Mobility: A Novel
- By Lydia Kiesling
- Crooked Media Reads
- 368 pp.
- Reviewed by Samantha Neugebauer
- September 8, 2023
Big Oil may have set our planet on fire, but we all fuel the flames.
Lydia Kiesling’s second novel, Mobility, is a propulsive, decades-spanning story about complicity, priorities, and the global oil industry. It opens in the late 1990s in Azerbaijan, where expat American Bunny, our 15-year-old protagonist, lives thanks to her father’s diplomatic position. Droves of magnates and other international players have descended on post-Soviet Baku to manipulate and control pipeline access.
Meanwhile, Bunny is listless, spoiled, and mostly incurious about the history-altering events surrounding her. She’s preoccupied with her weight, body hair, magazines, and male attention. Consequently, these first chapters bear many markers of a classic bildungsroman; the author lulls the reader into anticipating the life lessons that will transform Bunny into a more socially and emotionally mature adult.
Kiesling, however, has more sinister intentions for Bunny. Constructed as a mirror of and a repository for the worst characteristics of late-20th-century and early-aughts American culture, Bunny grows into her solipsism rather than out of it. It’s unusual — and ambitious of the author — to nail such an epic tale on the back of someone as immutable, frequently inarticulate, and self-involved as Bunny. Yet, despite her flaws, she is one of the most authentic, convincing characters in recent American literature.
Much of the novel’s magic is due to its extraordinary pacing. After a luxuriant opening section, the story moves forward at breakneck speed. Nearly every chapter jumps an entire year, leaving little room for the excessive navel-gazing that hobbles swaths of contemporary fiction (and life). Kiesling bestows agency upon Bunny time and again. The young woman enjoys a life not unlike Forrest Gump’s; repeatedly, she finds herself in the right place at the right time, witnessing the globe’s movers and shakers deciding the earth’s fate by cultivating and controlling humans’ energy dependence. Bunny becomes a kind of player herself when she chooses to climb the ladder of a family-run oil and gas company.
Kiesling and her editors clearly trust that the public still has an appetite for hefty, sometimes messy novels with large casts of diverse characters moving through the real world. In that regard, Mobility is for readers who yearn for E.M. Forster-esque literary fiction anchored in the here and now.
The novel’s backbone, in fact, is its expansive cast of secondary characters, each of whom brings something different to the story and none of whom serves as a mere foil or caricature. Mobility often falls into a Cuskian rhythm in which Bunny serves as an interlocutor between the reader and these dynamic characters. There’s Charlie, the attractive, louche journalist who first explains the global oil industry to Bunny. There’s Ted, Bunny’s father, who fails his family in several ways but gives up his career in protest of America’s drone policy. There are Phil and Frank, Bunny’s bosses, who teach her to cultivate cognitive dissonance (and her brother, John, who challenges that dissonance). And there are Bunny’s upstairs neighbors, the Qadirovs, who offer insight into what life is like for everyday, not-involved-in-Big-Oil Azerbaijanis.
Kiesling’s extensive research is most evident through the many conversations featuring these various characters. While historical facts are occasionally wedged awkwardly into the dialogue, it’s forgivable because the information being imparted is important and interesting.
Fundamentally, Mobility is a work of climate fiction, and its final chapter paints a bleak near-future picture of what’s to come if middle-management all-stars like Bunny continue to prioritize their material comfort and career ambitions over making unpopular though morally right choices. While our leaders (along with the Phils and Franks of the world) wield the most power, Kiesling suggests that shills like Bunny also make the looming — or, rather, existing — environmental catastrophe possible.
Embedded within the book’s searing critique of capitalism and the geopolitics of fossil fuels is an equally sharp commentary on identity politics. One way Bunny lives with her choices, for example, is by tepidly insisting the oil industry empowers women. (She comes to regard herself as representing “diversity” in the male-dominated “energy space.”) Later in life, it’s part of her job to perpetuate this myth. She begins going by the more adult name of Elizabeth, speaks at global women’s conferences, and even organizes a Women’s Energy Professionals book club, whose selections include Condoleezza Rice’s memoir and the real-life Roberts vs. Texaco: A True Story of Race and Corporate America.
Bunny had been a cog in the machine all her life, but her decision to serve as a functionary in the diversity-equity-inclusion realm feels especially chilling. “Sometimes,” Kiesling writes near the novel’s end, “Elizabeth marveled at how simultaneously irrelevant and critical the shaping of the narrative was to reality. Decarbonization was more important than ever…[Yet]…When it was her turn with the mic, Elizabeth looked out at the audience of professionals who were there to collectively perform their sense of urgency…She looked at the women arrayed before her…”
And she followed the script.
Samantha Neugebauer is a research assistant at Georgetown University and a senior editor for Painted Bride Quarterly.