enslaved her ancestors. What’s more, she also has to ensure that he rapes one of those ancestors over and over again, because if she doesn’t, she herself will not in the course of time be born from the lineage founded by that assault.
The heroine, furthermore, is married in the narrative present to a white man, and is clearly and avowedly motivated by an obscure attraction, at once maternal and sororal, to the white rapist and slave-owner who will become her distant grandfather. Their fatal dance is the novel’s emotional core, even as the other black characters, all enslaved on the man’s plantation, accuse her of collaboration with white power, an accusation she often finds difficult to deny.
The reaction would be swift and shocking. Before anyone but a handful of self-appointed guardians of literary safety had even read the manuscript, Butler would find herself accused of promoting “tropes”—the acquiescent slave, the violated woman who secretly desires her abuse, etc.—whose mere presence in a work, no matter how ironized or contextualized or ramified, have the power to “harm” the audience through some unspecified mechanism formerly known only to fundamentalist preachers in the Satanic-Panic 1980s.
To attempt to defend Butler would necessarily be to perpetuate this tropological harm. To attempt to remind her attackers that their attitude toward the arts is not socially just, as it descends directly from the ideologies legitimating Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, to say nothing of Winthrop’s Boston; to attempt to inform them that their censorious quest is also not resistant to white-male authority (as they will claim it is) since its premises come more or less straight from several grand old men of the European canon, such as Plato, Rousseau, Hegel, and Tolstoy—all of this would take too long for Twitter.
Considering these obstacles, most influential writers and critics would only privately express their discontent as they do nothing to defend their beleaguered colleague in public, while a few bestselling authors and celebrities will even opportunistically amplify the inevitable hashtag campaign: #kancelkindred.
A cringing, scraping, self-humiliating apology, a promise to “listen better” and “do better,” would be demanded of the author. Her publisher, convinced that 20 self-selected tribunes of the oppressed on social media represent some massive groundswell or any genuine constituency at all, would indeed and inevitably #cancel publication of this great novel. Its author, now construed as a sad victim of internalized racism and sexism and certainly not a responsible purveyor of true and positive representations to the polis, would be sent back to clerical work or manual labor.
And the world of literature would be the poorer, because Kindred is as superb as it is disturbing. Butler’s science-fictional rewriting of the classic slave narrative from the viewpoint of a contemporary black woman allows her to question every bit of received wisdom we have on the topics of progress and modernity, of race, gender, and class.
The plot, alluded to above, is as follows. A California writer named Dana has just moved to a new house with her husband Kevin, a white man who is also a writer, albeit older and more established. One day, Dana finds herself mysteriously transported back to the early 19th century to save a drowning white boy, Rufus Weylin. Over the course of about a month in the summer of 1976, Dana—sometimes accompanied by Kevin—is summoned back five times to save Rufus’s life. While with each trip she is only gone from the present for seconds, minutes, or hours, she spends months at a time over a two-decade period in the early 19th century.
Gradually, she grows accustomed to the life-rhythms of the Weylin plantation and begins to grapple with the quotidian ethical complexities of slavery, its way of corrupting everyone it touches, from Rufus Weylin himself, a white man of some moral promise who debases himself as a rapist and human trafficker because his society enables him to do so, to the more privileged among the enslaved, who themselves uphold the system, often by harshly ruling over those lower than themselves in the hierarchy.
Butler deglamorizes the past, giving us not a splendid plantation, not moonlight and magnolias, but a squalid semi-mansion run by whites who are themselves barely literate. As we might expect of a writer devoted to science fiction, she emphasizes the past’s material and technological deprivation, its bodily reek and lethally primitive medicine.
Critics who read the time-travel trope through Toni Morrison’s Gothic lens of slavery haunting the present (as in Beloved) might think Kindred argues that life has changed little between the antebellum period and now. And the novel does make such thematic gestures, most notably through its frequent doublings of Dana’s present-day white husband, Kevin, with the slaveholding white male characters in the past setting, as if to suggest that certain psychosexual patterns of attraction and repulsion between white men and black women were perennial and inevitable:
I scrambled away, kicking [the slave patroller], clawing the hands that reached out for me, trying to bite, lunging up toward his eyes. I could do it now. I could do anything.
I froze. My name? No patroller would know that.
“Dana, look at me for Godsake!”
Kevin! It was Kevin’s voice! I stared upward, managed to focus on him clearly at last. I was at home. I was lying on my own bed, bloody and dirty, but safe. Safe!
Kevin lay half on top of me, holding me, smearing himself with my blood and his own. I could see where I had scratched his face—so near the eye.
“Kevin, I’m sorry!”
“Are you all right now?”
“Yes. I thought. . . I thought you were the patroller.” (Butler’s ellipses)
Butler’s numerology also references the Faulknerian theme of the past’s not being past. Dana’s penultimate trip to the 1800s, which she thinks will be her last, ends on June 18—on the eve, that is, of Juneteenth. But this emancipation proves to be short-lived when she is called back a final time on July 4, 1976, not only Independence Day, but the U.S. Bicentennial. These dates emphasize the fragility, impermanence, and incompleteness of African-American freedom when considered in the light of slavery’s legacy.
But Butler’s focus is psychosexual more than it is political. It is about the dynamics of libidinal push and pull that ensue with the proximity of free white men and enslaved black women. (Black men and white women play little role in the novel: the former suffer nobly on the sidelines of the action, while the latter are portrayed as one-dimensionally, if bathetically, villainous.) Kindred hints that only partnership and collaboration between black women and white men can save the nation, despite the many pitfalls of their relation:
“But stay close to me. You got here because you were holding me. I’m afraid that may be the only way you can get home.”
