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The Thin Line Between Utopia and Dystopia

The Thin Line Between Utopia and Dystopia

Straddling the border of Virginia and North Carolina, the Great Dismal Swamp stretches 750 square miles and teems with thick, tangled vines. Lofty pine trees shade the sun; pools of standing black water snake a path to an expansive freshwater lake. In the 16th century, when Europeans began to colonize North America’s coast, this marshy interior became a haven for outcasts. “Self-emancipators,” the historian J. Brent Morris writes in Dismal Freedom: A History of the Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp, “settled into new lives of freedom in a wilderness landscape deemed worthless and inaccessible by whites.” In these maroon settlements, which bloomed throughout the Atlantic world, formerly enslaved people raised livestock, built homes out of self-harvested timber, tended gardens, and occasionally raided the farms and slave camps of their neighbors.

Gabriel Bump’s second novel, The New Naturals, is set roughly in the present day. Though about a century and a half has passed since slavery ended in the U.S., society, of course, remains troubled and unequal. Early in the book, Rio, an ambitious young Black woman who works as a professor, takes a solitary walk in the woods near her home in Western Massachusetts. She’s unmoored by the loss of her newborn child—as well as by a creeping sense of purposelessness in her marriage and bourgeois existence in general. Even before the child’s death, Rio had felt the walls closing in. She’d made her husband get them “the fuck out of Boston,” disconnected from social media, and mounted a giant world map on a wall in their new home to track contemporary calamities, marking each with a large red X: wildfires, migrant shipwrecks, police killings.

In the woods, Rio sprints through a clearing and finds herself in front of an imposing mountain. On its peak sits an abandoned restaurant. She remembers stories of her forebears, who trekked from Georgia to Florida after emancipation: “all those Black people living in peace for the first time in their lives.” Suddenly, she is struck by a vision for a new world. They’d build underground, burrowing deep into the side of the mountain—a retreat for modern-day maroons. “A new world that could last forever,” separate from all the unease of the current one. They’d call it the New Naturals.

Much of Bump’s novel reads as commentary on the hopelessness of contemporary life, as characters react to cascading global crises and the stark, persistent divides among social classes. The book’s central premise treads a winding path to land at a restless conclusion: Human beings will always try to build new societies amid failing ones; they will also always end up re-creating those failures. Though Bump seems to argue that new worlds that form based on utopian ideals will likely erode, the residue of unsuccessful attempts often becomes the foundation for other experiments: new legislation, new norms. Think of the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast initiative, which lives on in existing school-breakfast programs nationwide, or Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, which inspired Ghana, in the year 2000, to grant people of African descent born in the diaspora the right to reside in the country indefinitely.

Rio’s husband, Gibraltar, is her reluctant co-conspirator. Soon they’re drawing up plans and calling on colleagues from the academy to fundraise. Most assume the couple has lost touch with reality, and Rio grows sick anticipating their failure. But just before she gives up, a benefactor appears, eager to fund their “attempt at perfection through isolation.” The unnamed funder, who’d earned a fortune in tech, is disenchanted with the frivolous monotony of her own life. She’s drawn to Rio’s vision; it reminds her of the fugitives of the Great Dismal and quilombos, communities of runaway slaves who created self-governed towns in the hinterlands of Brazil.

Bump spins a Möbius strip of a tale through the perspectives of unrelated characters whose stories eventually converge. He nods to real events and historical figures through the names he gives these characters, which are at once referential and quietly profound. One character, Sojourner, calls back to the famous abolitionist leader, who was born Isabella Baumfree. Bump’s Sojourner is a biracial, beer-guzzling reporter who feels burnt out by her job and her boyfriend. She’s won awards for investigating harmful lead poisoning in a small town, but she sees so little change in the conditions she exposes, and so much apathy in the newsroom, that her ambitions feel futile. Bump touches on these social realities but doesn’t fixate on them. Much like his first novel, Everywhere You Don’t Belong, The New Naturals is, in essence, a character study of misfits. In the earlier work, a Black boy named Claude comes of age on the South Side of Chicago after his parents abandon him. What could have been a social novel was instead something much more intimate, about love affairs, broken hearts, and personal dreams.

The New Naturals achieves a similar intimacy by probing the interiority of several characters individually, but it also threads a palpable yearning for a collective reality. Rio optimistically builds her underground world, planting carrots and apple trees in a greenhouse, stocking an enormous library with books by Frantz Fanon, Simone de Beauvoir, and Zora Neale Hurston. Seekers desperate for meaning arrive from everywhere. “Above ground,” Bump writes, “they were underpaid, overworked, overpaid, disillusioned, drained, depleted.” In the new world, there is jazz in the afternoons, and painting supplies, and, for a while, enough for everyone to eat.

The search for utopia defies time. In the early 20th century, branches of the International Peace Mission, founded by the preacher Father Divine, spread throughout the Northeast. Adherents, mostly African American, believed that they were creating an interracial paradise by feeding and employing their neighbors during the Great Depression. Religious leaders such as the faith healer and evangelist James F. Jones claimed that they could help their followers attain heaven on Earth. In the ’60s, Detroit’s Pan African Orthodox Christian Church built a community where residents pooled resources and educated their children on the principles of Black liberation and freedom.

A single charismatic figure galvanized many historical movements; Rio is the messianic center of the New Naturals. The group will “make a place for everyone,” Rio insists; like many past real-life experiments, she is angling toward a multicultural dream. “What if this is another Jonestown?” one character worries, evoking Jim Jones’s failed Guyanese utopia, where nearly 1,000 members died in a mass murder-suicide in 1978. (At least 70 percent of his followers were Black.) Jones’s shadow looms over the New Naturals, especially as the society begins to unravel—some of the prospective members become paranoid that their desire for a multiracial utopia may have blinded them to the makings of a cult. History suggests that separatist projects can possess noble aims and produce fresh ideas. But their isolation can also enable their doom; an inherent tension exists between their most gleeful dreams of freedom and the restriction such strident separation requires. And perhaps it is impossible to fully escape the human tendency to destroy, which lives not only in our societies but also within us.

For some time, the group functions well. But before long, the stream of new additions begins to slow. Members fall ill, requiring contact with the outside and steeper investment in the community’s limited system of medical care. Soon, the benefactor is banned from using profits from her corporation to fund the project. Rio and her constituents (seemingly no more than a few dozen people) begin stealing to keep themselves stocked and fed. As the experiment descends into chaos, the novel takes on an apocalyptic tone. Bump fills these sections with haunting noises: Rio’s hacking cough from an unknown illness; stray gunshots from raids gone wrong; people yelling in agony, driven mad by hunger and deprivation.

In Heaven Is a Place on Earth, a study of past American utopian experiments, Adrian Shirk writes that utopias have “no real end.” Bump seems to suggest that true paradise is unattainable. But because it is an idea, utopia is eternal. So it isn’t a surprise when, years after the New Naturals fails, whispers of a “new attempt” begin again.

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