Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 949

When it was first published in 1985, Always Coming Home was heralded as a brilliant new work by one of Amenca's favorite authors. There were the usual glowing reviews in Newsweek and The New York Times Book Review and the scholarly reviews in journals like Mythlore and The Hudson Review. All of the early reviews and articles said much the same thing: they praised the novel, but also commented on its strange narrative structure and length. Peter Prescott, writing in Newsweek, comments that the novel is too long and the situations cannot bear much examination but is well worth the reader's patience as an example of Le Guin's unique style. New York Times Book Review contributor Samuel Delany calls the book "a slow, rich read," advising the reader to savor Le Guin's prose since the storyline itself is weak and not action-filled. Dick Allen, who focuses, as most early reviewers did, on the Utopian aspects of Stone Telling's narrative in The Hudson Review, waxes poetic about Le Guin's style and command of prose but worries that the narrative structure will intimidate readers unused to Le Guin's style and purpose.

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The critical complaints over narrative technique and length soon gave over to genuine praise for a novel that is truly original in style and scope. Critics as diverse as Lillian Heldreth, Bernard Selinger, Lee Cullen Khanna, and Peter Fitting all have hailed Always Coming Home as a brilliant piece of work that has changed the genre of Utopian literature forever. These critics have judged the novel as Le Guin's masterpiece in terms of its anti-war stance, its innovation in narrative technique, and its impact on Utopian fiction.

The idea of war and technological progress being harmful to the human race is not new, but Le Guin reaches new heights according to Heldreth and J. R. Wytenbroek. In her essay, "To Defend or to Correct: Patterns of Culture in Always Coming Home" Heldreth examines Le Guin's use of language as a map to understanding the miscommunications between people. These miscommunications often lead to war or violence in contemporary society, so Le Guin navigates these differences and shows how personal stubbornness and blindness lead to misery and pain. Le Guin's use of a people who reject war and yet still win, occupies the majority of Wytenbroek's essay "Always Coming Home- Pacifism and Anarchy in Le Guin's Latest Utopia." Here, Wytenbroek challenges contemporary readings of both Le Guin's pacifism and anarchy to suggest that she insists on both being present in a successful Utopia. However, Le Guin plays with the idea of the Kesh being an Utopian society by having both Pandora and one of her informants agree that the Kesh are not Utopians. Yet everything used to describe the Na Valley is standard Utopian fare. Le Guin creates a society that refuses to fight the Condors, but will do so if necessary. The warlike pacifism of the Kesh undercuts both the contemporary anti-violence campaigns in American culture and the wars that are standard science fiction narrative tools.

The narrative technique of Always Coming Home has also become one of the most lauded aspects of the novel. While most critics find themselves focusing on Stone Telling's narrative, all of them insist on mentioning the broken structure and interjected materials. Although one interesting fact of the novel is that it cannot be read like a normal novel, most of the critics that explore the use of narrative technique focus on the "normal" aspects of Stone Telling's narrative. Critics like Carol Franko and Bernard Selinger both commended Le Guin's novel as brilliant, complicated, and original in terms of technique, but both avoid the un-narrative parts of the novel. The poems, short stories, recipes, and glossary get very little attention in the critical literature, while Stone Telling's narrative becomes the focus. The original narrative technique gets lost in the search for the familiar.

By far the most important critical aspect of Le Guin's novel has been its impact on Utopian fiction. According to both Lee Cullen Khanna and Peter Fitting, Always Coming Home marked a departure for both Le Guin and for feminist Utopian fiction. During the 1970s and early 1980s, feminist Utopian fiction became more and more depressing and defeatist. Novels like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue (1984) characterized this pessimistic view of the future. Khanna and Fitting both saw Le Guin's fiction as speaking to the times. America was mired in the arms race, the Cold War and the introduction of the home computer, video cassette recorders (VCRs), microwave ovens, and cordless phones were finding their way into the American marketplace. However, the threat of nuclear war was real, as then President Ronald Reagan called the U.S.S.R. the "evil empire" and asked Congress for the funds to out-produce them in weapons of mass destruction. In this world, where every other Utopian author was writing works of failure and pessimism, Le Guin countered with Always Coming Home, what Fitting calls a turning point. Le Guin's novel describes a people who have rejected both war and technology and are thriving in a valley full of toxic waste and piles of radioactive garbage. Khanna and Fitting suggest, in their different essays, that Le Guin wanted to explore the possibilities of winning, of hope, of goodness within the human animal. She changed the face of Utopian fiction and gave it life again.

Although it received a warm welcome when it was first published, many critics faulted the length and narrative technique of Always Coming Home. This criticism, however, did not hinder other critics from examining Le Guin's novel and ranking it among the best pieces of fiction produced in the 1980s.

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