“My Struggles”: Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead

kingsolverPractically from our first meeting, she’d been after me to write a recovery journal. I told her I don’t write, I draw. She said this would be for myself only. I could share it, but only if I chose to do so. The idea being to get clarity and process some of my traumas. On that particular ball of yarn I didn’t know where to start. She suggested pinpointing where my struggles had started with substance abuse, abandonment, and so forth . . . I’ve made any number of false starts with this mess. You think you know where your own troubles lies, only to stare down the page and realize, no. Not there. It started earlier. Like these wars going back to George Washington and whiskey. Or in my case, chapter 1. First, I got myself born. The worst of the job was up to me. Here we are.

For a novel that has (more or less) exactly the same plot and (more or less) the same characters as David Copperfield, Demon Copperhead is remarkably unlike David Copperfield. This confused me a lot when I read the first half of Kingsolver’s novel back in January—confused and also alienated me, to the point that I not only put it aside unfinished but wrote plaintively to my book club asking if maybe we could choose something else for our next read. I’m glad now that other members said they were enjoying it and so we stayed the course: with our meeting to talk about it finally looming, I picked it up again yesterday and ended up reading right through to the end in a few hours. I was not delighted by it, but I became engrossed in it, and though overall I am still disappointed in it as a revision of Dickens’s novel, as its own novel Demon Copperhead is, I think, actually pretty good.

It is tempting but probably pointless to track through Demon Copperhead comparing its main ingredients to their counterparts in David Copperfield. On the other hand, some comparison is irresistible, if only to illustrate how Kingsolver both does and doesn’t do what Dickens does. “First, I got myself born,” her novel begins. Here, in contrast, is the famous opening of David Copperfield:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.

copperfieldKingsolver jumps right into the action, and really, it never stops, for the next 500+ pages. Demon Copperhead is a rush of narrative—a copious, colorful, fast-moving torrent of words. Although it is clear by the end of the novel that it is, like the original, retrospective, it has none of the layers of David Copperfield, which is complicated and enriched by foreshadowing and dramatic irony. It is perhaps surprising, given his reputation for exaggeration and hyperbole, that, on my reading anyway, Dickens is by far the more subtle and nuanced author of the two. Kingsolver (or, properly, her first-person protagonist Damon Fields) just keeps going and going and going, a kind of tireless Energizer Bunny of grim revelations about the hardships of life for a child born in poverty in Appalachia and growing up through the worst of the opioid crisis. At a time when the idea that fiction should have a purpose is (in elite circles, anyway) often dismissed as incompatible with real art, Demon Copperhead is, unapologetically, a fully committed ‘social problem’ novel: it has more in common, in that respect, with Mary Barton, or even with Bleak House, then with David Copperfield, which is, as its opening line tells us, a story about moral development—an individual story, a Bildungsroman. Its action is always, more than anything else, about David’s character, and especially about his tender, loving heart.

As novel about Appalachia and the opioid crisis, Demon Copperhead is quite compelling, although it is also pretty heavy-handed. (I might not have thought this about the novel if I hadn’t recently watched the excellent series Dopesick, which covers a lot of similar sociological territory and hits some of the same beats, in terms of storytelling.) What I figured out, when I returned to the novel after my long hiatus, is that the David Copperfield framing is a red herring, perhaps based on a misunderstanding or a misapplication of the kind of novel Dickens wrote. This point really clicked for me when I reached Kingsolver’s Acknowledgments, at the end of Demon Copperhead:

I’m grateful to Charles Dickens for writing David Copperfield, his impassioned critique of institutional poverty and its damaging effects on children in his society. Those problems are still with us. In adapting this novel to my own place and time, working for years with his outrage, inventiveness, and empathy at my elbow, I’ve come to think of him as my genius friend.

kingsolver2It’s notable to me that the rest of her acknowledgments are to people who helped with expertise related to social problems (“foster care and child protective services . . . logistics and desperations of addiction and recovery, Appalachian history” etc.) – not to Dickens or David Copperfield. It isn’t that David Copperfield is not about child poverty and harsh social conditions; it’s that (I would say, anyway) these circumstances are incidental in David Copperfield to David’s perceptions of his experiences, and to Dickens’s own preference for addressing material conditions as external manifestations of moral and imaginative conditions. At best, Kingsolver is taking Dickens more literally than is usually appropriate; at worst, she is entirely overlooking his preoccupation with David’s inner life.

One of the costs of Kingsolver’s approach is prose that is also excessively literal, chock full of vivid, concrete details but leaving very little to—or providing very little stimulation for—our imaginations. Something I often discuss with my classes is the way Dickens’s writing itself creates in us, as we read it, the kind of mental activity he fears modern life is devaluing and suppressing: the flights of fancy in his language do for us, cultivate in us, what he fears we are losing. He writes in defiance of political economy, of utilitarianism, of facts—at least, of facts reduced to discrete and definitive units of measurement, the way they are in the famous opening of Hard Times:

hardtimesNow, what I want is, Facts.  Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.  Facts alone are wanted in life.  Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.  You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.  This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children.  Stick to Facts, sir!’

