Susan Neville wrote this book “because one morning I realized I didn’t know the difference between the diesel engine of the bus that takes my children to school each morning and the gasoline engine inside my car. … I didn’t know who made the steel for my car or who designed my mother’s coffin. Because I wanted to know how these things were manufactured, and by whom, and how well, and what they meant, I’ve spent the past two years walking through factories.”
And since she is a writer—therefore a self-reflexive fabricator herself—trained in nothing but making meaning, Neville goes to the veneer factory, for example, expecting to find irony “fishing for symbols.” Of course, there is a reversal of fortunes where she comes to see the history and art behind veneer, finally understanding that that veneer is actually an amplification of beauty rather than a chintzy substitution for real wood.
And throughout the various essays, her descriptions are evocative. In the veneer factory she describes how “the pale logs are loaded onto a machine that runs on rails … it’s like looking down onto subway tracks… only this time it’s a log that rushes towards you on the tracks, with red laser beams pointing out where the log is to be cut and a sawyer sitting in a room above you … Then there’s the horrible sound of the blade squaring the log. It all happens so quickly, with so much sound and violence, and you’re standing right on the edge and right below you is this enormous blade and the wood and the tracks and you think of Anna Karenina and subway suicides and you just want out of there.”
The references to Tolstoy in the veneer factory and West Side Story in the globe factory confirm that while this book promises “the spinning lathes and screaming saws of industry,” it is a highbrow take on the blue collar production and fabrication trades, written for other like-minded folk who have vague feelings of guilt about their lack of knowledge of practical matters.
Neville tours a tobacco auction, a glass manufacturing plant, factories that make ketchup, cookies and Humvee’s, all the while interpreting the meaning of the processes that produce the products that are essential to our consumerism. And what better place to size up the white underbelly of American consumption than the Midwest. Neville, whose dust jacket bio identifies her to be a lifelong resident of Indianapolis, revels in the history of the Midwest largely because the history of the Midwest is essentially the story of agriculture and manufacturing. And it’s fascinating too. For example, Neville argues that “The Midwest at the beginning of the twentieth century was like Silicon Valley in the 1980s” but instead of microchips they were producing engines and trucks and racecars.
Then taking something as ubiquitous and droll as grain elevators, Neville says, “Industrial architecture is, I’ll admit, an acquired taste. And I’ve acquired it.” Which leads to a disquisition on the influence of American grain elevators on the Bauhaus aesthetic movement of Weimar Germany. In reflecting about silos, Neville asks: “How do you build something beautiful? The American answer seemed to be that you try to be like God, to build something that works, where the flesh fits around the soul like shrink-wrap.”
Susan Neville’s book is an attempt to bridge the gap between those who have practical knowledge and those who do not, but who care enough to understand that ignorance is akin to irresponsibility. Thankfully, by the end she does not wish to reinvent herself by taking a course at the diesel institute or learning woodcraft. What she does best is identify herself as a born and bred Midwesterner, a mom with an MFA and a liberal arts vocation that has left her with little in the way of utilitarian knowledge. She admits that while she can’t program the VCR or fix most anything, she can tell the difference between metonymy and synecdoche.
Though at times Neville’s tangential spin-offs are frustrating—I wanted more technical detail about the manufacture of pistons, the burning of coke, gyroscopes, etc.—some are immensely rewarding. Her short biography on Clessie Cummins—inventor of the most famous diesel engine in America, or Eli Lilly and his role in unearthing the genesis story of the Leni Lenape tribe, or the year that Heinrich Schlieman spent in Indianapolis in 1869—are welcome wanderings that she ties neatly into her overall theme.
It helps that Neville is a skilled fabricator herself who has hit on a rich vein of meaning in the Midwestern industrial Rust Belt. And, if it is true that the rich get richer by spending more and more of their time doing and making things that are increasingly intangible, then Susan Neville’s book will surely be the first of many. If after advanced degrees, a career, and expertise in a certain field you still do not know some basic truths about your world, you may find yourself asking where does it come from and how does it work.