Ken Layne's Modest Utopia

Unauthorized art in abandoned desert housing development | Creative Commons photo by Guilherme Marcondes
Unauthorized art in abandoned desert housing development | Creative Commons photo by Guilherme Marcondes

Ken Layne, author.
Elora Peak Press, 2011

The Californian landscape does not bear its injuries decorously. In more humid climes each bulldozer gouge, each swath of removed hillside would be masked by vines and saplings within a few seasons, but here the marks of human commerce stand plain against their surroundings, unmitigated by time. When those scars were made by grandiose projects then abandoned, insult layers on injury.

In Ken Layne's new novel Dignity, those scarred landscapes -- the abandoned gated housing developments, the forlorn desert strip malls -- become a creche for a new society struggling to survive the demise of the old, as refugees from the failing American economic system try to remake their lives in what had been vacant real estate. The result is a novel that stands with one foot in the genre of utopian fiction, the other in its dystopian counterpart.

Layne, best known for his stints as editor of the snarky A-list blog Wonkette, is a resident of the Mojave Desert's exurban fringes, and has watched housing developments bloom, break ground, and wither. That experience, mixed with Layne's keen observations of the American socioeconomic Juggernath as it lurches forever downhill, forms Dignity's core question. As the economy crumbles and the ranks of the dispossessed grow amid seeming abundance, what happens when people start to do the math? On one hand, people struggle to keep roofs over their heads. On the other hand, empty "communities" of suburban buildings once intended for the moderately affluent dot the California countryside. The humane solution seems obvious, and the inevitable opposition to that solution almost as much so.

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In Dignity, the crisis comes when a group of Echo Park neighbors and friends, contending with the loss of their jobs and generally amenable to a lower-impact way of life, more or less stumble into a semi-Freegan lifestyle. A community accretes around them, with the enigmatic "B." -- a visionary of sorts -- at its core. The group's informal free store attracts unwanted overreaction from the LAPD, and stung by police harassment, B. and a handful of companions strike out for the Mojave. They find an abandoned suburban development, move in and create a small community that is essentially communal, with vegetable gardens and meals eaten together, and one of the houses in the cul-de-sac is designated a common house -- a kind of community center. A few new people join. The police inevitably follow. The members are cast to the winds. They try to build new communities, many of which founder on an inescapable hard fact: Americans are simply not accustomed to being in control of their own lives, and taking responsibility for your place in a community isn't something that necessarily comes naturally.

But some of the communities flourish, despite an increasingly psychotic overreaction on the part of the government. Or perhaps because of that overreaction. A few hard lessons about police surveillance and provocation cause the burgeoning movement to abandon what they call the "three poisons" -- the internet, mobile phones and television. Turns out that when you check in from your organic garden harvest fair and art festival, the cops may well be following you on Foursquare.

If you've noticed that I haven't mentioned many characters aside from B., there's reason for that: Layne goes a bit light on character development in Dignity. Set out to write a novel where the protagonist is a philosophy, and you run the risk of deadening Ayn-Rand-style exposition stuck into word balloons with which one-dimensional characters bludgeon each other. Layne confronts this problem head-on, and mostly successfully so: he owns the didacticism the novel requires. The book consists of a series of letters written by N., a confidant of B., to members of a dozen of so outpost communities throughout California, from the deserts to the North Coast and Sierra foothills. It is somewhere just shy of twenty years since the Echo Park days, and N. has been charged with keeping the flame going among the widely separated, un-plugged members of these disparate and growing communities. The authorities are still there and harassing the movement, seizing products of unlicensed dairies and harassing debtors, but their attention is mainly drawn by trying to keep order in disintegrating cities. N. is clearly on the lam, and writes from a variety of hideouts -- a fishing boat off the Morro Bay coast, a shack by the railroad line in the East Mojave.

His letters sometimes hector the young folk straying from B.'s loose edicts, at one point even scolding them for wanting gossip about the movement's public figures (and I'd dearly love to chat with Layne about whether his work at Wonkette informed that particular moment) but mostly giving an eyewitness perspective to increasingly remote historic events already shrouded in myth about the days when B. walked the Californian earth.

From the moment white people first got here California has been used as a canvas for utopians of varying stripes, from real-world communitarians at the Llano colony in Antelope Valley and the socialist Kaweahns in the Sierra Nevada to more religiously inclined groups. Layne's book is steeped heavily in this history, though without explicit references. But if Dignity owes some of its context to the real-world history of Californian communitarianism, it owes even more to the utopian literary tradition. Comparing Dignity to some of its predecessors in the genre is a bit unnerving. The whole concept of utopia assumes a perfect political and social system, or at least as perfect as can be managed. Most utopian fiction postulates a significant rearrangement of human society. Samuel Butler's Erewhon questioned the role of machines in industrial society and inverted the concepts of "crime" and "disease," curing the first and punishing the second. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland described a society made up entirely of women who reproduced via parthenogenesis, which was thus largely devoid of warmongering and other such negative, stereotypically male pastimes. Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time takes the gender speculation in a somewhat different direction, removing the responsibility for childbirth and nursing from women. Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia and its prequel concerned a republic carved out of California, Oregon, and Washington in which ecological sustainability was the nation's foremost and sacrosanct value.

Held up against its predecessors, Layne's utopia seems somewhat modest. In Dignity, utopia consists of being left alone, allowed to feed yourself and your family and friends, allowed to find shelter, allowed to till a garden, allowed to refrain from buying big-screen televisions and each year's more expensive iteration of computer. It doesn't sound like Layne is asking for much. That his portrayal of authoritarian reaction to a few vegetable gardens and free bins seems so clearly borrowed from real life is the most chilling thing about his second novel. Highly recommended.

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