Butler deals little with the economics of enslavement, and is if anything anxious to emphasize the distance between contemporary capitalist arrangements and slavery, a message I assume she derives from Douglass and Jacobs’s 19th-century narratives, both of which argue for the moral and practical superiority of wage labor:
I was working out of a casual labor agency—we regulars called it a slave market. Actually, it was just the opposite of slavery. The people who ran it couldn’t have cared less whether or not you showed up to do the work they offered. They always had more job hunters than jobs anyway.
If Dana’s and Kevin’s recourse to low-level, low-wage labor to support their writing careers is sometimes enervating, it is at least a choice they make, a practice of freedom that may be circumscribed by economic necessity but is at least not forced upon them as chattel. Both the white man and the black woman are subjected to it equally, even if Butler hints at prevailing racial and sexual inequalities in Kevin’s greater success as a writer.
Butler’s interest is less in freedom, in triumphant individualism, than in survival. Among the classic science-fiction texts she revises is Robert A. Heinlein’s “‘—All You Zombies—,'” a time-travel paradox tale whose protagonist is his own father and mother. While Heinlein suggests the loneliness and solipsism of such white self-making, Butler adds the moral twist that a black person descended from the enslaved who wished to be the true author of her own life would have to ratify what was done to her ancestors.
Butler was famously inspired to write the book upon hearing a black student say that he would have violently rebelled had he been enslaved. In Butler’s view, this is misguided, not only because—as The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go also insist—the vast majority of people are not heroic revolutionaries, but also because the mere act of survival under any system of oppression is morally compromising. Dana’s reflection on Sarah, an enslaved who has carved out a space of freedom and authority on Weylin’s plantation and who finds many abolitionist ideas incomprehensible, makes this point:
She had done the safe thing—had accepted a life of slavery because she was afraid. She was the kind of woman who might have been called “mammy” in some other household. She was the kind of woman who would be held in contempt during the militant nineteen sixties. […] I looked down on her myself for a while. Moral superiority. Here was someone even less courageous than I was. That comforted me somehow.
Dana can hardly afford moral superiority, however. As she understands early in the novel, Rufus is her distant ancestor, and her mission is not only to save his life, but to ensure that he sexually coerces Alice, an enslaved woman with whom he is obsessed. If he does not do so, then, in a time-travel paradox, Dana will not have been born and will thus cease to exist.
We can detect Butler’s overall philosophy in the fact that Dana never seriously considers sacrificing her own existence so as not to participate in such a moral atrocity. Apparently, we are all driven by a ruthless will to persist, at anyone’s expense. Dana’s awareness of this potential within herself makes her, as well as her husband, “kindred” to the men who survived on the stolen labor of her ancestors—she, no less than whites, is heir to the crime.
The novel bleakly intimates that we all exist, insofar as we do exist, by consuming the lives of other people. Kindred, then, can be added to my little canon of tragic-nihilistic American novels that find in the brutal inequalities of race, gender, class, and sexuality not occasions for moral regeneration à la Harriet Beecher Stowe or James Baldwin or the Twitterati, but rather evidence of evil’s omnipresence and redemption’s absence: Quicksand, Nightwood, Sula, Corregidora.
Finally, Kindred may subtract the putative glamor of the past, but its very filth and danger become a perverse attraction, as Dana reflects:
I felt as though I were losing my place here in my own time. Rufus’s time was a sharper, stronger reality. The work was harder, the smells and tastes were stronger, the danger was greater, the pain was worse . . . Rufus’s time demanded things of me that had never been demanded before, and it could easily kill me if I did not meet its demands. That was a stark, powerful reality that the gentle conveniences and luxuries of this house, of now, could not touch. (Butler’s ellipses)
If inequality persists it in the present, it often does so impersonally, through the practices of institutions for which no one person can be held responsible. In the antebellum south, on the other hand, the forces that victimize Dana require her to rise to their occasion and even provide a physical target for her wrath or revenge. Such a nostalgia for a past that was more brutal but more alive is, I believe, the hidden motivation for the troubling phenomenon of the hate-crime hoax, lately in the news: like Dana, the hoaxers may wish that the real hate to which they feel themselves subject could be a nameable actor in their own lives rather than an effect of abstract social and political arrangements.
I began this review with an imagined illegitimate complaint about Kindred: that its ruthlessness and amorality of vision would render it unfit for the politically-conscious reader. I want to end with a legitimate criticism of the novel I’ve encountered. I have known some readers, usually academics, who picked up Kindred because they heard it discussed in the context of literary science fiction or great novels about slavery; and they put it down disappointed not by its themes but by its style. They thought Butler would be a writer like Ursula K. Le Guin or Toni Morrison, but she has nothing akin to their dense literariness, their investment in style and psyche. She wrote books for mass-market genre publication; in consequence, her prose is expertly engineered for clarity and suspense, while her characters exist to carry out the plot rather than being case studies in modernist depth psychology.
While I disagree with the poptimist argument that literary fiction’s stylization is just a pretentious status signifier—for reasons best explained by the Victor Shklovsky passage quoted in my review of Milkman—I will nevertheless defend Butler’s superficial simplicity of composition. By carefully rendering language transparent rather than opaque, she compels our attention to the novel’s animating dilemma. As in Dostoevsky or, closer to home, Philip K. Dick, the novel becomes an experiment in philosophy rather than an art object.
Admittedly, as a partisan of literary fiction, I would have preferred fewer conversations about the whys and wherefores of time travel; it’s not as if the Samsas dwell at any length on the pragmatics of Gregor’s metamorphosis. But when popular fiction is written with the emotional intensity and theoretical verve of Butler’s—and she is certainly better than Dick, in my view—it is as valid a way to write a novel as is Morrison’s or Le Guin’s comparative aestheticism.
In sum, all you should #cancel are your immediate plans to read anything but this most viscerally dispiriting and intelligently alarming of novels.
If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!