Talk shows have recently made their way to the center of our culture: the media has declared the media its subject--we hear and read impassioned debate about talk show hosts, their guests, their content. These shows are not just a reflection of our times but have become a major force--a public forum, a judge, a hanging jury. While there used to be a respectful separation between subjects and categories, we now see presidential candidates and heads of state on the same couch and in the same setting where only the day before sat cross-dressers and male exotic dancers. In an excess of democracy, we have allowed issues to become mixed up, we don't quite know what attitude to take toward any issue. Is this serious stuff, or entertainment?
Early in Barbara Kingsolver's energized novel, "Pigs in Heaven," Turtle, the adopted Cherokee child of Taylor, a single mother, finds herself on the Oprah Winfrey show. She has saved the life of a man who tumbled into Hoover Dam. Her appearance seems an innocent enough moment of recognition: Turtle appears as one of a group of "Children Who Have Saved Lives." The talk show, seen by millions, turns out to be the instrument not of Turtle and Taylor's happy notoriety, but of their possible ruination. As soon as Turtle is noticed by Annawake Fourkiller, a Cherokee Indian activist/attorney, the talk show provides the stage on which the electronic village meets the Indian village. When Annawake Fourkiller is alerted to the fact that the child may have been illegally adopted by Taylor, who found Turtle in her car (details of this discovery are told in Kingsolver's earlier novel, "The Bean Trees") she becomes determined to wrest Turtle from her mother and return her to her tribe.
The subject of the novel coincides with what brings high ratings to talk shows: adoption, ethnicity, child abuse, single motherhood (you name it, "Pigs in Heaven" has it). In fact, the "talk show" concept becomes a metaphor for the book's structure. On a talk show, people with Big Problems get to tell their stories straight from the heart: We hear their voices, see the tears on their cheeks, can judge firsthand the sincerity of their confessions, listen to the logic (or illogic) of their reasoning. By then we're thoroughly invested in the outcome and are willing to stay tuned through the commercials, the arguments of the experts, the prissy righteous statements or the passionate and sometimes violent outbursts of those who have been wronged--or feel they have been. Finally, the bit players come in, the speakers from the audience step forth and add their opinions, interpretations, their judgments and their praise. In fact, every character in "Pigs in Heaven" stands for some philosophical point of view, some political idea, some standard of behavior, and many of the situations operate, likewise, on a symbolic level.
Because Taylor and Turtle are soldered together by an accident of fate, by love, by a powerful psychic bond and by the rightness of their union, we want it to come out right for them. In "Pigs in Heaven," Kingsolver asks us to hear everyone out, wait till all the evidence is in. We're happy to. She's an expert entertainer, is supremely able to command our attention, involve our opinions, arouse our sense, engage us--and what better combination of responses can a novel call forth in any reader?
"Pigs in Heaven" is that rare combination of a dynamic story told in dramatic language, combined with issues that are serious, debatable and painful. Kingsolver knows the world well, she's compassionate, she's smart, she can get into the skin of everyone from the airhead baby-sitter to the handicapped air-traffic control worker, to Taylor's mother who is having a late-in-life romance.
On a recent radio interview, I heard Kingsolver discussing "Pigs in Heaven." She said that in 11th grade she learned what fiction had to be about: "Man against Nature, Man against Man, and Man against Himself." "Why all this against-stuff?" she said, suggesting how puzzled she was about this way of looking at the world. It certainly wasn't her way. Barbara Kingsolver is for, not against, and her fiction is about getting people together, getting them to live in the global village (not just the Indian village or any other exclusive fenced and guarded fort). When the interviewer asked her if her ability to understand all her characters was something like Flaubert's saying "Madame Bovary, \o7 c'est moi,"\f7 she replied: "I think he knew what she felt like and it wasn't like female-anatomy-stuff. It was the human heart."
That's what "Pigs in Heaven" is about--the human heart in all its shapes and ramifications.
PIGS IN HEAVEN, \o7 by Barbara Kingsolver (HarperCollins)\f7
THE COLLECTED STORIES, \o7 by William Trevor (Viking)\f7
FOR LOVE, \o7 by Sue Miller (HarperCollins)\f7
THE BURNING GLASS: Stories, \o7 by Helen Norris (Louisiana State University Press)\f7
RAMEAU'S NIECE, \o7 by Cathleen Schine (Ticknor & Fields)\f7