SECTION ELEVEN 

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COLUMN 109, SEPTEMBER 1, 2004
(Copyright 2004 The Blacklisted Journalist)

BOOK REVIEWS

All Over Creation, 
By Ruth Ozeki,
Penguin Books: 400 pp., $14

Ruth Ozeki's second novel, follows and expands the themes she began in her earlier My Year of Meats. Yumi, the (half Japanese, half Anglo) 14-year-old daughter of Lloyd and Momoko, abruptly runs away after having sex with her high school history teacher. Lloyd has 3000 acres devoted to potato farming, which makes him the farmer with the most acreage in the area. Twenty-five years (and Lloyd's 4 heart attacks) intervene before Cass (Yumi's best high school chum) contacts a person she thinks might be Yumi, grown up and living in Hawaii as a teacher and real estate agent. Cass (and her husband) have become caretakers for the convalescing Lloyd and for Momoko who is afflicted with Alzheimers. She e-mails Yumi in the hopes she can convince Yumi to come back before her parents die.

There is another thread in this story. A mobile commune of anarchists, based in San Francisco, make their way across country "doing actions" to confront the degradation of the ecology, e.g. genetically modified strains of crops. They travel in an RV that consumes as fuel recycled French fry and fried chicken oil from McDonalds and KFC.

Both threads begin in a kind of search for freedom, for autonomy. Both threads are enmeshed in confused and difficult relationships. and both threads come together, fatefully, in the town that Yumi left, Liberty Falls (the anarchists recognize the irony in this name). Ozeki fully realizes in this novel the many facets of her characters and the complex web of relationships that unites all beings in creation. Facets that are not apparent to all or at the same time. Often the characters reveal themselves to have dimensions that neither the reader nor the other characters expected of them. Ozeki doesn't tell you this. Her characters do.

In part, I imagine, this is because Ozeki is used to writing for the screen, used to making the characters speak rather than have a narrator tell all. So the book moves from scene to scene as if it were cinematic. But so much of the novel is especially important because it actually transcends the particular relationships of particular characters you are witnessing. Melvin (one of the anarchists) and Lloyd have a very tentative relationship at first (though the anarchist adores the rebel farmer he envisions Lloyd to be). Melvin is an ideologue, who views the farmers as types, simply too ignorant for their own good. If they only had the information about GMO plants, he tells Lloyd. Lloyd doesn't have much truck with hippies, as types. But he's fallen for Melvin. And he tells Melvin, in one of the turning point scenes of the novel, that farmers just don't have much choice in what they do. They are economically caught between corporations and survival.

The anarchists preach. Ozeki writes one of the best stereotypical rants I've read, enough to make me blush for some of my own indiscretions. She isn't antagonistic to them. She just paints them in their naive and ideological colors. Better, she gives them the environment to learn in. And that's what all the characters do. The following appears on Ozeki's website:

In a starred review, Kirkus called this cast of characters "most fully realized and heart-wrenching in their imperfect yearnings."  


Imperfect yes, but in an imperfect world and striving to make that world qualitatively better. Lloyd quits potato farming after his second heart attack. Momoko takes up "farming" seeds. Potatoes are inherently different from seed plants. It takes a different mind set to consider seeds, so Momokos passion confuses Lloyd. He converts (painfully) to seed "worship", actually putting out a newsletter on seeds. But there are still some fundamental things that he cannot grasp. Momoko makes the breakthrough in this novel, both through her own clouded consciousness and through Lloyd's last grasp on private ownership. 

The way that this novel presents the complex contradictions in an increasingly simplified class conflict; and the opportunities Ozeki takes to visualize a new way of relating to people and to earth make this, in the best sense of the word, a communist novel of the new century.  ##


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