Kai Ashante Wilson: The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps

Wilson, Kai Ashante (2015), The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-8524-6

wildeepsThis book is very good. Very good. Unbelievably so, for a debut. An exceptional novel. Now, somewhere to the left or right of this paragraph will be a picture of the book under review. I considered not including one, but then, upon ordering it, you’d see it anyway. The cover is awful. Tor is doing a lot of things very well, many of which involve the editorship of Ann VanderMeer. Guessing from The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, cover design isn’t one of them. This book looks tacky and cheap (the book as object is nicely produced, however), but any guesses based on the cover regarding the book’s content would be way, way off. This appears to be Kai Ashante Wilson’s first novel and what a novel it is. For a fantasy novel, it is fairly short, but no line, no page, nothing is wasted within its covers. This is a truly masterful novel. Not: “a great fantasy novel” – this is a masterful novel with a fantastic setting. Look, there is a tendency to judge genre texts on a curve. That’s how I end up praising Brandon Sanderson‘s excellent work – its immediate compatriots are not Otessa Moshfegh, Sinan Antoon or A.L. Kennedy, but Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan and Peter Brett, and Sanderson’s intelligence, inventiveness and productivity put him above these writers. So if you like epic fantasy, read Sanderson. If, on the other hand, you don’t like it, many of his books won’t be enjoyable for you. Kai Ashante Wilson’s novel is just plain good, whatever awful ideas may have driven this cover design. There’s no “if you like this sort of thing” here because everybody except those who will only read hyperrealistic fiction will enjoy this, and those guys can go to hell anyway. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is smart, it is written with a keen intelligence, and an enormous care for words that is too rare in contemporary fiction. Wilson draws on a broad literary tradition, but closest, I think, are writers like Toni Morrison, Samuel R. Delany and James Kelman. Not that I think he drew specifically on those writers (the Kelman in particular is a bit of a reach), but the way his book approaches speech, dialect, power and bodies reminded me of them. As the Nobel Prize for Literature announcement is approaching (my (terrible) picks here), Wilson can remind us of what we need to be praised in World Literature and that’s not the precious little miniatures by unoriginal little Frenchmen. Writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Wilson Harris write work that, with exquisite literary skill, interrogates questions of language and power, and unlike writers like James Kelman (who should be on Nobel lists) and László Krasznahorkai, who address similar questions with at least equal skill, writers outside of Europe can address them differently, with a different, much needed perspective, especially given the lack of imagination and empathy in European (and American) politics today. Kai Ashante Wilson is no Ngugi wa Thiong’o, but his novel makes me excited to read more. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is excellent, important and deserves a better presentation by Tor.

Already, Wilson has surpassed work by American novelists like Michael Chabon, whose Gentlemen of the Road (I talk about it a bit in my review of The Copper Promise) is a surprisingly close analog. Yet unlike Chabon, Wilson’s novel isn’t a simple version of “fun and games with Leiber and Burroughs” – he draws, with some specifity, I believe, on novels like H. Rider Haggard’s She and Beckford’s Gothic classic Vathek, as well as on the towering literary figure of Samuel Delany. While Chabon, who has written beautifully on the value of genre writing, clearly brings to bear a great love and understanding of the genre, Wilson’s achievement is greater. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a novel that manages to have a fantastic setting that is both essential, and strangely irrelevant. Yes, there is an adventure in it, with a properly suspenseful finale. There are the characters you’d expect from adventure fantasy, gruff, funny, taciturn, irate. There are characters who like to talk and characters who are mysterious and brooding. There are fantastic beasts, Gods and monsters. Yet Wilson is in no way interested in doing the “worldbuilding” that is common and expected of fantasy. The world the novel is set in feels complete and entirely coherent, but it is not alien to us. The way we know this is Wilson’s use of language and dialect. The majority of the book is written in a clear, elegant, yet ever so slightly off-kilter English. It is hard to put my finger of it, but in recent fiction, I do think Samuel Delany comes very close to Wilson’s extremely deliberate English, which carefully modulates register ever so mildly. Sometimes it switches to poetic, sometimes it is more precise, sometimes it appears to be citing genre expressions, sometimes we are offered a very modern, clear tone. Yet this is not what is most important. The clincher is Wilson’s use of AAVE, or African American Variety of English, in his novel. The novel’s protagonists are, in modern parlance, of color. They are marked as black by other characters in the novel, but importantly, while the world of the book is not North America today, the characters employ different varieties of current African American slang, from “Nigga” to what is known as “th-fronting” where /θ/ is pronounced as [f] (“stremf,” in the novel, for example, for “strength”). Writers of fantasy, or just fiction in fantastic settings do frequently use today’s dialects of English to signify something about a culture. Many fantasy writers opt for some version of faux Irish dialect sometimes, for a certain kind of simpleton. What Wilson does is substantially different. The dialect he uses is so strongly connected to a specific culture and a time (ours, some details about the dialect are rather current) that it is hard to see it as just signifying any old kind of dialectical speech. What’s more, Wilson ties it to race.

