In my very first semester of college, using Beth McCoy’s ENGL 111 Expulsion & Housing Crisis course as a guide, I took my first ever dive into one of the defining events of my generation: the housing market crash of 2008. Coming from a family fortunate enough to avoid the fallout of this crisis, I grew up with no knowledge of it at all. In fact, I only found out about it in my mid-teens when I caught a showing of the film adaptation of The Big Short which did little to improve my understanding as I struggled to keep up with the large cast, the fast pace, and the head-spinning financial jargon.
But at the end of the semester I am marginally older and wiser and can explain with some certainty what The Big Short was trying to communicate. The housing crisis (or the subprime mortgage crisis) was a devastating market crash which resulted from the offering of loans to unqualified applicants by predatory lenders. These loans were high-risk, meaning that those who received them had poor credit and were unlikely to pay back the lended money, but investment in these loans was encouraged and even launched a secondary market for repackaging and selling these bad loans to large Wall Street banks. This caused a “bubble”, with homeownership reaching a “saturation point” in 2006 according to Investopedia. After this point, the value of houses purchased with these bad mortgages plummeted, leaving millions indebted to their lenders, unable to pay back mortgages they should have never been able to afford and unable to sell the homes purchased with these mortgages without losing money. This triggered the worst recession seen since the Great Depression, the effects of which can still be felt over a decade later.
Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, the final text of the course, as a dystopian novel written about the effects of an impending climate crisis on the nation in future decades, may not immediately bring to mind the 2008 housing market crash. What does a science fiction novel written in 1993 about the socioeconomic and climate disasters of the distant 2020s have to do with the subprime mortgage crisis of the early 2000s? The surface similarities don’t seem to go very far, but placing Butler’s novel in the context of the crash, broadens the conversation about the 2008 crisis.
Some of the most striking similarities between the two include patterns of expulsion, lack of access to housing, and extreme wealth disparities. Both the real life event of the housing crisis and the conditions described in Parable of the Sower forced millions out of homes, leaving many homeless and entirely without basic needs. The events of Parable of the Sower, when used as a lens through which to view the housing crisis, adds another dimension to it. In my own reading, I used Butler’s novel as a peek into a nightmarish world in which the outcome of the market crash was truly dystopian, using the similarities between the novel and the crash as a way of magnifying the fallout experienced by those who lost their homes and livelihoods in 2008.
In our study of the subprime mortgage crisis, one of the aspects that I found most striking was the isolation of rich and poor from one another and the extreme wealth disparity between the two. I learned from Michael Lewis’s The Big Short and articles like Joe Nocera’s “What the Costumes Reveal” just how insular the world of investment banks and mortgage servicers is. In the firm of Stephen J. Baum (who represents multiple large mortgage lenders), the office culture revolves around the mockery and degradation of those who are faced with the loss of their homes. There is a shocking lack of empathy and so little regulation that businesses like this were allowed to cut corners everywhere, free to terrorize homeowners as they pleased. The main players in The Big Short were similarly contained, enjoying lavish Las Vegas lifestyles and protected from the consequences of their business. Lewis writes about the aftermath of the crisis: “A few wall street CEOs had been fired for their roles in the subprime mortgage catastrophe, but most remained in their jobs, and they, of all people, became important characters operating behind closed doors, trying to figure out what to do next.” (pg 260, The Big Short)
This aspect of the market crash is shared by Parable of the Sower. Large corporations like KSF have a large background presence in the novel, buying up towns like Olivar and controlling the market for water. We see stark contrasts in access to wealth and resources between racial and ethnic groups in particular, the wealthy and prosperous town of Olivar offering residency only to white families. There exists, as in the case of the 2008 crisis, an insular characteristic to the wealthiest class in Parable of the Sower, their status enabling them to ignore the veritable apocalypse unfolding before their eyes. A great example of this is our protagonist Lauren’s fascination with the locals in Los Angeles who were able to enjoy a day at the beach simply for leisure despite the chaos around them. With the funding to acquire transportation, self-defense, food, water, and housing, rich people in Parable of the Sower were able to stave off a crisis and preserve their way of life in a manner reminiscent of the way in which corporate bailouts enabled elites on Wall Street to preserve their own jobs, resources, and wealth. Both the rich in the fictitious world of The Sower and in reality occupied a bubble untouched by the realities of the poor and middle class world.
