Monday, November 9, 2015

When the Killing's Done, by T.C. Boyle

T.C. Boyle, in his storytelling prime, weaves the inevitable and improbable into a tapestry, giving individual faces to social movements and global issues.  His 2011 novel When the Killing's Done sets up a clash between fanatical nature-lovers, raising questions that should make any thoughtful person uncomfortable:

Why should some species be allowed to flourish while others, considered invasive, merit eradication?
What makes any species "native" to an isolated place?
To what extent is it even possible for us to undo the mistakes of earlier generations?
Why do we still think, "We know what we're doing"?

The setting is a California archipelago opposite Santa Barbara, twenty to thirty miles offshore but a world apart: three small rocky Anacapa Islands, and the larger Santa Cruz Island.
The main characters, tenacious and intolerant in pursuit of causes on collision course, are:
Alma Takesue, Ph.D biologist working for the National Park Service, in charge of restoration of the islands - which means extermination of the rats on the Anacapas and the pigs on Santa Cruz; and
David LaJoy, successful businessman and leader of FPA, For the Protection of Animals, a local animal rights group resisting the slaughter of rats and pigs.

Takesue's circle is rounded out with biologists, Park rangers, her lover Tim who's both, the exterminators, the local representative of The Nature Conservancy - which owns a large portion of Santa Cruz Island; her grandmother whose husband and his brother died in a storm off the Anacapas while she, pregnant, survived; and her own father, a sea urchin diver until an accident off those islands ended his life.

LaJoy's compatriots are his musician girlfriend Anise, who spent her youth and adolescence on Santa Cruz Island where her mother Rita was cook and general factotum for a sheeping operation; his right-hand-man Wilson, skilled handling a boat, delighting in the mischief LaJoy dreams up to interfere with the Park Service's plans; journalist Tina who applies her muckraking skills on behalf of LaJoy's cause; a young woman who works in Takesue's office, sharing inside information with FPA; and a group of impassioned youth following their fearless leader.

The other significant characters are sea and land and sky:
Glassy still one moment, raging the next, the unpredictable Pacific.
The craggy inhospitable islands - rocky coastlines, the only fresh water what falls from the sky.
The sky, by turns blistering, torrential and fog-bound, as different from Santa Barbara as if the islands were a thousand miles away.

Along the way, we learn enough about the ecology of the islands and what they demand of those who would survive on them, to confront the big questions and come up empty-handed.  A rat is a living creature.  Rats have lived on the Anacapas for centuries, survivors of a shipwreck.  The island birds, having no experience with them, have made easy prey for nest-robbers.  The sheep, imported to the islands as a money-making concern in the 19th century, wreak environmental havoc as they overgraze, denuding the landscape which is then at the mercy of erosion and runoff from fierce storms.  But to the sheepherders, the worst enemy is the ravens that gather at lambing time, bewildering the ewes then picking off their newborns with appalling efficiency.

Boyle is unsparing about the devastation of invasives: brown snakes, stowaways on planes or ships during World War II, have eradicated nearly all bird life from Guam.  That ecosystem is changed - the Guam before the snakes showed up is irretrievable.  Foxes and skunks live on Santa Cruz Island - how and when did they arrive?  They've been there long enough to evolve into smaller versions of their mainland counterparts, but does that make them "native"?  More "native" than the rats?  By what measure?

We can't un-break the egg.  Here in the Anthropocene era, we rely on the twin indices of appeal and efficiency, in deciding which species are good and which must go.  Water managers across the American West have declared war on Russian olive and tamarisk, which crowd riverbanks, sucking up water and blocking access for native creatures - but the primary creatures that want that water, and that riverbank access, are humans.  Fish and elk have no voice, neither do Russian olive trees.  Rats and snakes are "pest" species, raiding the nests of other creatures - but they're just doing what nature has equipped them to, and perhaps it's their survival skill that makes us hate them.  A weed is a successful plant; a pest is a successful animal. Human interference is the beating heart of the problem.

