October 2009

Erica Wetter

fiction

But Not for Long by Michelle Wildgen

Michelle Wildgen’s new novel, But Not for Long, opens with a dog stranded on a dock adrift in the middle of a suburban lake. How did the dog get there? How will it get to shore? As the lakeside residents gather and ask these questions, a young woman, Karin, dives in and helps the dog swim ashore, only to watch it run off. The incident leaves Karin and her housemates feeling uneasy, and their discomfort only increases when the episode of the stranded dog proves to be the first in a series of unexpected and unsettling events.

Set over three days in Madison, Wisconsin, But Not for Long centers on Karin and her fellow residents at a run-down, pink Victorian co-op dedicated to sustainable food. Earthy-crunchy Karin is in her early twenties, and is a writer for Dairy Now, where she profiles artisanal cheese makers. She doesn’t shave her armpits and used to live at the Womyn’s Co-op. Hal works for a food pantry short on actual food, struggles to cope with his mother’s death, and suffers severe activist burnout. Greta, the newest and unlikeliest addition to the house, owns diamond earrings and expensive silk garments. She finds the co-op’s neighborhood to be “self-consciously funky.” By peopling the story like this, Wildgen seems set to rehash a familiar and tired story of uptown meets downtown.

And yet Wildgen’s Madison isn’t quite today’s Madison. The honey bees have disappeared. Fuel shortages leave gas stations empty. Power outages of unpredictable duration routinely spread across the state. The evening after Karin’s heroic swim, a blackout strikes. And then the electricity stays off -- for days. The power company can’t or won’t explain. Meanwhile, Greta is left to grind coffee beans by hand, and Hal stocks the fridge with ice to keep the food fresh.

About the same time that the lights go out, Greta’s husband shows up at the co-op, on the verge of his own drunken blackout. His presence is a catalyst to an emotional drama that exposes the insecurities and weaknesses of those living in the sagging co-op. Is Hal really such a pure-hearted do-gooder? Is Karin as confident and independent as she comes across as being? And what of Greta, who in her frustration with her alcoholic husband has become violent with him. How capable is she of inflicting permanent damage and “breaking through the middle-class veil into something tawdry and photographed, something irreversible”? Just as Madison seems to be on the edge of something unidentifiable, Karin, Hal, and Greta are clearly adrift and on the brink of losing it.

Wildgen, an editor at Tin House, may be writing about interiors and exteriors spiraling out of control, but she keeps a tight rein on this character-driven narrative. As with her last book, You’re Not You, she revels in culinary details; she knowledgeably describes Karin’s trip to a cheese cave, and evokes the pleasures of a morel-hunting trip undertaken by Karin, Hal, and Greta. More critically, Wildgen deftly intertwines environmental themes with her characters’ emotional searches, and the result is a multi-layered story that feels relevant without becoming overly sentimental or political. Wildgen’s last book was acclaimed by critics, and But Not for Long should equally be praised for its well-wrought portrait of those navigating a world that seems to be crumbling around them.

 

But Not for Long by Michelle Wildgen
Thomas Dunne Books
ISBN: 0312571410
336 pages

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