"The book I'm looking for,' says the blurred figure, who holds out a volume similar to yours, 'is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world."
- Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Descendants by Kari Heart Hemmings

The Descendants is a book about a wealthy man in Hawaii--Matt King--who, after the hospitalization of his wife, must take care of his two semi-estranged daughters. As his wife takes a turn for the worse, they travel around the island, delivering the bad news to friends and family members. Later, he confronts his wife's lover. Alexander Payne made a movie out of the story starring George Clooney.

When I was in college (that's right--COLLEGE), I took a Post-Colonial Literature course. It was one of the best, and most difficult courses I took. In addition to several amazing novels, we read a fair amount of "Theory," like Edward Said and Hommi Babba, and (at least when I'm paying attention) it still effects the way I see media.

Tangential to the family drama, The Descendants is hiding a second story--a story about Matt King's looming decision regarding a large piece of land he's inherited. You see, he's the descendant (!!!) of a white missionary and Hawaiian princess, and as a result his family is one of the largest land-owners in the state. He describes his situation at one point like this: "We sit back and watch as the past unfurls millions into our laps." I picked up the book hoping that it would provide more depth to the identity and colonial conflicts of this second story than the movie did.

Matt and his daughters are phenotypically white. They don't speak the local pidgin. Although technically the descendant of Hawaiian royalty, he has no real love for its history, and admits that he likes the strip malls and condominiums more than the Hawaiian towns they are replacing.

But outside of a few sprinkled lines, Hemmings doesn't take this story as seriously as the first. There's no shame in that, necessarily;  I'd prefer to read a perfectly crafted domestic drama (e.g., Revolutionary Road, The Corrections) over some abstract exploration of identity politics any day.  Unfortunately, Hemming's insights into the minds of her characters didn't hit home for me. Her writing is sparse and good enough, but there were maybe only one or two occasions when I had that big, transcendental feeling of "Yes! That is how it feels to be a person!" that good interior writing can bring.

It may be that I've been reading short stories so much that I'm a little impatient with the relative looseness of a novel, but.

So, anyway, the movie was better!

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