Some of Wilson’s characters speak a variety of AAVE, and they are seen as black. Black not as color (although skin color is a topic of conversation), but more importantly: black as a cultural and colonial signifier. The book’s plot is about a group of, I guess, mercenaries, paid to escort a carawan of rich people (a culture clearly Arab inflected) through a dangerous area. A significant portion of the novel is set in an Oasis, where the mercenaries are treated with disdain. Not just by the rich merchants, but also by the fort soldiers (known as “fo-so’s”) who also speak in AAVE. Thus, we hear complaints like “Naked-ass bush savages. Shouldn’t even let they ass up in here.” I reviewed, a while ago, David Anthony Durham’s Acacia fantasy novels set in a kind of African mirror image to the usual fantasy worlds. Durham, like his genre compatriots, treated class and race with a broad and imprecise brush, but the exciting element of his book was the way he upended the usual home/invader paradigms. Usually, the “normal” people are English or European, the invaders dark, black or Asian (even outspoken liberals like Tad Williams cannot escape this). So that’s what Durham did and for the genre it was set in, it was nice and well done. Kai Wilson’s view of race is closer to the complicated worlds of Toni Morrison. From the acidic treatment of race and colorism and self hate in The Bluest Eye, to the densely colored conflicts of Paradise, which famously starts with a black/white conflict but then turns interior, Toni Morrison (a truly deserving winner of the Nobel Prize, unlike that French exploitative tourist of limited linguistic gifts Le Clèzio) has written one of the sharpest treatments of race in English outside of Africa (where racism is a frequent topic among the many writers the current Nobel academy does not consider white enough or genteel enough for a Nobel prize). The world of The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is, like ours, a world dense with conflict, but Wilson has removed all the nonlinguistic specifics and replaced them with an Oriental fantasy world. This is doubly important. It allows him to display some conflicts relevant to us on a canvas that does not distract us, and makes us see causalities that we would otherwise link differently; it also drives home a point about how, much like orientalism, as Said many decades ago has stated so accurately, is a way to structure knowledge about the “oriental other”, so are certain accepted fictional and linguistic strategies.

Prof. John Rickford has called AAVE “spoken soul” and closed his landmark study of it with the following remark:

“True, the vernacular has been abused. […] But we must reclaim it. We must stop importing this shame that is manufactured beyond our communities […]. We must begin to do for language what we have done historically (in some cases only very recently) for our hair, our clothes, our art, our education, and our religion […]. The crucial thing is that we hold the yardstick, and finally become sovereign guardians and arbitrators and purveyors of our culture.”

Otherness, identity and shame loom large over this novel and the focus is not just race, but also, in equal measure, queerness. I haven’t touched on it because this is a brief review I am typing during a lunch break, but queerness is important here – two of the protagonists, the most physically strong and masculine, have a sexual relationship. Wilson builds on Delany’s sexually charged fantastic fiction set in the world of Neveryon, and like, Delany, also on a large tradition of gay literature that was sometimes explicitly gay, and sometimes more implicitly so. To me, the secret-but-passionate love affair between the two men recalls novels like Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund or E.M. Forster’s Maurice. If the (recalled in a memory) moment when the two men admit their mutual attraction doesn’t make you think of Alec climbing up to Maurice’s window, I can’t help you. To get back to my point: the central concern is with otherness and self, both in terms of race and sexuality. Famously, Emmanuel Levinas’ ethics of alterity do not include animals (I believe there is a very readable critique by Derrida) – but scholars have used his approach to also discuss animals and animality. For Levinas, the self, the “I,” is created in a confrontation with a “Thou,” a you. Building on Martin Buber, Levinas rejects Buber’s concept of reciprocity in that encounter. The Other, for Levinas, is completely, radically, Other. The encounter with it creates both an ethical responsibility and, with E.S. Burt, a sense of self. You cannot kill, because killing is an encounter with a face (cf. Abraham & son). Not so with animals. Yet Wilson offers us something else. Not an animal, but a leviathan, something that is inherently other, so much that it is capable of shifting and changing realities. Many of the characters’ actions are about dealing with yourself, with who you are, what role you are expected to fulfill and how to cope with all of that, but the book’s big showdown is a literalization of an encounter with an Other for two people whose sense of self is complicated and tender. It asks of them to fully embrace who and what they are, and it shows how dangerous that is.

It is impossible to convey how well crafted this book is. The brevity itself is an example of formal mastery, as is the density of allusions and theoretical and philosophical ideas. The careful writing, the extraordinarily deliberate and beautiful prose, it is really all very good. The prose easily beats the one written by recent Booker nominees or winners (*cough* Barnes *cough*), for example and when I say easily, I mean it. Hard to believe that this is Wilson’s first long piece of fiction. What he managed here is enormously hard to do, and even harder to sustain, but I am hoping for great things from this amazing writer. One would hope that the label “fantasy” would not mar his reception, because this book is just plainly excellent literature, among the best novels I read this year, but the presentation by Tor certainly does not help. Not just the terrible cover, the comparison to mediocrities like George R.R. Martin (good fantasy writer, mediocre writer overall) in blurbs on the cover also suggests a bad direction. Kai Ashante Wilson is an unbelievable writer, period. He is part of a coterie of excellent young African American novelists that include Colson Whitehead, the incandescent Paul Beatty and Mat Johnson. If you’re tired of the pale literary culture that brought you Jonathan Safran Foer, “The Help,” Ayelet Waldman and a million trite MFA products, read these writers. Read Kai Ashante Wilson. He’s on fire.

*

As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to mytwitter.)

Ellen Forney: Marbles – Mania, Depression, Michelangelo + Me

Forney, Ellen (2012), Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo + Me, Robinson
ISBN 978-1-4721-0689-6

marbels coverYou know how when you feel a bit unwell and you go on WebMD and suddenly, you feel as though you were dying of a terminal illness because ALL THE SYMPTOMS FIT. Now imagine if you were given the DSM manual and asked to self evaluate your mental state and were given a list of symptoms – what are the chances you’d behave exactly as you’d do when exposed to the unfiltered WebMD? I have always considered these self-diagnoses a form of psycho-astrology. I have seen people rationalize the vagueness of horoscope prose as fitting for their lives. “Yes, yes, that applies to me! I am SUCH a taurus!” These self diagnoses of mental illness work, in my opinion, very much like that. Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir of bipolar illness, Marbles, is predicated on all these intuitions being perfectly valid and accurate – and applicable to people (like Michelangelo, Van Gogh or Randall Jarrell) who have been dead for decades or even centuries, because this flim-flam system of symptoms is impervious to questions of reasonable and evidence-based inquiry, of course. In American politics, there’s the Goldwater Rule, instituted by the American Psychiatric Association. It is well summarized by a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Yale and a member of the APA’s Ethics Committee who said: “If you’re going to talk to the press and spread stuff on your opinions, it’s important to at least say very clearly, ‘I have not examined this individual and therefore much of what I’m saying is sort of mystical black magic.” Or, as I like to say, psycho-astrology.

