Escaping Reality: Bees and Marijuana and Everything In Between
These two books have almost nothing in common, but I'm going to compare them anyway. Ms. Kidd's novel (or "The Bee Book," as I like to call it) tells the story of a young white girl's escape from an abusive father into the arms of a group of friendly black beekeeping sisters. The other novel, Mr. Clifford's Castling (or "The Pot Book") tells of a youngish married guy escaping from his job and his wife and his button-down life into the arms of a group of friendly marijuana-growing radicals. One of the books—the Bee Book—entertained me while I was reading it, but slipped from my consciousness rather rapidly after that. The Pot Book, on the other hand, pissed me off royally while I was reading it, but keeps sticking with me for some damn reason. Below, I will attempt to explain further.
Sue Monk Kidd's novel The Secret Life of Bees has some gorgeous descriptions in it. There's a scene early on, when the narrator Lily, and her black housekeeper, Rosaleen, sit naked in a river and let the water rush over them, washing them clean for their rebirth into a new life. The writing in that scene is as pure and refreshing as the river water, and it was a pleasure to read it. There are many other moments like that throughout the book, where the prose is so polished that it shines. Lily is a likeable enough girl, the Boatwright sisters who adopt her are interesting and well-drawn, and the story moves forward at a good pace. I do have a couple of serious problems with the motivation of certain characters, however.
The catalyst for Lily and Rosaleen running away is that Rosaleen gets into trouble with some white men in town. Civil Rights legislation has just passed, and Rosaleen wants to get her voter registration card. She takes Lily into town with her, and on the way to the office they pass a group of white men who make some derogatory comments about Rosaleen, her skin color, and her fan. Now, I agree that these remarks are hateful and cruel and despicable. But I don't think, in the south of Jim Crow, that it would be particularly unusual for a person of color to hear such remarks from a group of ignorant white men who were probably half-drunk and restless with boredom. I believe that most black people in that situation would have just let the comments roll off them and gone on their way. Instead, Rosaleen decides to dump out her snuff can on their feet. I just don't buy it. I might believe it if her character showed any other signs of impulsiveness, or rebelliousness, or even just plain temper, but she doesn't. Ever. There's another, similar encounter closer to the end of the book, when another black character throws a bottle at a group of white men. Again, I don't buy it. It doesn't make any sense within the culture of the times, and it comes out of nowhere, and it isn't earned by the rest of the story.
Having said that, those were the only real problems I had with the book. There were a couple of other plot points that didn't quite ring true (like Lily's accidentally shooting her mother when she was four) and some turns of phrase that jarred me, but for the most part I really enjoyed this book. Ms. Kidd drew me into the world of the Boatwright sisters, and if that world was maybe a little too honey-sweet and melodramatic at times, Ms. Kidd's clean-as-water writing more than made up for it.
Rand Clifford's Castling, on the other hand, is not particularly well written, and I did not enjoy reading it. Sometimes I hated reading it. Seriously, there were times when I put the book down and said to myself, 'I hate this book.' Mr. Clifford's love affair with the ellipsis quickly becomes rather tiresome . . . on some pages I counted over thirty times . . . that the ellipsis was used . . . apparently in favor of rather more conventional punctuation . . . such as commas . . . or even periods . . . or just when the author felt like sticking one in for no apparent reason . . .
Mr. Clifford also has an annoying habit of lecturing. All his characters share the same mindset about marijuana, recreational vehicles, logging, mining, organic food, beer, wine, sex, white trash neighbors, and the likelihood that the earth has been contacted by a superior race of aliens. The narrator goes on and on at great length on these topics. Even though I might agree with most of his philosophy—except the part about the aliens—I was bored reading it. When I was in Harry Crews' creative writing class years ago, he said that Moby Dick would be a much better book if Melville had left out all the instructional chapters on whaling and other topics and just stuck to the story. Mr. Clifford could certainly have benefited from hearing that advice, although I'm still not convinced that there's a particularly compelling story beneath his editorializing.
Plus the writing is pretty wooden. There are certainly some lovingly detailed descriptions of marijuana, beer, and women's sexual proclivities, but for me that didn't add up to a story. If I wanted to learn how to grow marijuana, I wouldn't go looking in the fiction aisle. The only three-dimensional character in this story was the narrator. That wouldn't necessarily bother me too much, except that ALL of the women characters are either sex kittens, earth mothers, or come from another planet. Okay, so perhaps Mr. Clifford is trying to make a point, and perhaps it's the narrator that sees the women as this one-dimensional. But they don't ever slip up from that role, even in a lighthearted moment, so it's difficult to believe that they're supposed to be anything other than the way they are written.
There wasn't much of a story here, once you take out diatribes and instructional sections, but what there was of it I didn't find particularly believable. I thought the narrator acted like a whiny, voyeuristic frat boy, and if I were his wife I would have left him years ago. I would never have run an ad in the personals to try and get him back—unless it was to serve him with divorce papers, perhaps. I also don't believe that a big castle filled with marijuana plants and fenced with wire and taking up several city blocks wouldn't get some kind of negative attention from the police.
Having said that, I can't get the damn Pot Book out of my head. I've told all my friends about it. Mostly about how much I didn't like it, but still. It's not every day a book sticks with me this way. Years from now I bet I'll remember this book—the camera in the moose's head, and the RV sniper, and the neighbor marking his territory with the rubber from his peeling-out car tires. I already can't remember nearly as much about the Bee Book, although I liked it more. Perhaps that says something about Mr. Clifford's imagination, or perhaps about his social commentary. In any case, I think I might give his next book a try. As long as he leaves out the ellipses . . .