We're Getting On, James Kaelan's debut novella, explores with stark and harrowing precision what happens when a group of young people decide to live in the desert without technology. This journey is the brainchild of narrator Dan, a tyrannical leader who forces four of his friends, the novella's only other characters, to join him. Dan does not seek any kind of moral or sustainable advancement; what he wants is to break down everything he's ever known. "We're not trying to reenact evolution," he says. "No, we've set out to do the opposite, to get to the bottom of this whole human condition."
And it's a haunting ride. The land treats them harshly: it is a cold June, and the ground won't bear food. When their garden finally begins to grow, Dan decides that he must kill it, must continue to regress. He forbids his group to bring toilet paper, personal items, or food; he forces them to drink contaminated water and sleep in tents with insect infestations; he watches with detachment as his charges struggle to retain their humanity. At one point, Dan realizes that Harper, another boy, has defied him by keeping oranges in his tent:
The fruit lost its edibility weeks ago, but he kept it regardless, until the rings ruptured and the insects paraded in. I've heard that [ape] mothers have been observed carrying their dead children by a limp limb for days… Perhaps he wasn't afraid of losing the oranges, but of the punishment I would levy against him for disobeying my orders. But if that were the case he would have discarded them long ago. No, he loved what they represented. Whereas the peanuts are for the group, these oranges were his property alone. He kept them in spite of the inexorable consequences. I envy him for his fortitude, and I hate him for his deception.
And so there are sparks of humanness here, if not humaneness—bright places where the barrenness of this world breaks open to reveal a hidden orange or a potato bud. But fertile things do not survive long in this landscape, and the tragedy of Dan's character lies in the fact that he sees no use for fertility. He is haltingly attracted to Erin, one of the group's two women, but fails to see the value in her fleshiness, her womanliness: "If I had a choice in the matter, I would inseminate Erin… She would produce an attractive child. But I don't really want that. I didn't come out here to fertilize eggs. If anything, I'd like to watch a child retard, rather than develop. We don't need something advancing while we regress."
It is gripping to watch this group degenerate, and terrifying too. At the end of the novella, Dan decides that "language is the last technology I have to rid myself of if I'm going to start over," and begins a fascinating descent into I-lessness. Sustainability is a word often connoted with Kaelan's We're Getting On and the interconnected stories in his novel of the same title, of which this novella is an excerpt. Kaelan has embarked by bike on a carbon-free book tour across the West Coast, planting the book's birch-seed-embedded covers along the way. But the book evokes greater issues of sustainability: Is language sustainable? Is advancement sustainable? Is humanness any more sustainable for those living a back-to-the-roots green lifestyle than it is for those who rely upon technology and advancement? The book raises questions more than it offers answers, but it undeniably cautions against groupthink in a time of environmental and political change.
April 29, 2011