marbles 4

A page from “Marbles,” depicting mania and the patient/therapist situation

Ellen Forney is a fantastic artist, and the book itself is extraordinarily well made. It combines a variety of styles and forms to tell the story of how Forney discovered and came to terms with her mental illness. There is so much that’s amazing and admirable and extraordinary about this book that it is quite regrettable that it is so thoroughly dedicated to the arguments put forward by Kay Redfield Jamison and some others. Jamison’s Touched by Fire is something like the spiritus rector of this book, and if you have done or read some literary criticism on writers who have admitted to or been accused of having a mental illness, you have probably crossed paths with Jamison or one of the other like minded writers. In Lowell scholarship, there’s Jeffrey Meyers, for example, who has just put out a new book that I don’t have to (but regrettably will) read to know what it is saying. This “mystical black magic,” rejected by the APA, but embraced by people writing on arts and literature, is not just invariably badly argued and based on flimsy evidence, but it is also, overwhelmingly so, dull and boring. In all of these cases, we find a complex work reduced to the (mis)firings of a few synapses. As a (good) philosopher would say: it is a category error. The weakness of these arguments does not, of course, reduce the seductiveness of their academic or popular application. An army of frequently contradictory studies have been marshaled to prove one point or another about this, with small sample sizes and dubious methodologies. Recently, a cultural movement to embolden (no pun intended) sufferers of mental illnesses has been instrumental in enshrining many of these ideas as not just profoundly true but fundamentally emancipatory.

hyperbole1What’s most remarkable (and regrettable) about Marbles is how single-mindedly it pursues its ideological thesis about mental illness instead of delving more deeply into the actual experience of mental illness. The book is always strongest when it finds images, scenes and examples for the way the suffering person’s mind, Forney’s graphic representation, deals with depression, mania or the liminal states in-between. There is a series of panels showing Forney in the shower as the fog of depression lifts that are extremely well paced, well drawn and true to at least my experience. Forney’s skill in this area is immense. She manages to do two different things, equally well. One is finding the right kind of scene or situation to encapsulate the manic or depressive state of mind her memoir-self is in, the other is finding the right art to go with it. The visual grammar she employs for mania is vastly different from the one she uses for depression and this goes beyond what she draws. The crushing emptiness and devastation wrought by the depressive state is rendered in sometimes sequential art of solitude, sometimes in stark, powerful images drawn on a single notebook page. We get a page of the notebook itself, binding and all, to represent the way these states of mind are resistant to the usual flow of narrative. Many who write about the experience of particularly heavy depressive episodes will repeat this indescribable aspect of it. And this isn’t just true for memoirs. The Hypo, Noah van Sciver’s graphic biography of young Abraham Lincoln uses a breakdown of routine pencilwork to represent the heavy melancholy that sometimes took hold of Lincoln in his formative years before his engagement to Mary Todd.

marbles 5

A page from “Marbles”

I do not, however, think, I have ever seen an artist achieve this level of reflection and complexity while still remaining completely in control of a coherent narrative, although some have come close. Just looking at depression (in this review I discuss comics dealing with OCD and schizophrenia), there are two texts in particular that are extremely well made, and approach the topic from two different angles. The fundamental problem is, for these books as well as for Marbles, that some aspects of autobiography are more problematic in graphic form, I think. And critics much smarter and way more accomplished than me have tackled this. I recommend, for example Mihaela Precup’s The American Graphic Memoir: An Introduction as an excellent primer on the subject. I am here however particularly interest in a remark by  Georges Gusdorf who once wrote about autobiographies which he called “scriptures of the self” that in them the “subject remains an I, who refuses to transfer his problematic to the level of we.” There is no direct access to meaning, no community. There is only the gnarled core of “revelation” – and for Gusdorf, autobiography is a way of negotiating, revealing this revelation. Autobiography, according to Linda Peterson, is inherently a genre of self-interpretation, and much has been made of how, with enlightenment, it has become this very linear story of self examination and masculine self-projection. That is not, however, how graphic autobiography, especially of depression and other hard to reveal subjects works. A key to understanding how these work is, I think, in Hsiao-Hung Lee’s study of Victorian autobiographies, which frequently have ghosts, fairy tales, doppelgangers and other elements that undermine the structure of normal autobiographies, presenting instead “a submerged counter narrative.” This tradition is the one we find in these texts here, and for two reasons, I think. One is textual in the sense that the tradition of autobiographical comic books is one that comes into the genre sideways, through odd texts like Binky Brown, and is often tied to all these genres that came out of the mid to late 19th century, from Dickens to ETA Hoffmann and others. Fantasy, science fiction, horror.

