Monday, October 27, 2014

Sherwood Nation by Benjamin Parzybok

I want to talk to you today about an ambitious novel by a local writer and political activist, Benjamin Parzybok. The name of the novel is Sherwood Nation. A problem for all fiction writers is that of inducing the reader to suspend disbelief, and for dystopian or utopian novels, the suspension of disbelief is particularly difficult to achieve. The setting for this book is a possible future for Portland after a profound drought has set in and water rationing is mandatory. As the drought progressed, the Deschutes dried up in a single summer, and,
Finally, the greatest of them all, the Columbia River, its sources choked in mud, leaked its death-song through the gorge, and became only a scaly alligator skin of memory. In its wake, valleys turned to deserts, fertile farms to dust, and the great migration East began.
I have to admit upfront that I found this novel tough sledding, and not only because I had trouble suspending disbelief. Since I am fortunate in that I can read whatever I want, and reading is my main work, I am spoiled and used to fine writing. In the end, I think this novel is much more interesting and important for the political questions it raises than for the story itself. For the most part, I’ll leave the political questions up to Norm Diamond in his interview with Benjamin also included in this show. Unlike many futuristic books including those that attempt to raise political consciousness, this is a serious and mostly successful attempt to create real characters, and to let much of the action be determined by the characters portrayed. By the end of the book (though not during much of the long middle sections), I found myself really wanting to know the outcome—concerned for the fate of the main characters and for the city-state they had created. 

The plot of the book is long and rather complicated, and I have no intention of giving way the story, but I will say that it begins with a brave act carried off by a few people who decide to call attention to illegal water deliveries being made to rich folks in the West Hills. This small group decides to waylay one of these unmarked water trucks as a way to call attention to the illegal distribution. Renee is one member of this small band; she is injured in the attempt to commandeer the truck, and the local media get plenty of footage of her bleeding and wounded but handing out water to the group of onlookers who surround the truck. She is dubbed by the media as Maid Marian of Robyn Hood fame—one who steals from the rich to give to the poor. 

Renee (a.k.a. Maid Marian) has a boyfriend named Zach who is one of few who still has a job; he works for an advertising agency that works for the Mayor. Although sympathetic to Renee’s anger and frustration about city management and water distribution, he is unable to act with her, because he sees no fruitful outcome from her activities. Like many activists, Zach is paralyzed by uncertainty and the need to make sure causes he fights for are pure and have some real chance of succeeding. His need for purity and certainty frustrate Renee,
Zach—you’re always planning. And organizing and cataloging and recording and doing every preliminary step so as to avoid acting. I think what you do—writing ads, trying to make what the city needs palatable—is great. I mean it’s a mixed bag, you know that, and you’re doing what you can in there. But somebody has got to be out here on the front line.
I have heard complaints like this one from many activists, and I certainly see myself as one of those who stalls and waits for the right cause, the right moment, and it seems often simply to be an excuse for not acting. And yet, what to do? How do we bring about real change?

Because Renee’s water action is caught by the media, she quickly becomes a popular celebrity, and heads up a plan for a NE neighborhood to secede from the city, take up the task of water distribution as well as the safety and security of the neighborhood. Before long, she heads up what gets called Sherwood Nation, a kind of city-state that cuts itself off from city services and governance. 

Soon Maid Marian forms an alliance with a person who has been a powerful drug-lord in the neighborhood, and he becomes her general while his son Jamal becomes Captain and leader of the Green Rangers.

The credibility of the storyline is shored up by Parzybok’s intimate knowledge of Portland neighborhoods and of local governance. The Mayor and city council are other players in the action that ensues, as is the National Guard which is in charge of water distribution. 

While the storyline is very difficult to believe, I applaud the author’s effort to address questions of political action and expedience in the times we face now and the even harder times it appears are coming. I’m reminded of Doris Lessing’s 1975 novel Memoirs of a Survivor in which she scolds both the left and the right for acting as if the end of times is near—that all will end in a grand apocalypse.  There will be neither complete salvation nor destruction. Instead, contends Lessing,  there will be survivors, and life will continue one way or another. The questions will always be how we will act from where we are then, and how we should act now in order to prepare for a better future. Lessing’s novel predicted much that would come to pass in London as homeless kids grew in number, unemployment skyrocketed and social services broke down. Renee, Maid Marian, comes to similar conclusions about end-times.
“There are no end times,” she whispered into the room. It was a mantra she’d taken up since her first night in Sherwood. A poem of sorts that had taken shape in her head, the words reeling out of her. “There are no end-times. This time is simply a tunnel, from one time to the next.  I work here to see us through. The darkness is a passage.
The reader is told that crime-rates plummet, schools and clinics reopen and run better in Sherwood Nation than in the rest of the city, and yet we are also told that Sherwood Nation only lasts for nine weeks. Even with the combined efforts of a multitude of volunteers, it is hard to see how all of this could take place in a mere nine weeks, a blink in history. 

Whatever the plausibility of the events described in this book, the stories of the individual characters are well told and interesting. including the intense soul-searching each does as events come to pass. 

I would say that the political aims of the novel are noble, and the questions raised about how and when to act crucial not simply for Sherwood Nation, but for us-here-now. Whether this is enough to make it a good book, I will leave up to you readers.

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