I knew the struggles, the brutality of oppression, the love that held us together. I was the real thing, the authentic article. A genuine crip writer, writing about crips.
— Susan Nussbaum, “In Her Words”
THE RELEVANCE OF THE PHRASE “socially engaged fiction” is up for debate. Most novelists are likely to claim their part in a larger real-world conversation about something. But stories that illuminate the darkened corners of our world, corners whose inhabitants are neither encouraged to become storytellers nor given a literary platform, play a special role in our culture. That is, according to the Bellwether Prize, founded and endowed in 2000 by author Barbara Kingsolver (see under: socially engaged fiction). Awarded only once every two years, this prize honors novels and short story collections that “speak to a social issue […] and tell the story in such a way that the agenda is not front and center but woven into the characters’ lives” (in the words of Algonquin Senior Editor Kathy Pories). The newest award winner is Good Kings Bad Kings, Susan Nussbaum’s first novel, and it’s a knockout. A productive playwright, Nussbaum possesses an astonishing ear for idiosyncratic voices, and a talent for creating characters who appear in full bloom within a few sentences. This is an easy book to love and admire — but more than that, it’s a book that has the potential to change forever the conversation we are (or are not) having about what it means to be “disabled.”
The novel’s cast consists of the residents and staff of a state-run nursing facility for adolescent youth that Nussbaum has named the ILLC (Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center). One of the book’s funniest and fiercest narrators refers to it as the “Illinois Learning something something,” and right away we can’t help discovering that in this story, naming things is going to be simultaneously ambiguous and razor-sharp. Attitude is everything, as these characters demonstrate again and again. Listen to Yessenia Lopez introduce herself:
Before they stuck my butt in this place I went to Herbert Hoover High School in Chicago, Illinois. I went there on account of I am physically challenged, and they send the people which have challenges to Hoover. They send people with physical challenges, but also retarded challenges, people been in accidents like brain accidents, or they’re blind or what have you. I do not know why they send us all to the same place but that’s the way it’s always been and that’s the way it looks like it will always be because I am in tenth grade and I been in cripple this or cripple that my whole sweet succulent Puerto Rican life.
Not unlike the reclamation of the term “queer,” the term “crip” is being employed with purposeful conviction here, as Nussbaum herself has explained in the aforementioned essay: “My transformation from shamed victim to furiously rebellious crip (we took back the word that had oppressed us and used it in our own proud new vocabulary of defiance) was the foundation of my new identity. Still is.” The character of Joanne Madsen, who might be a stand-in for the novelist herself, says in a casual understatement: “Let me say only that the world, Earth, is not a hospitable place for crips.”
Hit by the No. 8 Halsted bus “a long time ago,” and paid by the Chicago Transit Authority “generously to apologize for hitting me,” Joanne has taken a desk job at the ILLC. “The biggest difference between the kids and me,” she says, “is that I’m a whole lot luckier. I mean, I just work here.” In order to get from her home on the North Side to her South Side workplace, Joanne has to ride the No. 8 Halsted. “So here I am. The air is humid with irony.”
Joanne’s deadpan humor delivers the novel’s most overtly political commentary, providing much-needed consciousness-raising details for the general public. “It’s well known in crip circles that the best place for a crip to get a job is a place that’s swarming with other crips. So I applied, emphasizing my computer skills, which are pretty good, and how important it is for disabled youth to see disabled adults in the workplace. Places like this love the idea of role models.”
Nussbaum’s comedic language can be quietly sly here too. Ricky Hernandez, whose duties involve being both the ILLC’s bus driver and its in-house cop, reluctantly places “out of line” kids in the “time-out room,” but in following his own moral code, he refuses to follow any of the rules that degrade or neglect his charges. Without a trace of sarcasm, he describes one of the young residents as having “that thing that the veterans get. Post-dramatic stress.” While this is a line that could have been lost if delivered on stage, in print it’s not only clever, it’s complicated. Each of the juveniles trapped in this institution has already been through more than enough “drama” to last a lifetime.
It is through the character of Michelle Volkmann, the young woman who “recruits” potential residents for the ILLC, that Nussbaum shows how “the System” operates at its worst. Michelle tosses around the phrase “lifestyle alternatives” without any awareness of its absurd inappropriateness. Paradoxically, she is also the character who changes the most: progressing from a naively complicit employee to someone who sees the perpetrators as they truly are. For much of the novel, her self-interests perfectly coincide with those of her greed-driven employer. Little by little, however, Michelle’s exposure to inhumanity and corruption forces her eyes open. She jots down the following exchange at an emergency board meeting:
“The PR guy says, ‘How many deaths are reasonable? Is there a number?’
Mr. Anderson says, “However many of them have died. That’s the number.”
Although she only imagines giving a copy of these minutes “to some reporter,” the instinct signifies her incipient awakening to the ideal of transparency and justice.
Despite references to nonprofit organizations and lawyers specializing in defending the rights of the disabled, Nussbaum portrays the residents themselves as the activists and heroes. Marginalized and invisible as they are, the “crips” of the ILLC realize that their hope for dignity and liberation can’t depend on the help of outsiders, and unless they refuse to be defined by anyone else’s labels, they are bound to lose. After two brutal and preventable tragedies, a simple, authentic, life-changing revolution is led by the indomitable Yessenia, parking her wheelchair outside the ILLC and holding up her hand-lettered sign: “THIS PLACE ABUSE AND KILL CHILDREN.”
I must admit how tempting it is to quote at length from all of the unforgettable voices in this book: Teddy Dobbs, whose trademark is a daily suit and tie; his girlfriend, Mia Oviedo, whose victimization is almost unbearable; Jimmie Kendrick, the part-time aide whose singing becomes a kind of rescue. In each case, the message half-hidden among the words depicts a battlefield: fear and selfishness on one side, fearlessness and compassion on the other. In the end, the courage of the powerless is stronger than the power of the cowards.
“Being trapped in one kind of institution or another is the fate of many of us,” Nussbaum has written. “The characters in my book are dealing with a place that’s not one of the worst, but abuse and neglect are rampant nonetheless. Some of them are sucked under by the riptide of repression, some of them bob to the surface against all odds, and maybe one or two find a way to fly away.”
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.
— Franz Kafka
The frozen sea is inside and all around us. Not just in daily crime reports and institutionalized injustice but in the pervasiveness of willful ignorance, selective attention, and maintenance of the comfortable status quo. At a time when books might be on the verge of becoming obsolete altogether, it seems reasonable to expect more, not less, from what they offer. In Good Kings Bad Kings, we have the rare opportunity to be awakened by hearing the truth delivered with beauty alongside agony, despair interwoven with possibility. Words ought to help change the world, and “socially engaged fiction” can be an aspiration rather than an exception.
When Susan Nussbaum went from being an actor to becoming a playwright, the switch was at least partly motivated by the fact that after an accident left her in a wheelchair, she literally had no access to most theaters. Cited by Utne Reader in 2008 as one of “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World” for her work with girls with disabilities, this remarkable novelist is now wielding one hell of an axe. Watch your head — and your heart.