Jame's Kaelan's We're Getting On (Book Review)


Image courtesy of James Kaelan
We're Getting On, the first novel from James Kaelan, follows a group of characters—all in the midst of some intense existential failure—through several connect short stories and two novellas. The image that emerges, is one of a distopic near-future in which the mistakes of today have deepened.

The story confronts several themes of environmentalism but perhaps the more interesting is Kaelan's 1900 mile bike-powered book tour along the West Coast—which he intends to be completely carbon-free.

TreeHugger had a chance to talk with Kaelan about his new book and exciting tour.TreeHugger: To promote We're Getting On, you are embarking on a carbon-free tour of the West Coast, planting birch-seed covers as you go. What motivated you to adopt this eco-conscious means of promotion?
James Kaelan: We're Getting On emerged from my skepticism of the direction this country is moving environmentally and technologically. The novel isn't a cautionary tale or a polemic, necessarily, but it reflects my uneasiness—even my fear—of what sort of country we'll be living in a few decades from now. I wanted, therefore, to do something positive to promote the novel. About a year ago I started wondering, What if there was a way to manufacture and promote a product in this country that not only didn't harm the environment, but actually improved it? That birthed the idea of a book that could grow into a tree. And a book that grows into a tree not only offsets its own production emissions, it also, technically, creates the material to produce new books. In light of the oil spill—an environmental disaster perpetrated by an industry that trades in environmental catastrophes—We're Getting On and Flatmancrooked's Zero Emission Book project operates as an antidote to destructive business practices.

TH: What role do you think fiction can play in the environmental movement?
JC: I think fiction, since it isn't constrained by politics or journalistic ethics, has the opportunity to explore major issues according to its own rules. Fiction operates only within the realm of the imagination. As important as facts are in building support for environmental issues, we have to recognize that comprehending the future of this planet requires projection as much as it does prediction. In an article or a non-fiction book, a thesis must be based on research. But a factual analysis of a potential future scenario opens up room for criticism because that analysis must, by nature, remain suppositional. Since we're in such a polarized world, now—detractors detract seemingly for the hell of it—environmental activists end up preaching to the choir a lot; the opposition simply won't listen. But with fiction, theoretically, one can much more subtly erode prejudices. Or so I'd like to think. A novel or a film can present a nightmare and force the consumer to live that nightmare, too. It's almost impossible to simulate that sort of emotional immersion, even in a work of accessible science.

TH: Is there an environmental theme in We're Getting On?
JC: There's certainly a distopic theme in We're Getting On. And that distopia, as I see it, issues from human failure. The characters in the novel are suffering from their own inability to recognize how they got into the morass. Without being reductive, that's where the inhabitants of this planet find themselves, now: in a situation that they didn't realize they were complicit in creating while they were creating it.

TH: The fundamental values of environmentalism—based on the idea that responsible action today can create a healthier, cleaner future—are inherently optimistic. How does this compare to the characters in We're Getting On?
JC: In keeping with my last response, the characters in We're Getting On aren't living a healthy, sustainable existence. They're leading by counter-example. "We're Getting On" is a story about ruination by willful ignorance. The ideal reader of this book would see himself or herself reflected in the pages of this novel in the worst possible light. Like addicts, we have to hit rock bottom. Some of my characters have.

TH: How does their failure—indeed, intentional failure—speak to our attempts to "return to the land"?
JC: The kids who move out into the desert are coerced to do so. Their leader, the very autocratic Daniel, forces them to primitivize. I was exploring tyranny here—rather than sustainability—but you could totally extrapolate a cautionary tale from the end of the book: change in this country can't come just from the top down. People can't be forced to live sustainably. The change has to come on both legislative and personal levels. To make up an outlandish example, if Obama outlawed internal combustion engines, we'd have a civil war on our hands. But if everyone started driving plugin-hybrids, electric cars, or better yet, started riding bicycles, the bottom-up social pressure would encourage people to participate. This is already happening, obviously. We've got a long way to go, but we've started. Going back to the novel, Dan represents extremists, and his charges are the general population. He forces them to comply, but that approach will always fail, even if the original notion—purifying the psyche through asceticism—has inherent merit. We all need to simplify and reduce our consumption, but we must, invariably, take different paths to the same goal. What's important, though, is that we start walking (literally and metaphorically).

If you are interested in joining the Zero Emission Book Tour, try one of these dates:

Jul-2 Los Angeles, CA: Skylight Books, 7pm
Jul-3 Oxnard, CA: camping @ Join the Farm
Jul-4 Carpenteria, CA: camping @ Shepard Farms
Jul-5 Santa Barbara, CA
Jul-7 Santa Maria, CA: camping @ Blosser Urban Garden
Jul-8 San Luis Obispo, CA: Barnes & Noble
Jul-13 Santa Cruz, CA
Jul-16 San Francisco, CA: Green Apple Books
Jul-18 Napa, CA
Jul-19 Davis, CA: Avid Reader - 7:30pm
Jul-20 Sacramento, CA: Pangaea Cafe & Pub w/ after-party at the Flame Club
Jul-21 Marysville, CA: camping @ Godfrey Family Farms
Jul-22 Chico, CA: Lyon's Books
Jul-23 Marysville, CA: camping @ Kitchel Family Organics
Aug-2 Tiller, OR: camping @ Perma Organic Farm
Aug-6 Lebanon, OR: camping @ The Mushroomery
Aug-7 Salem, OR: camping @ Minto Island Growers
Aug-8 Portland, OR: Powell's Books, 4pm
Aug-10 Colama, WA: camping @ R & C Ranch
Aug-12 Olympia, WA
Aug-13 Puyallup, WA: camping @ Mother Earth Farm
Aug-14 Seattle, WA: Ravenna Third Place Books
Aug-17 Arlington, WA: camping @ Garden Treasures
Aug-18 Vancouver, BC

Read more TreeHugger book reviews:
Book Review: The Cyclist's Manifesto
Book Review: Slow Death by Rubber Duck
Author Margaret Atwood on The Year of the Flood

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