This quiet, slim novel is painfully well written and also, I think, a testament to how, as modern readers, our brains are being altered by technology. In 2008 The Atlantic published an article called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” that explored the cognitive effects the Internet has on our brains. One of the article’s arguments is that the wired-in network world makes us less contemplative.
On the other hand, neuroscientists more recently are demonstrating on the beneficial effects of reading fiction. As the NY Times reported, brain scans that measure what happens when we read “a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between character” suggest that reading literary fiction stimulates the brain and affects how we behave.
Enter Farmer. The entire project of this novel seems to be contemplation. Set in rural Michigan in the 1950s, the novel is about a 43-year-old farmer and schoolteacher named Joseph who has a bum leg and stands at a crossroads: His mother is dying, his school is closing, and everyone is urging him to marry his long-time girlfriend. He also has struck up a relationship with a 17-year-old student, which complicates things.
Despite the drama of the above synopsis, most of the novel’s prose is dedicated to quiet meditation and careful observations of the world on the farm. The first chapter opens, “Ground ivy, glecoma hedereceae, or called gill-over-the-ground: it spread from the pump shed attached to the kitchen out to the barnyard where it disappeared under cow and horse hooves and the frenetic scratching of chickens.”
Later in that same chapter, Joseph’s sisters grow nostalgic while looking at old photos. Joseph’s attitude is that the “dead were irresistible, another planet so near but invisible to earth, whose gravity turned and colored the steps of the living.” The novel is filled with precise descriptions and poignant observations.
Joseph’s story is engaging and moving, and Farmer is reminiscent of other contemplative novels in which not much happens, in particular John Gardner’s Nickel Mountain, Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.
Robinson’s fiction has won numerous prizes, so can’t argue readers don’t appreciate quiet fiction any longer, but when you read the newspaper headlines or consider the idle chatter on Facebook and Twitter, it does make you wonder what kind of a future there is for writers like Jim Harrison, whose interest seems to lie in looking at the world, describing what he sees and considering what it means.
Futurists such as Ray Kurzweil predict a looming technological singularity, where humans and machines will merge into god-like superhumans with direct mind-to-network access. Words like “contemplation” and “meditation” seem quaint when you consider what life will be like with a metaphorical Google-chip embedded in our brains, but for now, Farmer is a pleasant reminder of what serious fiction is capable of.