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Jessa CrispinBack to OpinionJessa Crispin

The dark side of idealism in Cate Kennedy’s ‘The World Beneath’

We all have such grand plans when we’re young. All that idealism just bursting through our chests, ready to go set the world on fire. And then… reality sets in. You realize that sometimes protest can overthrow a government, but other times it can’t even save a grove of redwood trees from destruction. What feels like the bohemian life at 20 begins to feel like poverty by 30. Beset by disappointment in the world and in yourself, that idealism can turn on you, making you feel like you peaked at 20, and it’s a long ride downhill from here.

In Cate Kennedy’s new novel “The World Beneath,” Rich and Sandy met as young environmental activists, working to save a river from being dammed. Now, years later, after a mortgage, a daughter named Sophie, a break-up and lives that seem like they just never quite came together, they both look back on that time they stopped the dam from being built as the high point of their existence. As Sophie turns 15, Rich tries to re-introduce himself into her life, and Sophie is grateful to get away from her hippie, nostalgic, sad mother and her circle of divorced and equally disappointed friends. But their hiking trip, meant to bring them closer together, goes so very wrong and each character is forced to lose the nostalgia and face the present circumstances.

Kennedy does a masterful job showing how disappointment can rule our lives and affect those around us. I spoke with her about the dark side of idealism, the self-help world that says we can buy our way to enlightenment, and what drove her to write this modern day Demeter/Persephone story.

I’m interested in the theme of disappointment in your book. How it shapes us and shapes our children if we’re not careful. And maybe no one is more susceptible to disappointment than an impassioned political activist all grown up. Can you talk a little about this, and how the characters become sort of calcified by the things that went wrong?

“Calcified” is a great word to describe what’s happened to these people, in the sense that layers and layers build up around us until we’re too stiff to change, once we let ourselves become so mired. And for these characters, their disappointment has morphed into nostalgia — the comforting stories they tell themselves, the endless small adjustments they make to their self-delusions — and it’s this nostalgia which they must be shaken out of, to me.

They’re stuck, and it’s this stasis, this paralysis, I’m really interested in exploring in this story. I try to force these people to actually engage with the present life they’re living in, by making things happen to confront their avoidance. It’s a paradoxical thing but it does seem to me that the perceived disappointment we spend so much energy trying to avoid (the sense of falling short of our potential, of not being as special as we once hoped) is actually the thing that prevents us really living in the here and now of our lives. It’s easier to commit ourselves to a cherished delusion than to live with ourselves as ordinary, flawed, fallible adults. I’m really interested in characters who are “unreliable” in this way — full of self-sabotage and denial and no-go areas.

Having spent some years of my life in “hippie” cities, the tribe around the mother character was so recognizable. The Goddess cards, the gemstones for healing, the yoga retreats… They’re not drawn for laughs, though. Because even there, disappointment lies, as what was once about sharing and community has become about money. What drew you to that community?

I hate the way our yearning for meaning gets exploited and sold back to us as something you can buy with a credit card or learn from some counterfeit weekend shaman. I guess I’m essentially pretty cynical about the idea that there are easy, convenient solutions to spiritual dilemmas or the pain of emotional growth. Like you, I’ve spent a few years in those towns, and watched the restless search for instant karma, the buying into each fresh New Age concept as it’s packaged and commodified for us, our neediness making us more and more credulous, our hope for transformation fetishized into “The Ancient Wisdoms of the Sages” 10-CD collection or whatever.

There’s a parallel drawn here in the book with our relationship to the natural world, as we search for something “pristine” and authentic and unspoilt we can experience, as long as there’s no effort or inconvenience involved with getting to it. We want the unspoilt mountaintop, only with wifi and a cafe.  I’m sad it’s become so ruthlessly marketed, and sad we’re prepared to settle for it. Maybe this is my own nostalgia breaking through, but we’re hungry, I think, for a sense of community that we’ve never really experienced, a real connection with others that is based on something other than proximity or convenience. Even that word, “community” is misused to mean any group of people, rather than the complex, interdependent relationship it rightly describes. So in the book I try to explore the effect of this erosion and assumption on people. We need insight alright, I’m just not convinced we’re going to find it at a past lives workshop, or an eco-tourism resort.

The story revolves around the Demeter/Persephone myth in interesting ways, the earth mother and the lost daughter. What drew you to that storyline for your novel?

Well, the more I explored the myth, the more fascinated I became. I love the way we’ve inherited the idea that Persephone was forced to return to the Underworld unwillingly, whereas the myth clearly shows she actually wanted to return — she became Queen of the Underworld in the end. The avenging mother drives that myth, rather than the abducted daughter. There was also the notion, in Greek mythology, that the Underworld is not exactly a place of flames, Satan and eternal torment. People lived in the Greek Underworld, albeit in a kind of stupor; a hazy half-awake state of numbed, forgetful apathy. The more I read, the more it seemed a perfect allegory of contemporary Western culture, I guess!

And the novel is set in Tasmania, in the wilderness, to which travelers from all over the world bring their needs and preoccupations and demands — a remote island found off the larger island of Australia, which in itself is known in the U.S. as “Down Under” (I’ve never heard it described in this way by Australians, by the way!) — the idea of somewhere isolated and wild and unpredictable that will not bend to the will of humans. I liked the rather more lighthearted parallel of the classical Underworld with contemporary backpacking culture, too;  that we’re “traveling” — wandering in a kind of mist of forgetfulness, wanting something, remembering something, but not knowing quite what it is. Like these characters, we’re lost and weighed down with baggage we can’t shed.

Australian and New Zealand literature is so incredibly vibrant, yet in the States, we really only know of a handful of writers. The rest don’t get much attention. When I went to Melbourne a while back, I came home with luggage groaning with books. What authors do you recommend readers pay attention to? Who among your peers are you excited by?

Well, first off, thank you for noticing that vibrancy, and for the chance to share some of those authors with you. Let me load up your suitcase with a few more books. Anything by Peter Temple, whose novels are groundbreaking examples of a new kind of crime genre – challenging, breathtaking writing that demands you keep up. Tim Winton, whose evocation of the Australian landscape, both physical and interior, is always striking and beautiful. Peter Carey, who makes his home now in NYC, and whose early short stories will inspire any aspiring authors of that form. Nam Le, whose collection “The Boat” was an astonishing debut and who is bound to follow it up with something even more impressive. So many more!  Richard Flanagan, Michael McGirr, Karen Hitchcock, Ryan O’Neill, Margo Lanagan, Robert Drewe… I think you’re already over weight allowance, Jessa, but happy reading.