cotter 4The other reason is personal, in the sense that one frequent topic of writing about your own depression means acknowledging that there are fissures in your self, that there is a profound, fundamental discontinuity between various impressions of what one’s self is. That’s why a book like The Nao of Brown, written by a person not afflicted by the mental illness he describes, feels so exploitative, because Dillon has not gone the extra mile of research to make his book work. Dillon finds one visual language that speaks for all states of his afflicted character. By contrast, Marbles frequently comes up against the impossibility of doing both: depicting a certain mental state and keeping to a fixed visual grammar. There’s a curious phrase in an essay by Shari Benstock who insists that for Woolf, the past doesn’t exist as subject matter, but “rather as a method.” A method? Aside from all the implications this has for modernist fiction (and I am sure there’s a study to be done that applies Woolf’s thoughts on fiction and method to the perennially undervalued work of Jean Rhys, by the way), it’s very interesting to look at this as a very fitting way to describe graphic memoirs, particularly memoirs of mental illness. If the past of people with mental illness is discontinuous, if it feels partly not within the subject’s control, then this informs the methods writers and artists use to cope with telling stories of a self and that past. The two books I want to mention here as providing different angles on the idea of writing graphic memoirs of depression are Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, a collection of pieces from the webcomic of the same name, and Joshua Cotter’s dense, but magnificently realized memories of an unhappy childhood, Skyscrapers of the Midwest.

hyperbole 2

A page from Brosh’s book

Allie Brosh’s book is the most conventional. Consisting of short stories, told in chronological order, with images roughly within the borders of realism. Brosh, to tell a story of a self, has created a visual character that is a stand-in for herself. Unlike Marbles, you couldn’t really recognize the author behind the cartoon figure. That figure, however, is the central visual element of all the stories. Importantly, it doesn’t really change except in size, no matter whether the story is one of early childhood or recent adulthood. In it, I think Brosh contains an implicit theory of emotionality. By contrasting the vibrant energies of that cartoon self, displayed with a gusto that exceeds realism, with an environment that is static and does not react in a way that is commensurate to the cartoon self’s agitation, Brosh succeeds brilliantly in creating a visual representation of extreme states of emotionality that stresses both the exterior aspects of it, as it interacts with people, as well as the interiority, loneliness of it. Marbles shows images made during that time as representations of interiority. Brosh doesn’t need that. She uses images of surreal distortion of environments very sparely, and when she does it, the effect is immediate and plausible as a mental effect that we immediately comprehend. Like Marbles, it also relies heavily on text. There is some commentary, but the most effective kind of text just offers us the distorted mind of a person in a depressive episode, presented clearly and sequentially, thus increasing the effect of the fundamental strangeness of these thoughts. There is very little in Brosh’s book that corresponds to Ellen Forney’s therapy-trained commentary from the ‘healed’ outside.

cotter 1

A page from Cotter’s book

Meanwhile, Joshua Cotter has even less of that. It is less explicitly autobiographical, although various hints exist. Taking a page out of Art Spiegelman’s book (Spiegelman, Crumb and other underground artists are also clear touchstones for the book), Cotter’s book is filled with people-like cats. It is a chronological story-in-scenes of growing up in the Midwest. Frequently, Cotter interrupts the story to give us a surreal tale that sometimes – but not always – is explicitly framed as coming from the protagonist’s brain. The overwhelming feeling is an oppressive melancholy and loneliness that at times makes it hard to read. The visual language, Cotter’s art, is consistent, almost oppressively so. It’s a book dense with shadings and crosshatching. A palpable feeling of texture. In his next book, Cotter would go away from the uniformity of style that he employs in Skyscrapers of the Midwest, but that doesn’t make this one a consistent realist narrative. The truly crushing moments of emotional volatility are all told with surreal or fantastic visual elements. One of them is the fantasy of the protagonist, who was fat and unpopular in school and who imagines himself as a powerful robot. The other one is stranger, it’s of some kind of alien slug that attaches itself to people. Indebted, no doubt, to artists like Charles Burns, this device has no simple resolution. It can mean death, or just a warping of the spirit. It is, as Gusdorf said, a problematic that is inexplicable and doesn’t easily fit narratives. In fact, of the three texts, Skyscrapers of the Midwest is the most, as Gusdorf would have it, Gnostic. Brosh evades simple explanation, but she does provide commentary and some context. We get none of that with Cotter. In fact, the book ends on a scene that is both fragrant with light, and devastating. It’s a conversation between the book’s protagonist and his brother. It culminates in the protagonist’s admission – which, I think, is an admission even to himself- that he doesn’t know what’s “wrong” with him. The dark inexplicable core of depression – there’s no easy resolution. Not for Brosh, not for Cotter.

marbles 3

One of the many journal pages depicting an attempt to visually capture depression.

For Ellen Forney however, there’s a semblance of a resolution, and that’s because, despite making that impression on the surface, the memoir only appears to be about experience. In fact, it’s an intellectually structured discursive text about creativity and bipolarity. Trust meds, trust science, trust psychiatry, don’t trust yourself. This is the mantra and it’s repeated over and over and over. Forney uses the word science with an incredible frequency and insouciance. Creativity is testable! “Science has an answer for this, too!” Her model scientist for the creativity idea is J.P. Guilford, about whose model of the intellect John B. Carroll wrote “Guilford’s model must, therefore, be marked down as a somewhat eccentric aberration in the history of intelligence models; that so much attention has been paid to it is disturbing.” Similarly, Forney describes an odyssey through medication, which is so disturbing and disheartening that it is ultimately puzzling that she arrives at an affirmation of medication and isn’t instead questioning the placebo effect. For every page of visually powerful, arresting or simply awe inducing art, Forney offers an artless page containing thought bubbles, square boxes summarizing dubious science or koans to her well being. The discursive nature of the book is borne out by the two last chapters. The penultimate chapter is a full adaption of the incurious nonsense about creativity and mental illness, with Kay Jamison’s god-awful book and Guilford’s “eccentric aberration” as guardian angels. I have not really gone into detail about the nonsensical idea of mining the lives of people long since dead for evidence of mental illness. It relies too much on the accuracy of testimony and what the American Psychiatric Association calls “mystical black magic” – I have no patience to dismember that theory, but I do want to recommend Janet Malcolm’s book on Sylvia Plath, the writer who is most frequently posthumously psychoanalyzed (incidentally, in Marbles, Forney meets someone who did their PhD on Plath who says “you need to know her biography to really understand her work,” if you can believe it, I mean JESUS fucking Christ), which is a good antidote to all that.

