As you may know, I’m a fan of the film, Krippendorf’s Tribe. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that I’m an apologist for it. I wrote about it recently, Why So Down on Krippendorf’s Tribe? It’s a silly and sweet film. But you can see the level of my enthusiasm when I wrote, “But the issue at hand is not whether Krippendorf’s Tribe is a great film. The question is whether the film works on its own terms. And I think it does, although not spectacularly.” So I was very interested to read Frank Parkin novel Krippendorf’s Tribe, that the film was based upon. They really aren’t very much alike.
Having now read the novel, I feel like the woodcutter at the beginning of Rashomon, “I don’t understand. I just don’t understand.” It is extremely funny but also disturbing. I mean, really: disturbing. It is like a combination of A Confederacy of Dunces and Lord of Flies, but with more cynicism about human nature.
Most novels tell you a great deal about themselves in their first sentences. Krippendorf’s Tribe is no exception. Consider:
The operative word there is “reasonably.”
James Krippendorf is an unemployed anthropologist. So he is stuck managing the house and the children, while his alpha wife Veronica is a documentary filmmaker who spends most of the novel in various far off locales filming this or that tragedy. At some point before the novel starts, Krippendorf has decided that it isn’t necessary to actually do fieldwork. He can make contributions to anthropology by observing his own family and making up the Shelmikedmu tribe of Amazonia. This little con has been going on for a while, since he is already two years overdue in producing his report for a research grant, “The Hegemony of Myth: Social and Symbolic Reproduction among the Shelmikedmu.”
Reminders don’t seem to motivate him. But money does. He is contacted by the new editor of the British Journal of Structural Anthropology. He has decided to “give the old Journal a bit of a face-lift.” It is being renamed, Exotica, and he is wondering if Krippendorf could give him “two thousand words on clitorectomy.” Before long, there really are no words and the whole thing devolves into a girly magazine. Although Krippendorf is very serious about his work, he realizes he has to get photos of naked young women so he goes about seducing and then photographing young ethnic women.
What’s curious about all of this is that to Krippendorf, this is all work he’d rather not be doing. One of the girls complains that if he won’t have sex with her, she won’t do the photographs anymore. Now if this all sounds like it is over the top and kind of unpleasant, I have news for you. First: it is very funny. Second: this is the first half of the novel and is not even close to what is actually disturbing. In the second half of the novel, Krippendorf turns his household into the Shelmikedmu, resulting in the practice of (at first) unintended cannibalism and Shelley, Krippendorf’s barely post-pubescent daughter, becoming pregnant due to her brother (the Shelmikedmu practice incest).
I did not find the second half of the novel very enjoyable. But it continues with the same breezy satirical style, that still manages to be funny. And it is amazing how things that went before become normalized. When the sister and brother appeared to start their sexual relationship, I thought back fondly to the part of the novel when they were just eating the accidentally killed housekeeper.
As satire goes, I have to return to my original comment, “I don’t understand.” Krippendorf’s Tribe doesn’t seem satire so much as a pure exercise in cynicism. It isn’t that Krippendorf hates everyone. But it is hard to resist the conclusion that Parkin does. In particular, the novel is misogynistic. There are only three older women in the novel, all of which are commanding and abusive. The three younger women might as well be prostitutes, but without as much self-respect. And then there is Shelley who is treated to Krippendorf’s experiment, which reminds me of a non-scatological The Human Centipede.
Thematically, the novel seems to put our species in a double bind. We can either be happily detached emotionally, like Krippendorf. Or we can be angry and engaged like Veronica. Consider the following very amusing scene from the fun half of the book that demonstrates this choice:
Krippendorf shut the road atlas. “Right,” he said. “A quiz. There will be a prize for the contestant who has accumulated the greatest number of points by the time we have seen our third road accident starting from now.” He took a pound note from his wallet and held it up for the children to see. The screaming and fighting in the back quickly subsided and he waited until Edmund was able to retrieve his leg before commencing.
“First question, for five points: name any tribe in sub-Saharan Africa whose kinship system is based on the principle of matrilateral cross-cousin marriage.”
The children shrieked in protest.
“Second question, for seven points,” Krippendorf said above the din. “In not more than twenty-five words, and not repeating any word save for the definite and indefinite articles, explain the theory of surplus value.”
A collective howl of rage rose from the back seat. “Ask us something we know about,” Mickey yelled. “Like they do on Adolesent Brain of Britain.”
Krippendorf thought for a while. “Very well, a Walt Disney question. Name any sixty of the One Hundred and One Dalmatians.”
Most of the book is like that, and although the same “disengaged sarcastic dad” routine gets a little old toward the end, it works well enough. I could have kept laughing through the cannibalism. It disturbed me, but I pushed through it, hoping for the best. But the incest was just too much for me. And if this means that I’m just bourgeois and the whole point of the book was to show the limits of my thinking, that’s fine. I already knew that, but it’s fine. The problem is, I don’t think that’s what the book is about. I just don’t understand. And I fear that Frank Parkin didn’t either.