Why is it Ursula K. Le Guin always makes my life as a reader and reviewer difficult? Her books can’t be nice, straightforward stories—no, she has to create lyric, moving pieces of experimental literature that transcend our ordinary definitions of form and genre. I have a problem with Always Coming Home, but that problem is entirely independent of the book itself. It is, rather, a result of me and my particular biases and hang-ups.
I can’t help it: I love novels.
I know that, as far as literature goes, the novel is a relatively new invention—more of a fad, really, than anything else. And, as much as it pains me to admit it, studying novels really isn’t all that necessary when studying English. As much as I would love, as a teacher, to sink my teeth into a great novel with a class and watch them explore it … well, at least in the limited time we’re allotted these days in the school calendar, there are more pressing concerns. Literature isn’t the alpha and omega of English, and the novel is not the only entry or exit into that particular part of the discipline.
But I can’t help it. I’ll watch a play, sure. Read a short story? In a pinch. Devour a novella during a car ride? Can do. None of those satisfy the itch like a good, well-written, honest-to-goodness novel. Novels are my jam. I crave semi-linear narratives about a defined and stable group of people.
So when Le Guin sets out to deliberately break—well, shatter, really—these conventions with something like Always Coming Home, I can admire her aims even though I’m not particularly enthralled by the result.
Far from a novel, Always Coming Home is an intricate collection of texts by and for and about the Kesh, a culture of people inhabiting a Pacific Northwest valley in the far future. The editor of this volume has conducted an archaeology and anthropology of the future, recovering texts, interviewing inhabitants, reproducing poems and songs, and describing customs. Le Guin separates out the driest of this into “The Back of the Book,” an entirely academic section that explores the background of the society—its houses, naming conventions, marriage, etc. The remainder of the book is a medley of literary forms, genres, and conceits.
The most recognizably narrative sections are “Stone Telling,” about an eponymous woman from the Valley whose father is from another people known as the Condor. Unlike the Kesh, the Condor people replicate the type of patriarchal society seen ad nauseum in human history. Stone Telling’s father drops into her life when he visits the Valley, and eventually she leaves the Valley to live among his people. While she doesn’t necessarily regret it, it’s clear that her time among the Condor people is not the highlight of her life. Predictably for me, I enjoyed these sections (they are spread across the book but form a single narrative)—Le Guin is, aside from anything else, a consummate storyteller.
I also enjoyed some of the other sections. If you’re paying attention (and on an airplane, there is nothing to do with a book except pay close attention) you can see the general outlines of the future world as Le Guin conceives it. Humanity unleashes a combination of radiological and biological disasters—not as a single, grand apocalypse like the twentieth century envisioned, but the gradual and cumulative death that we embrace so far in the spectres of global warming and biodiversity collapse. Our machines go on without us in the City of Mind, replicating and bootstrapping themselves towards artificial godhead, spreading out to other planets and stars. Meanwhile, humanity survives as a species if not a civilization, rebuilding and restarting in various paradigms. The Kesh seem, at first brush, “primitive” by our highly ethnocentric, Western ideals. Yet they have access to certain “modern” conveniences, and in many ways their society is more equal and better structured than ours.
Le Guin’s heritage as an anthropologist’s daughter informs all her work, but it is overt in Always Coming Home. The unconventional structure has the effect of reminding (most of) us that our tastes and perceptions of literature are, to begin with, highly Westernized and Eurocentric in their origins. We have shed many of the traits of a predominantly oral culture, and as a result we do not necessarily privilege poetry, song, and dance in the ways that we once did and other cultures still do. In particular, I thought a lot about Indigenous cultures and storytelling traditions while I read this book. I live somewhere with a large Indigenous population, and I’m interested in learning more about Indigenous cultures and storytelling. At the same time, it’s somewhat ironic for me to resolve to “read more Indigenous-authored literature,” because while that is a laudable goal, it also makes certain suppositions about worthy ways to transmit culture….
So we come down to that eternal question for reviewers. Do we review based on our perception of a book’s merit? If so, Always Coming Home has a lot. Or do we review based on our enjoyment of the book? In which case, while I didn’t hate it, this was a much more lukewarm experience. Both of these modes are eminently subjective, of course—perceptions of merit can make no more claim to objectivity than personal enjoyment. But what do I want to say?
Well, once more Le Guin astounds and impresses with her skill. She is a juggernaut, a force of literature not to be taken lightly, and the world will be a darker place when she leaves it. Always Coming Home only reaffirms these convictions in every sense. This is a powerful, intense, complicated construct.
I didn’t like it that much. It wasn’t the kind of book I wanted to read on my flights last week.
So if you go into this book unaware of its nature, you will likely be disappointed (or else, really pleasantly surprised). You have to be willing to explore and immerse yourself in this book, at which point it will be rewarding. Always Coming Home isn’t a novel, never purports to be, and I shouldn’t fault it for that. Alas, my fallible human nature means I can’t necessarily give it all the praise it deserves.