marbles 2

Yeah…

The final chapter, then, offers adherence to the medical science of psychiatry almost like an article of faith, telling her younger self to trust the psychiatrist. In the middle of this review there is a lot of talk about autobiography and the indescribable and unsayable and how visual art tries to get around it etc. I then offered Allie Brosh and Joshua Cotter as two incredible artists who dealt with the issue in two different ways. But ultimately, it is Ellen Forney who had the strangest resolution to this. Her frequently silent descriptions of experience and her discursive portions are at odds with each other. Just one example among many: the experience based portions say that mania has only become such an immense problem now that Forney is watching herself, is constantly self medicating with 5 different kinds of meds, keeping journals, basically creating her own doppelganger, her own postmodern detective that watches her suspiciously: is this a sign? Are you up? Are you down? The art “balanced” Forney produces now and the art she documents at having earlier produced provide an interesting contrast as well. I admit: I am biased as someone who has been diagnosed with depression and suicidal ideation and has never been on medication for any serious length of time. Ultimately, more than anything, this feels, despite the discoursive nature, like an enormously private event: this is Ellen Forney telling herself that all will be well. I’ve heard that one before. At least the art is sometimes extremely good. Read it for the art, and skip the last two chapters. Please.

*

As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the right. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Sharon Dodua Otoo: Synchronicity

Otoo, Sharon Dodua (2015), Synchronicity, Edition Assemblage
With Illustrations by Sita Ngoumou
ISBN 978-3-942885-95-9

Otoo, Sharon Dodua (2012), The Things I am Thinking While Smiling Politely, Edition Assemblage
ISBN 978-3-942885-22-5

otooIs this German literature? Sharon Otoo is not a German writer. She is, according to her page and the book cover, “a Black British mother, activist, author and editor;” and both books under review are written in English. There is a German version of both, published more or less simultaneously by the same publisher, who is headquartered in Münster, in North-Rhine Westphalia in West Germany, but they have both been translated by a person other than the author (Mirjam Nuenning). Otoo lives and works in Germany and is involved in German debates on racism and refugees. She moved to Germany in 2006 and immediately became involved in activism involving blackness in Germany. I recommend reading this interview. This year, she won the Bachmannpreis for a brilliant story, written in German, which was clearly, to pretty much any competent observer, the best text in the competition, despite some excellent work by the other competitors. The two novellas under review are a cultural hybrid, written in English by a writer with English education and sensibilities, but set in Germany and informed by the sharp observations and brilliant details of a critically observant person living in this country. German literature written by Germans of German descent is pretty dull these days, with a few notable exceptions. Too much of it has been nurtured in the two big MFA mills, too much of it is blind, privileged pap with nothing at stake. Otoo’s books are brilliantly aware of traditions and contexts, of how assumptions and narratives intersect. Synchronicity is a near-allegorical tale of migration, community and adulthood and extends the promise of Otoo’s debut. The Things I am Thinking While Smiling Politely, a book about heartbreak, racism and migration. Both books are written with a sharp stylistic economy that never lapses into flatness, a skill that is as rare as it is commendable. If German literature is to have an interesting future, then it is not young writers writing clever postmodern 1000 page books with nothing at stake or MFA mill products with their self-congratulatory emptiness. It is writers with a migratory background who inject fresh energy and purpose into a literature that has grown rather tired. Otoo does not identify as a German writer but it is German literature that most stands to profit from her growing body of work.

otoo doppelSynchronicity is a multi-layered, but straight-forward story of community and family. Everything else, all the magical realism, all the bells and whistles, are woven around this core. Blackness and migration is a tale of fighting to belong. In the much more knotty and fragmented Things I am Thinking…, the protagonist explains that, being “the only black girl in a London suburb” she “quickly leaned that trouble could be avoided if [she] acted white.” This thinking is continued and expanded upon in Synchronicity – while the first novella used the personal as a mirror and medium to reflect (and reflect upon) political aspects, combining heartbreak with thoughts of alienation, this second novella is more deliberate and careful in discussing migration by offering us a set of metaphors on the one hand, and tableau of characters who all relate to the protagonist along an axis of power and nationality. The more streamlined nature of the second book derives to a great part from the genesis of the book as a Christmas tale written in 24 daily installments and sent to friends and family. The idea of turning it into a book came later, which explains why the two novellas are so different in construction. Things I am Thinking… is written in fragments, with a narrator who keeps going back and forth in time, to reveal some things and hint at others. The chapters all start mid-sentence and each chapter is preceded by a “shrapnel,” an emotionally charged quote. The book only makes sense as a complete construction, there’s no way to write that kind of book by coming up with daily installments. And yet the linear nature of Synchronicity is also not a sign of Otoo’s development, because her Bachmannpreis-winning story is exceptionally well constructed, with cultural, historical and theoretical allusions coming together to create a story that is deceptively simple, a story that needed to be mapped out in advance. I suspect when we look at Otoo’s work in a few years, after she has written the novel that she’s writing now (and won the Chamisso-award that she’s practically a shoo-in for at this point) and edited some more books, that Synchronicity will stand out as a unique part of her oeuvre. An unusual work by a writer of uncommon talent.

glossaryIt is important to note what an incredible progress the author has made since her first novella, despite that book’s high quality. Things I am Thinking… is a dense realist book that is fairly low on allusion and high on clarity of observation. The prose is lean but effective throughout, sometimes leaning a bit towards the journalistic. The real achievement of the book, however, is not the writing or the observations, per se, it is the author’s skill of connecting various elements of her narrator’s life in meaningful but subtle ways. I am sure the author is aware of various aspects of political philosophy, from Foucault to Critical Race Studies, but she wears that knowledge lightly. This is the philosophical version of “show not tell.” The book’s story is about a Black woman who lives in Germany. She has broken up with her husband Till, who is also the father of her child. She has friends of various ethnicities and origins, among them refugees. She has increasingly become disillusioned with the reality of Germany, which is expressed particularly well in the narrator’s attitude towards her husband’s name