A theme of expulsion represents another strong tie between Parable of the Sower and the housing crisis. The most significant outcome of the housing market crash (as the name would have one believe) is the massive amount of foreclosures on houses across the country, causing millions to be suddenly cast out of their homes. Houses were left abandoned and demolished in the wake of the mass exodus caused by the 2008 crisis. Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, another one of our texts, offers great insight into the effects of the crisis on middle and working classes. Flournoy describes the abandoned homes and vacant lots, plummeting home values, and rising poverty and crime experienced in the months leading up to and in the months following the collapse of the housing market.
The conditions in Parable of the Sower felt eerily similar to this. As I read further into Butler’s novel, mental images of burnt-out ruins in the world of Parable of the Sower started to mirror the depictions of streets lined with demolished and abandoned homes in Detroit in The Turner House. The characters in both books even responded to challenges in similar ways: the walls of Lauren’s home Robledo reminded me of the makeshift garage constructed by the Turner family to keep out thieves and intruders and the emphasis on building community and family in order to survive. The conditions of both novels demanded their characters adopt a strong sense of survival and resourcefulness in order to support themselves and their loved ones and this echoes an important message about the hardships real-life individuals had to overcome during the crisis of 2008.
The Turner House and Parable of the Sower also share similar themes about family, addiction, and faith. The internal familial tensions in both books act as a driving force for the development of the protagonists’ actions and beliefs going forward. In Parable of the Sower, Lauren forms many of the foundational tenets of Earthseed around discrepancies between her own beliefs and those of her father. Many of the practical aspects of Earthseed, however, she adopts from the training she received from her father, emphasizing self-defense, vigilance, community, and leadership. We see a similar dynamic in The Turner House, also with the patriarch of the family. Francis Turner’s own beliefs and fears (particularly in regards to the phenomenon of the haint) played a large part in shaping Cha-Cha’s convictions and his role as the leader of his family. His refusal to acknowledge Cha-Cha’s haint, his alcoholism, and his detachment from his children all became defining points in his children’s lives, either empowering their own beliefs, or wearing them down. These family dynamics, though fictional, reflect the real-life significance of family and community, particularly in times of hardship. The people around us are a huge determining factor in laying the groundwork for the beliefs that will carry us through life and in developing our ability to deal with difficult situations. These facts take on an even greater importance when family and community are threatened, and they certainly were in the housing crisis – with this mass expulsion occurring, families and communities were broken up in large numbers, harming these bonds and causing an even greater social and psychological impact on those affected.
Diving into themes about addiction in both novels continues to broaden the discussion about the 2008 crisis. Addiction would exist with or without a housing crisis or an apocalyptic disaster, but exploring this particular issue and how it interplays with the poverty and crime resulting from events like these gives us a deeper view into their effect on the broader population. The Pyro drug in Parable of the Sower is the clearest example of this issue. The drug worked as both a form of salvation, either by abusing it for pleasure or by selling it for financial relief, and as an agent of destruction. This dynamic works similarly in The Turner House, addiction linking with poverty, crime, and housing instability. Using these novels as a reflection of the housing crisis, addiction becomes an important part of the context of the crisis and creates a clearer picture of how widely the effects of the crash reached. Using Parable of the Sower as window into the 2008 housing crisis, though it may not seem like the obvious choice out of all the texts in our ENGL 111 course, brings a depth to the matter that one may not get if they interpret it through strictly informative sources like The Big Short or “The Giant Pool of Money”. The effects of an event so devastating and transformative can be explored on a more precise and personal level, accounting for family, faith, addiction, poverty and can hit even harder when using Parable of the Sower as a magnifier. Using Octavia Butler’s work in concert with my own newfound knowledge of the nitty gritty of the housing crisis (CDOs, credit default swaps, big banks, etc.) added an element of humanity to my view and helped me to identify the 2008 housing crisis as something apocalyptic in its own right.