The Humanity Project
(Blue Rider Press, 2013)
My interest is in addressing the writer Jean Thompson and her work at present, but one is immediately confronted with the question of where to begin. She could be considered a writer’s writer (that phrase as condescending as it is celebratory) given her 30 years of publishing short stories in the best journals (and, sure, the New Yorker). However: her kick-ass collection, Who Do You Love (2000) was a finalist for the National Book Award, and her novel Wild Blue Yonder (2002) was a New York Times Notable Book, and both her last two novels, 2010’s The Year We Left Home and now the The Humanity Project (under consideration here), received starred reviews from Kirkus. There’s a chance you’ve heard of Thompson, or have read her story “Applause, Applause,” because David Sedaris championed her and included the story in an anthology he edited.
The reason all that’s worth even considering or bringing up is two-fold. First, however well-known she is, she deserves to be better known (insert here VIDA stats, coverage given to male authors, etc.). The other reason to bring all of this up is because of what Thompson’s doing in her fiction, which I’ll here claim has as much to do with morality as aesthetics. To be sure, the woman crafts luxurious, gorgeous prose, and her work is almost criminally easy to find yourself immersed in—you begin thinking just a few pages and then it’s 10 p.m. and dinner was simply whatever you could eat one-handed while you read, standing at the kitchen counter.
But the morality of her work: here’s where things get interesting. A caveat at the start: certainly, all literature traffics in questions of morality of some sort, of course. But Thompson’s work, particularly her two most recent novels, have head-on addressed fundamental questions of contemporary American life in ways I don’t see lots of authors attempting. Her latest, The Humanity Project, moves directly into the issues one could read about in newspapers: school shootings, the erosion of the middle class, and the strange power the wealthy can exert on larger social conversations related to the public good.
A posit: the manners and conventions of literature sometime seem (to this reader, anyway) a bit stuffy, a bit like high society, there are things one may talk about, but only in passing. If one wants to find contemporary fiction that addresses the United States’s eroding middle class, one’s much more likely to find work which does so glancingly, incidentally, treating that fact as backdrop. This is not a criticism (it is, actually, but one for some other time). Look, a way to think of this: Franzen’s Freedom and Eugenides’s Marriage Plot, two hugely heralded recent Sweeping Social Novels, took at best glancing notice of the actual conditions of people with little money.
But Thompson’s stuff is ultimately morally engaged with the present moment as a felt, lived experience for folks who don’t have the luxury of the sort of money that can ensure stability and safety (read: the overwhelming majority of us). In The Humanity Project, a father who’s a physical laborer gets in an accident and, without insurance, is unable to keep working, and therefore can’t keep his home, support his son or dog, etc. Another father—who’d split up with his ex long ago and hasn’t seen his daughter since she was a small girl—suddenly has to welcome her into his adjunct-professor’s bachelor-pad apartment in California (which daughter has recently borne witness to a school shooting in ways that are just harrowing). Maybe none of this is that big of a deal, but it’s worth at least noting that the angry ghosts of Hubert Selby Jr. and Nelson Algren animate Thompson’s work, she’s writing about actual, real people, instead of making luxurious people (most of us are leagues from being) seem real.
All of this and hardly a note about The Humanity Project, the actual book under consideration. Here’s what you can be sure of: there are at least seven scenes in this novel that’ll stun you and hang in your mind for months afterward. The book’s title derives from the title a woman gives to the philanthropic organization she begins after her husband’s death, which philanthropy essentially tries to address: can you pay people to be good? As with the best Sweeping Social Novels, Thompson offers no answers, and what clarity the reader exits with is pretty ferociously hard-won. I claimed earlier that the book is easy to read, and it is, though you’re also unlikely to be confronted by a more rigorous book this year, neither one that asks this much of your moral self, nor one that offers it this much, as well.