So it was a matter of great inspiration to me, meeting Till on my year abroad in Germany. Someone with a surname so unambiguously of the country he was born, raised and lived in that I thought: how sexy is that? And I knew I had to make it my own. This however didn’t stop other officially suited white ladies in cold offices from saying “Wie bitte?” and asking me to repeat myself – like they were disappointed because they had been expecting me to be called something resembling Umdibondingo or whatever. Several months after we were married, I discovered that “Peters” was also the surname of a German colonial aggressor and although I didn’t begin to hate it then, I stopped adorning myself with it.

Otoo pulls off a rare trick – her book is dense and cerebral, but it has a story to tell, as well as a narrative and political urgency. Everything in the book has a purpose and is connected to everything else, but it never feels like Otoo is simply having a postmodern game on. This is not the place to unravel all the book’s plotlines and trajectories, but suffice to say that she manages to see how the different ways power shapes and controls us intersect and collaborate. And her protagonist, who has learned to accommodate various demands of power, is now crashing against the walls of the well-built house of German racism and economics because her personal life implodes. The word “shrapnel” is well chosen for the quotes preceding the chapters because the impression I got reading the book was that heartbreak, a fundamental personal emotion, functions like a bomb that explodes in the middle of a lifetime of accomodation and struggle. The book itself, while not framed explicitly as a text written by the protagonist, feels like an attempt to assemble the shards of a life, where one betrayal has damaged personal, professional and social relationships.

otoo innen1The aspect of migration is not central to Things I am Thinking…. We learn that the protagonist is British, but migration is experienced more through the eyes of the refugees we encounter in the book like Kareem, of whom the author remarks that he “has this matter of fact, nothing-to-lose air about his person. Years of being an illegal immigrant in an unwelcoming country will do that to you, I guess.” Much of the alienation that we learn about is the kind that happens when you look foreign and live in a racist country:

Berlin is a place where anything goes, and you can wear whatever you like, but if you are a Black woman in the underground, be prepared to be looked up and down very very slowly. I cannot tell you how many times I have glanced down at myself in horror during such moments to check if my jeans were unzipped or if my dress was caught up in my underwear. White people look at me sometimes like I am their own private Völkerschau. Staring back doesn’t help. It counts as part of the entertainment. Entertainment.

We get hints sometimes as to how a hybrid identity can develop with migration, such as when the protagonist recounts the criticism her “auntie” leveled at her: “she was truly shocked when she first realized that I had not raised Beth to hand wash her own underwear every night.” The reason for “auntie”’s outrage is the question of identity: “just because she has a whitey father, doesn’t mean she’s not Ghanaian!” The protagonist is not so sanguine about these matters, more interested in negotiating a Black identity in Germany, dealing with the shifting fortunes of being married to someone named Peters, and with the difficulties of establishing trust and loyalties in this country when you’re viewed as foreign.

otoo innen 2Synchronicity, on the other hand, is primarily dedicated to these questions of heritage and migration. There are basically two stories, layered one above the other, in the book. One, the surface-level story, is the one of Charlie Mensah, known as “Cee,” who is a graphic designer who, one day, starts to “lose” her colors. This is meant quite literally. For a couple of days, she stops being able to see certain colors, with one color absconding per day. Blue, red, green, etc., until just gray remains. The beautiful illustrations by Sita Ngoumou provide a lovely background to this contrast. This is challenging to Cee, who is a freelance designer, with a big and well-paid project coming up, and who has suddenly lost the use of one of her most important faculties. Eventually, however, the colors return, one by one, albeit in a different form. This, so far, is the story as a realist narrative would describe it. There are smaller plotlines woven into it, such as Cee falling in love, and her conflicts with her client, but basically, this is it. The other story is the one concerning heritage and identity. This loss of colors is not some disability, not some virus or sickness, it is a process of maturation that happens to all the women in her family. The “different form” that colors are regained in is what the author calls “polysense,” a special form of synesthesia. And this is not all that is different about the women in Cee’s family. They are also all women who don’t reproduce sexually. They are parthogenic, which, as Cee explains, “means we have children alone – that our bodies are designed to become pregnant completely by themselves.” This is not some science fictional theory, although it echoes such science fictional worlds as the planet Whileaway in Joanna Russ’ feminist classic The Female Man. Otoo, beyond the term, never goes into details, because this strange genetic heritage serves primarily as a metaphor for migration and alienation. The people in Cee’s family live alone. They raise their daughters to be independent and then, once they are adult, they push them out of the house and then let them fend for themselves. The maturation process to polysense, and the insistence on independence makes it hard for these women to establish personal bonds; thus, Otoo found a metaphor to reify something that has been part of immigrant experience for a long time.

