Ruth Ozeki doesn’t mince words: “It starts with the earth. How can it not?” These are the bold and self-assured first lines one might expect from a book with as expansive a title as All Over Creation. Indeed, careening all over creation is what this author’s second novel does best, as it attempts to wrap its 420 pages around too many themes and characters and plot lines to count. While an enjoyable and even informative read for anyone with an interest in genetically modified foods or family dramas set on Idaho potato farms, this book is hardly a must-read for those who like their fiction carefully constructed and intelligently restrained. Ozeki’s entire novel proves to be just as sprawling and overstated as those opening lines.
For the first hundred pages, Ozeki handles her sprawl well. She rotates narrative duty among her different characters, and in this chopped-up way we are thrown bits of the vast plot and left to piece it all together ourselves.
We first meet Yumi Fuller, now a 30-something single mother, but once a headstrong 14-year-old who ran away from her parent’s potato farm in Liberty Falls, Idaho when a torrid love affair with her young history teacher went sour. We meet Cass Quinn, Yumi’s childhood best friend, now married, farming the land she grew up on, and trying her best to take care of Yumi’s aging parents, Lloyd and Momoko, who haven’t seen or talked to their daughter in 25 years. We meet Elliot, Yumi’s former teacher/lover, now working for a slimy PR firm in Washington, D.C. And we meet the Seeds of Resistance, a group of young eco-activists at war with corporate hegemony and genetically engineered food, traveling and spreading their message in a bio-fueled Winnebago.
The best part of the novel lies in these opening chapters, as the characters unveil the story in their own words. Ozeki skillfully doles out these tidbits, teasing us with the possibilities. We learn that Cass has resolved to find Yumi and bring her home to her dying parents. We find out that the Seeds have chosen Liberty Falls to stage their next protest against NuLifes, a genetically engineered potato being planted on most of the farms in the area. We discover that even Elliot is going to return to the small Idaho town where he once taught history, on assignment to handle public relations for Cynaco, the corporation that developed NuLifes. The separate stories gear up to collide, with Liberty Falls as their focal point, but the anticipated crash and boom of the three-way collision falls short. While this sweeping story is extreme enough to work, the author’s to blame that it doesn’t.
By the time all of her characters are under one Idaho sky, Ozeki has already lost the tight web of her story. Instead of gathering up the subplots in Liberty Falls, letting the characters interact and the story lines connect in a complex arrangement, the author spins off in too many directions. She bulks up some of her story lines to the point of redundancy, while neglecting others until they are too transparently thin to hold our interest. The alternation of the narrative voices slows, and soon we’re left listening to Yumi and Cass trade perspectives. In fact, Yumi’s story spins at the center of the novel, but nearly everything about her complicated character remains disappointingly hazy. Her reunion and reconciliation with her parents is erratically addressed, she too-suddenly and insignificantly hooks back up with Elliot, her kids come in and out of focus, and we never get an explanation for how a sassy and confident 14-year-old turns into an incompetent and high-strung woman. For a character whose point of view monopolizes more pages than any of the others, it seems a shame that we understand her as little as we do.
Despite her impatience for character development, our intrepid author marches on, spinning layers onto the already complicated web of plots, and remembering only occasionally to address themes she introduced chapters before. The result is an excess of theme and style, as Ozeki tries her hand at satire, drama and tragedy aimed at topics big and small. Familial bonds, political ideals, concepts of home and place and right and wrong all make appearances. It’s this passion for dabbling that quickly whirls the novel out of control, but also lends it an air of urgency and passion. Ozeki may not always stay on course, but at least she takes us on an exciting ride.
No story line sums up that dichotomy as sufficiently as that of the Seeds. This group of revolutionaries receives a lion’s share of Ozeki’s finest and most frustrating attentions. The author’s depiction of Lilith, the head female of the posse, who manages to be at once a warm earth mamma and an uptight control freak, teems with the contradictions that make her human and true-to-life. But Ozeki’s portrayals are often inconsistent, and the Seeds come off as preachy cardboard eco-activist cutouts as often as they are depicted as real and complex. I don’t begrudge Ozeki her political agenda, but only hasten to point out that agendas work best when supported by developed characters, tight plots and compelling writing.
But it’s the thrill of so many things going on at once, and with such force, that in the end makes this book worth picking up. Don’t read it for its structure and scaffolding. Read All Over Creation for its messy interiors, and for the sprawling energy of an author with an awful lot to say.