The Baum Plan for Financial Independence by John Kessel
Reviewed by Dustin Kurtz
19 May 2008
John Kessel's new collection of stories—his first in ten years—features some of his best work. The pieces are well plotted, moving simply but inexorably from point to point. They also bring some much needed examination of gender to a genre in which hypermasculinity seems, puzzlingly, to be regaining some ground of late. His excellent "Stories for Men," which is collected here along with three other stories in the same setting, quite deservingly earned him a Tiptree award in 2003 for its examination of gender bias in a utopian gynocentric lunar colony. I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed it the first time around and it was a pleasure to reread. In discussing these matters (gender, not lunar utopias), Kessel is a descendent of Delany or Le Guin, and at his best certainly rivals their skill. The book as a whole, however, is a bit uneven. The stories tend to revolve around one character's discontent or desperation. The same could be said for nearly all fiction, of course, but it is unusually true here, where characters often evince few other emotions. The core of discontent in each story, while deftly done, can at times be a replacement for engagement with the material at hand, and can be a hindrance as much as a benefit.
Though it was night inside the dome, out here it was lunar afternoon. Harsh shadows lay beneath the fields of the solar collectors lining the road to the labs. Jack skipped along the tracked-up roadway, kicking up a powder of fines. Over the throb of his headache he listened to the sound of his own breathing in his earphones.
Kessel's protagonists are all malcontents, victims. They are out of place. At odds with those around them. They feel misunderstood and helpless. Their thoughts are full of angst and resentment. They do not understand themselves. The trick, of course, is that they are understood perfectly—written to be so—by us, even in their moments of confusion and mania. We understand them in the same condescending and dismissive way in which we understand teenagers. Indeed, Kessel's stories are most satisfying when his protagonists are teens or precocious children, most notably in the aforementioned lunar stories. Delany, too, has used teen protagonists to great effect as well as toyed with issues of victimhood in his fiction, particularly in the Nevèrÿon novels. But while issues of power and injustice are for Delany intertwined complexly with sexuality and adulthood, for Kessel the victims, the powerless, even when sexuality is at the very core of their victimhood, remain children. The bottom line of all Kessel's "gender" stories, beneath questions of dominance and trade and frank power roles in sexual relationships, is each character's insistence on fairness and simple equity rather than complexity and adulthood. The few adult protagonists that exist are usually patently delusional and sexually inexperienced, playing at life and more often than not missing the subtleties of the scene for all their focus on their own roles in it.
So there is a strange power dynamic at work here as well between reader and narrative subject. The voices of all these characters are chaotic and presumptive and selfish enough that a reader must fall into identification with them, read our past embarrassments into their stories. The deft rendering of their thoughts is a principal sign of Kessel's skill, even down to his use of cliche.
The fight he'd had with Roz was just like one of the final spats he'd had with Helen, full of buried resentments and false assumptions. Roz's accusations stung because there was an element of truth in them. But Roz was wrong to say Jack didn't care about her. From the moment of her birth Jack had committed himself to Roz without reservation. Clearly he hadn't paid enough attention to her troubles, but he would do anything to protect her.
We remember thinking and acting with just this mix of rectitude and clumsiness and outrage. But we can never identify with that specific blend in the present, only as if we were regarding a past lesser self. Even if you happen to be a teenager or younger as you read these stories you will feel the exhilaration of a condescending nostalgia. The foolishness in these stories, the rage, the futility, the pettiness, and, in a few cases, the bloodletting are encapsulated. They are cordoned off and made safe. Even as the stories unfold in present tense, the actions are so explicitly youthful that they are firmly in the past, that foggy age of confusion and powerlessness that we've all, in our minds, outlived. And while this makes for a satisfying portrayal of youth, it comes at the price of immediacy. Some of the stories in The Baum Plan ... can be skipped entirely, but the best yearn to be taken seriously and could be if, in writing them, Kessel had not already exiled them as tales of youthful indiscretion and of lesser consequence.
Roz didn't understand that things were hard for Jack. "All men are boys," the cousins said. In the case of a jerk like Keikosson, he could admit the saying's truth. But it was as much a product of the way they lived as of the men themselves. The women of the cousins indulged their boys their pleasures, kept them adolescents far into their adulthood. It was a form of control-by-privilege.
This effect is heightened by the unabashed emphasis on tropes from genre fiction in most of the collected stories. There are of course the much-anthologized moon stories—the best work in the book, despite some strangely recurrent hockey scenes—but the short titular parable features a protagonist calved off of crime fiction's monolithic square jaw, and a smattering of other stories showcase comically gothic lunatics and misunderstood scientists. Orson Welles makes a wonderful appearance, followed by a few very short and funny vignettes. There is even a retelling of Dr. Frankenstein's sojourn in Britain, published just this year in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction that, while well written, did nothing so much as make me want to reread Shelley's original. The few pieces that don't really use strict genre tropes are remarkable only for the petulance and teenage hurt of their subjects. Such classic genre framing is fine, of course, and a useful shorthand. Kessel is writing science fiction, after all. In these stories, however, the tropes serve to build further the walls of nostalgia behind which Kessel's ideas languish.
Jack chafed at the way a male in the colony was seldom respected for his achievements, but rather for who his mother and grandmother were. He hated the way women deferred to him once it got around that he was Eva Maggiesdaughter's latest partner. He hated the sidelong glances he got about his relationship to Roz. He was Roz's father. He was not anyone's boy.
If any of this sounds overwhelmingly negative, I apologize. It is a testament to Kessel's skill that my criticism is so specific and, really, not an indictment so much as a statement of preference. I want my rage, the subject's rage, to feel free and real and important, even if it does take place in abandoned lava tubes and regolith-shielded domes. In Kessel's work it too often feels infantilized and contained—by his characterization, by his use of cliché, and by his appeals to our own assumptions of readerly superiority. But then perhaps all of this is exactly to the point. Nearly all his stories are full of infuriating injustice. Maybe this book is best read—and reread—as a goad, as a joke at just how easily we are roused to indignation, his angst-driven characters mockeries of prefigured readers themselves, eyebrows cramped with rage and fingers flipping pages furiously.
[All quotes are from "The Juniper Tree," page 143 in the uncorrected proof of The Baum Plan for Financial Independence.]