4EdA_Day-by-Day_CoverA better way, I suppose to frame it, is Axel Honneth’s innovative take on the subject of reification, where the process of recognizing the other is fundamental to the way our subjectivity is constructed and yet that recognition, which, as Butler writes, “is something achieved” that “emerge[s] first only after we wake from a more primary forgetfulness,” can be abandoned. The forgetting of recognition is, in Honneth’s reading, what. In classic terminology, we called reification. What does migration to to emotional recognition? How do we react when we migrate into places that see us as a constituting alterity, that use us to create their national and personal narratives. In Otoo’s slender and careful book, the answer, given for many generations of immigrants, is to retreat to a specific kind of subjectivity that rejects recognition. The parthogenetic reproduction is a perfect metaphor for that. But the tone of the book isn’t dark. Otoo, who works as an activist, imbues her novella with confidence in the future. Her migrants break free of this mold. Cee’s daughter refuses to accept the ways of her family and Cee herself sees changes in her and the world around her. She falls in love with a policeman who isn’t white, representing a fusion of her horizons with that of the country she migrated to. The most powerful description of the policeman is not the first time she sees him, it is a moment of recognition, which, for Honneth, is something that is part of maturation:

That policeman. I recognized him straight away this time because he had a particular kind of walk. Like he was happy to be walking at all. In fact, if I had to choose one word to describe his body language it would be: gratitude. That really fascinated me. I stared at him for quite some time as I walked towards him – he was in deep conversation with his white colleague. I could tell the colleague was white because his walk was altogether more sturdy and authoritarian. He placed his feet firmly onto the ground, each step conferring a heritage of legitimacy and ownership unto him.

The book is a Christmas story, which explains its optimism and lightness, but it also offers a literary third way between assimilation and rejection. Critical optimism, if you will. It is a unique quality that appears to be emerging in Otoo’s work. Things I am Thinking… is a much darker work, but the story that Otoo read at the Bachmannpreis walks the same line as Synchronicity does. I don’t think I’ve ever read quite the same kind of story in this country and I don’t think I have ever read a writer quite like Otoo.

tddl16-532x200At the Bachmannpreis (I had a short post on it last year here) the jury discussions of Otoo’s text and the one of Tomer Gardi, another exciting text read at the competition, as well as the contrast to the bland terrible awfulness of the texts read by Jan Snela, Julia Wolf, Isabelle Lehn or Astrid Sozio (who, slotted directly behind Otoo, read a spectacularly racist text) maybe shows where literature written and published in this country needs to turn. The comfortable and unnecessary tales of migrancy from a MFA-educated German mind do not add to the conversation and they do not produce good literature. That is a dead end, and nothing demonstrated that dead end as well as the comparison of the field with Sharon Otoo’s excellent text, and Otoo’s work in general.

*

As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Phil LaMarche: American Youth

LaMarche, Phil (2007), American Youth, Sceptre
ISBN 978-0-340-93803-4

lamarche 2I went into this book knowing nothing about it or the author. Someone recommended it to me and I decided on a whim to read it. Not knowing anything about it, I was surprised at the way the book’s title’s relationship to the text keeps mildly shifting. From a vague description for much of the book’s personnel to the name for “a small group [where local kids] get together and discuss politics, activism, that sort of thing.” The kids in question are all right wing nuts, if you can call adolescents that, but the book loses interest in politics with remarkable speed given how central they are to a significant portion of its characters. Rather than examine the way politics insinuate themselves into youth culture, American Youth is a novel about a a small town that was hit hard by the recession and a Bildungsroman of sorts where a young boy discovers guilt, politics, sex and redemption, in this order. Phil LaMarche tries his hand at a version of America that has already been well examined by the likes of Richard Ford, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Thomas McGuane or Daniel Woodrell. This is not a very good novel, but there’s a very good novel in it somewhere, which makes it a bit maddening to read. The first half of the novel is quite intriguing, until the second half, which reads like a dutiful tying up of lose ends and narrative strands, really ruins the whole thing. The impression is that Phil LaMarche decided to end the novel on a redemptive note, and shaped the later acts of the story accordingly, rather than ride out the story as is, and see what its implications and possible directions are. It’s rather like seeing an object grow before your eyes only to find that it’s a bag full of hot air. And it’s not even particularly well written. Not bad, mind you, but the simple prose aims for early Hemingway, particularly some of the early Nick Adams stories, without having early Hemingway’s gift for compression. It is no surprise that this book and its author is an MFA product (you may have read my misgivings here and here), because the book reads (though it apparently isn’t) like someone’s thesis, dutifully taking an idea and putting it through the gears of what a “good” realist novel dealing with small town America should do. Alternately, it could be a result of a short story writer grappling with the very different task of building a novel. I imagine if Bonnie Jo Campbell ever gets round to writing a novel, it might be very similar to this one. And yet, despite all this, I can’t say I regretted reading it. It is a quick read, with good characters, and a really good first half. Look, it’s fine.

lamarche 3The characters and the various ways they are interconnected is the real achievement here. A kid dies early in the novel, and the guilt is curiously deferred: the killer bears some responsibility, but it was an accident brought about by age and inexperience; the novel’s protagonist, an experienced user of guns who loaded the gun only to leave it in his friend’s hands also bears some, as do the victim, shot when the two kids were grappling over the gun and the protagonist’s mother whose distracting noises prompted the protagonist to leave the gun in his friends’ hands. This is no spoiler, we learn this fairly early, but it shows us the way the novel connects its characters. Shared guilt, shared hate, shared pain. All people in the novel are somehow connected to all other people by a sad game of six degrees of shame and fear. The construction of the novel is so well done that I would not be surprised to learn that the author used a complex diagram to draw up the characters and the story. Sometimes, the effect is almost Checkovian: any character who we are introduced to that is not an immediate source of misery for the protagonist will eventually turn out to provide a solid dose of it – this is very impressive but, especially towards the end of the book, becomes more annoying that enjoyable. LaMarche’s treatment of guilt and shame gets more heavy handed as the novel slogs on. One can almost hear the author’s urge to include and clarify certain elements beyond ambiguity. The guilt for the killed boy is palpable and informs even simple observations. It is also mostly unspoken, weighing heavily over everything. This is how it should be. Similarly, boyhood betrayals and loyalties are debated with unspoken feelings of guilt and anger, expressed with body language and sullen words. When, however, towards the end of the book, a budding love, and the protagonist’s first sexual encounter, turns sour amid accusations of rape, we get an unholy amount of paragraphs of the protagonist debating the guilt or lack thereof for the act of rape. The original encounter, which is clearly a form of rape, was described clearly enough. No reader would have needed the copious debates of how the accusation shocked the boy who thought “it was not like that” and then his insight that maybe he did cross some line, and his debates of the topic both with other boys as well as the girl whose pleas to stop he ignored in the first place. I’m not advocating treating a terrible act with less condemnation, but the step by step discussion of it in the book, again, has the whiff of college debates on rape culture and an author who was trying to ‘get it right,’ even at the expense of the literary quality of his novel.

