I really enjoy books and movies that are structured like Jean Thompson's sixth novel, THE HUMANITY PROJECT. It begins with short, vivid, seemingly disconnected stories featuring wildly different characters and even set in different parts of the country, from California to Ohio. Only as you keep reading, however, do you start to discern the points of intersection for these stories and characters, whose lives all form part of a larger pattern (even if they don't see it yet). Reading a book or watching a film like this feels like putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle. It's a lot of fun, even as (in the case of Thompson's novel) it also makes you think pretty seriously.
"THE HUMANITY PROJECT doesn't offer easy answers or tidy endings, for the most part --- but neither do our messy lives, Thompson seems to suggest."
I don't want to ruin this game for anyone else, so perhaps it's best just to describe some of these opening scenes and stories instead of giving away the eventual connections between and among them. A single dad answers a Craigslist personals ad and finds himself both repelled by and strangely attracted to the woman he meets as a result. A misfit girl at odds with her more popular stepsister finds herself in the crosshairs of a school shooting. A teenage boy who may or may not have been hired to do yard work for a wealthy couple becomes the only witness to the homeowner's sudden death. A kind nurse becomes the trustee of an eccentric widow's fortune, with the only guidance being that she start a foundation to better humanity.
These vivid pieces of narration are interspersed with italicized text that seems to pull back from the action and make the argument that what we're reading --- all these stories of individual lives --- is part of something far more universal: "We could start over," notes the opening section, after detailing how far humans have fallen. "We would be calmer, wiser, braver. We would face down our fears. We would do a better job of loving. We would be more worthy of love."
This idea of love as a transformative and redemptive force runs throughout THE HUMANITY PROJECT and becomes particularly relevant as it relates to the foundation's stated intentions, which become more and more complicated as the fund's organizer struggles to reconcile good intentions with messy realities. In the meantime, the vast array of damaged people who populate the pages of Thompson's novel are trying to find their own path toward betterment. More often than not, this road to redemption and reconciliation comes through relationships --- no matter how imperfect --- with other people.
THE HUMANITY PROJECT doesn't offer easy answers or tidy endings, for the most part --- but neither do our messy lives, Thompson seems to suggest. It would be nice if throwing money at problems and at people could materially improve the overall lot of humankind, but in the end, for better or for worse, we're reliant on ourselves --- and on each other.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 26, 2013
The Humanity Project