Hard Times is Dickens’s most insistent and programmatic condemnation of sticking to “facts,” and also his most dogged but also (I think) rhetorically powerful defense of what he calls “fancy.” But he fights this fight in all of his novels in ways I have talked about here before, including in reference to David Copperfield, at least as much, if not more, through his style as through his explicit content.

I’m not saying Kingsolver’s prose is devoid of fancy. Most of its creative energy seems to me to rest in Damon’s voice, which is blunt and colloquial and observant, but not at all poetic. There is a lot of vivid imagery, although so much of it is in aid of things we’d rather not see that it can be hard to appreciate it as artistic. It’s the other qualities that, to my mind, define “Dickensian” writing that I really miss, though. For one thing, Kingsolver’s novel is entirely unleavened with humor. OK, our introduction to her version of Aunt Betsy and Mr. Dick (here, Damon’s grandmother Betsy Woodall and Brother Dick) is amusing, but oh, how I missed Janet and the donkeys! And though the basics of the plot about Uriah Heep’s malevolent machinations are the same, the exposure of U-Haul has  none of the exuberant joy of Mr. Micawber’s increasingly vehement denunciations:

And last. I am now in a condition to show, by—HEEP’S—false books, and—HEEP’S—real memoranda, beginning with the partially destroyed pocket-book (which I was unable to comprehend, at the time of its accidental discovery by Mrs. Micawber, on our taking possession of our present abode, in the locker or bin devoted to the reception of the ashes calcined on our domestic hearth), that the weaknesses, the faults, the very virtues, the parental affections, and the sense of honour, of the unhappy Mr. W. have been for years acted on by, and warped to the base purposes of—HEEP. That Mr. W. has been for years deluded and plundered, in every conceivable manner, to the pecuniary aggrandisement of the avaricious, false, and grasping—HEEP.

Yes, he goes on like this for pages—and (as Joe Gargery would say), what larks!

Dickens PortraitWhat I missed most of all in Demon Copperhead was the melancholy tenderness that suffuses David Copperfield, and the way Dickens shades David’s highs and lows with his profound understanding of both the necessity and the heartbreak of losing our childhood innocence. The David that worships Steerforth and adores Dora is so loving and lovable: he is wrong, of course, in both cases, but Dickens is so good at making us feel to our core the cost of outgrowing mistakes like these, of becoming someone too savvy and knowing and suspicious to follow our hearts without question.

There’s also just nothing in Demon Copperhead that rises to the level of Dickens’s sheer virtuosity as a writer in David Copperfield. The scene in which Kingsolver’s Steerforth (Fast Forward) comes to his end is dramatic and suspenseful but it has neither the rich pathos nor the glorious prose of Dickens’s chapter “The Tempest”:

The tremendous sea itself, when I could find sufficient pause to look at it, in the agitation of the blinding wind, the flying stones and sand, and the awful noise, confounded me. As the high watery walls came rolling in, and, at their highest, tumbled into surf, they looked as if the least would engulf the town. As the receding wave swept back with a hoarse roar, it seemed to scoop out deep caves in the beach, as if its purpose were to undermine the earth. When some white-headed billows thundered on, and dashed themselves to pieces before they reached the land, every fragment of the late whole seemed possessed by the full might of its wrath, rushing to be gathered to the composition of another monster. Undulating hills were changed to valleys, undulating valleys (with a solitary storm-bird sometimes skimming through them) were lifted up to hills; masses of water shivered and shook the beach with a booming sound; every shape tumultuously rolled on, as soon as made, to change its shape and place, and beat another shape and place away; the ideal shore on the horizon, with its towers and buildings, rose and fell; the clouds fell fast and thick; I seemed to see a rending and upheaving of all nature.

The ending of the chapter is in a different register altogether from the extravagance of that description: quieter, sadder, and resonant with everything that David has known and been and loved and lost:

As I sat beside the bed, when hope was abandoned and all was done, a fisherman, who had known me when Emily and I were children, and ever since, whispered my name at the door.

‘Sir,’ said he, with tears starting to his weather-beaten face, which, with his trembling lips, was ashy pale, ‘will you come over yonder?’

The old remembrance that had been recalled to me, was in his look. I asked him, terror-stricken, leaning on the arm he held out to support me:

‘Has a body come ashore?’

He said, ‘Yes.’

‘Do I know it?’ I asked then.

He answered nothing.

But he led me to the shore. And on that part of it where she and I had looked for shells, two children—on that part of it where some lighter fragments of the old boat, blown down last night, had been scattered by the wind—among the ruins of the home he had wronged—I saw him lying with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school.

Honestly, it seems kind of unfair to point out that Kingsolver doesn’t—perhaps can’t—write like that. There’s a reason Dickens was called “the Inimitable!” No doubt, too, there are some of you who prefer what she does to what Dickens does. (To each their own, of course, but also, you’re just wrong!) To invite comparison with the greats is to set yourself up for failure, and I definitely wouldn’t say Demon Copperhead is a failure. I doubt I’ll read it again, though, whereas I am wholeheartedly looking forward to rereading David Copperfield again this fall with my students.