I finished reading Kindred this morning. I was reading it for a class, and I was excited for it because I hadn't read anything by Octavia Butler before and I kept putting it off.
I have a lot of thoughts about it, but I'm going to let them filter through my classwork for a while longer.
On one hand, Kindred was hard to read. It's about the experience of slavery in 19th Century America, and I don't feel confident enough to say "It doesn't pull punches" but it did plenty to make my guts twist up for a whole variety of reasons.
On the other hand: This was the first book I really tore through in, like, months. The first book I couldn't put down. That I didn't find myself reading the same sentence over and over again.
Kindred was familiar territory: Octavia Butler is a science fiction writer. She writes in that genre-y way that I'm at home with, she gave me the information I wanted when I wanted it and made it easy to trust her about what she was withholding. The other books we've read this semester, and the other works I've read lately, mostly haven't been like that. Dracula tended to lay things out refreshingly early, but it was deeply different than the SF/F style. Never Let Me Go was just a straight-out literary novel. It occurs to me that both of those books were written with a hypothetical audience: Dracula is a collection of documents written by the characters, Never Let Me Go is the protagonist telling stories to the reader.
In Kindred, Butler just tells the story. It's first person, but it isn't written like it's something Dana (the protagonist and viewpoint character) wrote. There's no sense of what was going on in her life when she decided to sit down and write this book, who it's for, what she'd do with it if she had the manuscript. There's no narrator's detachment from the moment of the story. Dana's not an unreliable narrator. She's barely a narrator. She's first-person as an extremely close third-person.
I hadn't realized how tired I was getting of works that perform themselves as an artifact that exists in their own worlds until I realized how much of a relief it was to read something that had no trace of that quality. It adds so many layers of things to think about: The motives of the author, and therefore their reliability; the quality of their memory, the audience they were considering. Those qualities can be worthwhile but often it feels like they're unnecessary. In Kindred it felt like Butler knew she was asking the reader to do a hard thing, to face the reality of enslaved life, and didn't ask us to do any extra work to get there.
Even as I write this, I fear I'm over-stating the case against texts that exist within themselves. Maybe it really is just that I'm sick of them right now. But I think there's more to this thought, and it's an aspect of works that I'll be keeping an eye out for now, as much when it's absent as when it's present.