Oh dear. Sometimes when nonfiction writers try their hand at writing fiction, the result is surprising and enjoyable.
Anthill is an example of when it is not. Pulitzer Prize-winner E.O. Wilson, author of Ants and On Human Nature as well as numerous other books on natural history, biodiversity and something he calls “sociobiology”, offers as his debut novel the story of Raphael Cody, better known as Raff. Raff is a young lad growing up in rural Alabama in the ‘70s, who spends his days fleeing from his bickering parents by hiking around the woods, dodging snakes, experimenting with (and being repulsed by) hunting, and teaching himself about the wilderness.
So far, so good. However,Wilson makes an amateur novelist’s mistake: he is afraid to leave anything out. His simple narrative soon becomes cluttered with pages upon pages of irrelevant backstory about Raff’s parents and their extended clans, the ancestral household of his mother’s side of the family, and on and on:
The Semmes’ ancestral home was set on a full acre in the heart of old Mobile and situated on the Azalea Trail just off Old Shell Road… It even had a name of its own, Marybelle, after the first owner’s wife, who died during a yellow fever epidemic in the 1840s. The builder was Richard Stoughton, a furniture manufacturer who had come down from Providence with his family and set up a thriving business.
None of this matters to the story—not Richard Stoughton, not his dead wife or the epidemic or the house they built. None of them will be mentioned again. There are pages upon pages of this, and it is excruciatingly dull. Worse, it’s irrelevant: it is bad enough that we must wade through the house’s hundred-year history, but deadly that that history is entirely unconnected to subsequent events in the book.
Ditto for Aunt Jessica. After our initial meeting, she never appears again in the story. Yet the author devotes an entire 12-page chapter to her, for no apparent reason.
Jessica was not, as it turned out, Marcia’s aunt. That title was traditionally bestowed on any woman, white or black, who was a close and beloved friend. Nonetheless, Jessica was at least a Semmes, and certainly Marcia’s distant cousin at some unknown degree of remove. Marcia had been introduced to her when a little child by her father, and she grew up recognizing her as the official genealogist of the Mobile Semmes clan.
Again, if you think any of this has bearing on the story, you’re wrong.
This happens frequently. Cousin Junior is an important figure in chapter one who subsequently disappears; JoLane Simpson shows up for a chapter as a left-wing college activist, then disappears. Frequently, characters show up merely to illustrate a point of debate concerning conservation or development or religion.
Wayne LeBow is the most transparent example of this, a belligerent fundamentalist preacher with an ax to grind and an environmental philosophy in direct opposition to Raff’s. These are not characters; they are stand-ins for this or that point of view—pro-development, anti-development, militant conservationist, middle of the road realist. They are defined purely by the need to illustrate a point, and are as fleshed out as characters from a video game.
Flabby writing abounds. Late in the book, when Raff has secures a job at a law firm, we are told, “His work continued to prove mostly routine, and he began to squeeze out longer stretches of leisure time.” There is so little specific information in this sentence that it’s a miracle anyone bothered to write it. Elsewhere we are told of his Boy Scout leadership: “He counseled boys when they needed it.” No further details of said counseling are forthcoming. Why even bring it up?
Fortunately, Wilson throws a lifeline halfway through, in the form of an 75-page chapter entitled “The Anthill Chronicles”. This is presented as Raff’s undergraduate thesis, but is really an opportunity for the author to write about his genuine passion, insects. The difference couldn’t be more startling. As the rise and fall of particular ant colonies are described, along with a genuinely disturbing supercolony of genetically mutated ants, vagueness is replaced with specificity and torpor with energy. It’s only an interlude in the book, but a welcome one nonetheless.
I don’t doubt for a moment that Wilson is a brilliant man, a dedicated scientist, and a terrific guy to go romping through the woods with. He’s interested in many of the same things that I’m interested in—history, the natural world, the pernicious effects of overdevelopment, the troubling ascent of religious fundamentalism of all stripes. He is to be commended for writing a different kind of book to reach a different kind of audience. I take no pleasure in enumerating its shortcomings, but novel writing is a different beast from nonfiction, and in this arena, the Pulitzer-winner needs to apply as much discipline and rigor as he no doubt applies to his science.