“Perfect Little World: A Novel”
Author: Kevin Wilson
Price: $26.99 (Hardcover)
A few weeks ago I praised Kevin Wilson’s short story collection “Tunneling to the Center of Earth” and his novel “The Family Fang” for their cleverness and inventiveness. Wilson has a great comic gift.
Now Wilson’s second novel, “Perfect Little World,” has been released. I confess I was, at first, disappointed that it was not primarily funny, but then I settled into enjoying a provocative and very thoughtful book.
(Wilson, like many first-rate writers, means to expand his range, not repeat himself, however much his publishers and readers might like him to.)
Our protagonist, Isobel Poole, “Izzy,” was a very bright nineteen-year-old, just graduating from Coalfield High School, when, in quick order, she learned that she was pregnant by her young art teacher, Mr. Hal Jackson, and then Mr. Jackson, a thoroughly decent man but emotionally unstable, committed suicide.
Izzy is earning a living as an apprentice to a whole pig barbeque master when she is approached by Dr. Preston Grind, the author of a theoretical book, “The Artificial Village,” a plan for community building to promote children’s connection to extended families and neighbors and to increase human interaction in general.
Dr. Grind has a proposition for Izzy, funded by a VERY rich woman, the octogenarian heiress of the Acklan Super Stores, a national chain.
Dr. Grind was himself raised “experimentally.” His parents were conducting an experiment in the “Constant Friction Method.” They made his life a series of disasters, exposing him to perpetual emotional pain and distress, thinking to prepare him to handle the disappointments of adult life with a minimum of emotion.
Somewhat damaged by this, it is no surprise, then, that he is searching for a better way to raise kids by embarking on his own child-rearing experiment. Dr. Grind, aided by three postdoctoral fellows, will manage The Infinite Family Project.
Here, at a compound outside of Nashville, Tennessee, ten newborns will be raised for ten years by all parents, communally. All nineteen adults are parents to all babies, no favoritism. (Izzy is the only single parent.) For five years the children will not know which adults are their biological parents. Their daily lives will be observed, written up extensively. This is to be as rigorous an experiment as possible.
Dr. Grind has it all figured out. The flaws of previous planned communities have been foreseen and eliminated.
No religion, in fact no abstract concepts. No back to nature, no sharing of sexual partners.
The experiment was never designed to create superbabies, but the children do thrive. The nature/nurture problem is of course never solved as the little creatures, though all raised the same, insist on demonstrating what can only be called innate characteristics.
And ALL the kids, for different and fascinating reasons, fail the Stanford marshmallow test.
The parents are encouraged and subsidized to improve themselves. Izzy goes to study art and, as in “The Family Fang,” there is some smart talk about what art is. Mr. Fang only admitted surprising, spontaneous events to the category of art. Izzy can roast a perfect pig. Art?
One fellow throws and glazes a beautiful pot, then, on camera, smashes it to pieces and glues it back together. That’s his art.
I asked Kevin Wilson about his own definition of art and it couldn’t be wider. “If the creator says it’s art, then it’s art to me,” he said. It isn’t required, though, that one admire the work, just recognize it as art.
Brenda Acklan, the project’s godmother, is pleased with the progress at the IFP: “It’s a perfect little world that you’ve got here,” she tells Dr. Grind.
Well, as readers know, the meaning of Utopia is “no place.” Perfection resides only in Plato’s world of Ideal Forms and is unsustainable in our dimension of reality. This paradise will develop flaws from within and face threats from without.
Some parents cheat a little bit for their own offspring; adults will fall in love where they shouldn’t; personalities rub each other the WRONG way.
But on balance the project, like the novel itself, is a success with a happy ending.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.