Michelle Wildgen’s second novel traces the residents of a sustainable-food co-op through crises, adjustments, and reinventions.
A dog floats across a lake on an unhooked dock, barking and pacing. This is the uncertain, somewhat mysterious image on which Michelle Wildgen’s second novel, But Not for Long, opens. The dog initiates a small crisis in a lakefront community in Madison, Wisconsin, as neighbors emerge into the early morning to postulate to one another where the dog came from, how it got out there, and how it can be helped. The crowd has time to run through a number of grim scenarios before the dog takes the initiative and tries to swim to shore.
Not to draw too direct a line here, but the main characters in this novel are in much the same situation as the stranded dog. Hal, Greta, and Karin are co-op housemates, each in their own way adrift, a refugee from another life. Hal returned to Wisconsin after following an ill-fated relationship to Brooklyn; Karin is trying to make a clean break from a listless childhood in a trailer park and an uninspiring stint in a Womyn’s Co-op; and Greta is attempting to start over, away from her alcoholic husband. In clear, precise prose, Wildgen tracks this process of restarting, adjusting, and refreshing.
Perhaps it’s the saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, then try, try again,” that gets closest to the heart of this novel: An interrogation of the reformulations that people engage in when failures (of relationships, careers, childhoods) make their current circumstances a bust. Elaine Rothberger, a dairy farmer who shows Karin her cheese caves (which isn’t quite as weird as it sounds) for a profile in her newspaper, seems to understand what’s going down, though she’s oblivious to most of the main characters and their turmoil: “There’s a long tradition in my family of trying totally new careers now and again. My dad alone’s been through, like, five already. I don’t even know what the next one will be… we’re all still wandering around up here, frankly pretty baffled by it all.”
Hal, Karin, and Greta fold themselves into the local, sustainable world to heal and grow. They are deeply involved in their community, giving talks at schools about the importance of local foods, bringing meals to the elderly, etc.—but everything beyond feels distant, the outside world glimpsed only in newspapers. A blackout across much of Wisconsin, which lasts throughout the novel, creates an apocalyptic sense, as if this small community might just be the last neighborhood out there. The distance is purposeful, or at least a by-product of the new family they’ve created; in a way, their distance from the outside world is in keeping with their food politics.
Michelle Wildgen has written food articles for publications including The New York Times, O, and Tin House, and food shapes parts of her first novel, You’re Not You. In But Not for Long, the characters live in food. The characters cook for each other, preparing meals that adhere to their food values. Hal works for a food-distribution warehouse nicknamed the Swiffies, that runs a Meals on Wheels-type mobile food pantry. Karin, who writes for a cheese-industry newspaper, leaves treats on the front porch for passing dogs. Greta, however, is the new addition to the house, the odd woman out. She has no real attachment to food and initially seems a poor fit; at a party, she asks the questions other people seem to avoid:
But I wonder what happens in thirty years. Does the co-op keep aging, does everyone stay? Do you end up with a house full of seventy-year-olds taking care of each other and sharing expenses then? Or do people just end up destitute once the cracks in the model show? Because I don’t see anyone, say, over forty-five in this room.
Here, Greta could be interrogating the state of her own marriage, in which the cracks have certainly shown. She and her husband, Will, have not made it to forty-five, and it certainly doesn’t seem they will ever be, “seventy-year-olds taking care of each other.” Will serves as a flesh-and-blood embodiment of what ails these characters, and the novel’s last chapter, told from his perspective, is one of the most immediate passages of the book. It depicts a man beginning to claw himself out of addiction, wandering the streets during the blackout to find ice, trying to contribute just a little to Greta’s new life. His story serves as a sort of marginal hope that their shared project of reinvention can be successful.
You’re Not You had a more obvious throughline than Wildgen’s new book: the in-house care of a woman with ALS binding the disparate emotional strands of the story together from the beginning. The spine of But Not for Long is not, at first, so distinct, with more characters moving in more directions. Over time though, we begin to understand where these people came from, how they got out there, and how they may be helped. It’s a more diffuse experience than the earlier book, but possibly a more affecting one.