Monday, November 2, 2015

A Separation - Film Review

The Iranian film (2011 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film) A Separation, directed by Asghar Farhadi, is a window onto the court-ruled lives of modern Iranians. The story opens with Simin, a woman in her thirties, seeking divorce from her husband, Nader. The sticking-point is that Simin wants to leave the country, and take their 11-year-old daughter Termeh with her. Nader is willing to allow divorce, but he wants Termeh to stay with him. His Alzheimer's-stricken father, who lives with them, cannot travel, and he won't leave him. Simin oversimplifies matters - Nader should come with her: his father doesn't know him anyway, she claims, so anyone could look after him - nothing would stand in her way. She sees his refusal as stubbornness and antipathy. But as the story unfolds, we see that Nader's father does in fact know his family, and needs them.

Simin walks out, so to care for his father while he's at work, Nader hires a caregiver. This woman, who comes with her 4-year-old daughter, is so pious that before helping, she consults an imam, asking if assisting a senile man who has soiled himself is a sin. But she is also pregnant, which her little girl knows but is a secret from Nader - and from Simin, who provided her name. According to the law, this woman must have her husband's permission to work for Nader. The men meet and Nader thinks the man will be coming to look after his father - instead, it's the woman who continues to come, though her long bus commute and trek up multiple flights of stairs to Nader's apartment exhaust her.

Spoiler Alert - read no further if you plan to see the film!

Nader comes home early and discovers his father alone, crumpled on the floor barely alive, one arm tied to his bed-frame. In his rage, Nader sees that the cash he had set aside to pay the woman is gone. When she and her daughter return from their errand, he confronts her, accusing her of theft. She argues, and he pushes her out of his apartment.

Next thing we know, Nader is informed that the woman fell on the stairs and miscarried, and therefore he is charged with murder of the 19-week-old fetus. He and Simin, concerned when they hear the woman is hospitalized, go to visit her, only to be confronted by her angry distraught husband who declares they have only come out of guilt. The men are soon at each other's throats.

The referee requires witnesses; clearly this arbiter of justice is exasperated trying to get to the bottom of who knew what, whether Nader pushed the woman, whether he knew she was pregnant, why the woman tied his father to his bed then left - the story becomes more convoluted. Costly bail is set which Simin's wealthy parents willingly pay, while we learn that the caregiver's husband was recently in debtor's prison and takes several medications to treat mental illness. More and more, Simin's plan to leave Iran looks like the choice of a person of means.

Simin continues to negotiate with the woman, forcing Nader into a position of having to say he knew the woman was pregnant when he pushed her, or else face prison time. He doesn't want a deal, he wants justice. The other man also wants justice, which to him appears to mean that others must suffer as he has. He stalks Termeh at her school, which throws Simin into panic, her own role in Termeh's anguish quickly forgotten.

At every turn, Termeh is forced to bear witness to her parents' behavior. She wants only for her mother and father to stay together, and she'll say whatever she thinks will enable that - but they withhold what they know, urging her to "tell the truth" though she knows that will not help. She's constantly weighing what they tell her - If I say this, will Mom stay with Dad? If I say that, will Mom leave for sure? It's heartbreaking.

This glimpse into a society as litigious as modern America is depressing: Sharia (Quranic law) solves nothing - piety is just one more weapon people use against each other. Class divisions spark resentment and jealousy, and justice is blind. When Nader is first charged with murder, he pleads with the judge: who will care for his father if he's in prison? But it's not the judge's problem.

At the end, Simin, Nader and Termeh are again meeting with a judge about the divorce, this time to determine custody. By now Nader has passed the burden to their daughter - whichever parent she chooses, he'll agree. The judge asks Termeh if she has decided, she says yes. But she won't utter the name. He presses, she continues to say yes, she's decided. Tears flood her face. He sends Simin and Nader out into the corridor, which is filled with petitioners, some bickering and others slumped in chairs in a scene out of Kafka. They wait as the credits roll.