richard fordCuriously, he doesn’t get it right, despite the tedious extended discussions of the act. His failure here is less one of misreading rape, and more one of the role he allows women to play in this story and particular in this part of the narrative. The victim of rape basically drops out of the story after the accusation makes the rounds, reappearing only to assuage the protagonist’s feelings of guilt. Calling what happened between them rape becomes less an accurate description of what happened (though it is) and more of a weapon wielded by other boys and a source of resentment, anger and violence. The girl’s motivations and feelings suddenly disappear from a novel that was originally very interested in them and very clever in how it introduced them. This is due to two defects in the novel. One is its massive disinterest in its female characters. After setting them up, they become mere catalysts for the male characters’ actions. This gulf between the depth of the characters as we are introduced to them, and the shallow actual use of them is due to the second defect and that’s the novel’s slavish devotion to structure. There is no room in the third act to examine the girls’ motivations and feelings because the beats of the story demand that something else happens now. There is no room for the mother of the killed boy to have a complex reaction to the violent events because the only room the tightly scripted story allows her to have is as a forgiving catalyst for redemption. That’s also why the politics fall by the wayside. We need them in the first act, to connect the protagonist to that right wing group of teetotaler boys called “American Youth,” but the arc of the story does not have an opening for any examination of politics or of the way that that small town really deals with politics, so it really never comes up again, except in small phrases here and there. And with all that tightness the book still doesn’t really have a dense texture. The second half, which is almost single-mindedly dedicated to finishing the story and hitting all the right beats, and tying up all the strands of story in the right way is pretty flabby because as the author loses interest in all the strange and exciting characters that populate the book, he falls back more and more on the protagonist’s thoughts and ruminations. The second half of the novel could be cut by 60% without losing anything truly significant. It shows where the author’s interest and priorities lie: in construction. He spent so much effort setting up the story that it feels as if the second half of the book is just a quick, unedited filling in of gaps. As I said before, this makes for a maddening reading experience. And not in a good way.

lamarche 1American Youth is set up as a book about small town life, about politics, even sexual politics, about how right wing politics are fueled by anger and frustration, about guilt and redemption, but ultimately, it is only the latter and the way a young boy matures into a young adult. The final chapter of the book, and especially the final paragraph, with its cheesily formulaic outlook into the future finally jettison all the darkness and bleakness that was a part of so much of the novel, and replaces it with a contemplation of what this young adult plans on telling his child. It feels as if the author is exceptionally blind to the possible implications of his story. There is a big unmarked, unexamined heart to the story where everyone is male, white and has whatever vaguely centrist politics Phil LaMarche himself has. Everything that doesn’t fit this basic assumption of normalcy is introduced as needed and jettisoned as needed. Thus, the politics of the book. The “American Youth” right wingers are the only people in the book whose politics are discussed, really, and then some politically correct newcomers. There is, as with so many other aspects of the book, a moment where we find a fissure in the text, an instability that might be used to cleave open many assumptions. It is the moment when the protagonist’s mother, trying to find out about a police officer’s stance regarding the killing, asks a friendly police man: “is he like us?” That was an extremely smart way of showing how the town’s loyalty works, and it tied into another strand of the story that examined boyhood loyalty. Yet as we enter the second half of the story it is as if the question had never been asked. The implication being, somehow, that we the reader are assumed to be like the author. In a book on the construction of whiteness as “a bounded cultural identity,” Matt Wray suggests that dismissive terms like “White Trash” serve as “boundary terms,” that help manage disparate lines of social loyalty. In a way, much of American Youth is concerned with offering us elements that are not “like us,” sharpening the books sense of who belongs to the ‘in’ group and who does not. Liking guns is good, being obsessed with gun rights is weird and so is not liking guns at all. Drinking a bit of alcohol is good, getting drunk off your ass is weird and so is not drinking at all. Doing the beast with two backs now and then is good, abstaining from sex is weird. And so on. None of these are awful, but when it comes to the book’s gender politics or its dubious racial politics, the picture is a bit less savoury.

Overall, the problem is not of the book focusing on loyalties and marking insiders and outsiders. Writers like Daniel Woodrell are excellent at doing that in similarly set stories. But Woodrell creates closed worlds where the demands of the story dictate the way it moves. He replicates the closed world of the stories in the closed form of the novel. Phil LaMarche’s novel has no loyalties to its characters or its story. It is about white male experience and could conceivably be set in a different place among different characters, if the story beats are mostly maintained. It acts like a story about places, a novel invested in local cultures, but we soon see the lamb hiding beneath the wolfskin. At some point, I think, the book even quotes Cormac McCarthy and while the man’s recent output is less than inspired, the man’s work contains books so infused with a sense of place that we almost drown in it. Suttree this ain’t. The disappointment I felt on reading American Youth makes it hard for me to predict where LaMarche’s path as a writer will take him. One hopes that he learns to shake off the MFA guidelines and learns to trust the story, trust his characters.

*

As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

lê thi diem thúy: The gangster we are all looking for

lê thi diem thúy (2003), The gangster we are all looking for, Anchor
ISBN 978-0-375-70002-6

gangster 1Much like the last book I reviewed here, I somehow ended up reading this book by accident, but I don’t regret it – lê thi diem thúy’s debut novel is a very good book. Among the shorter books I recently reviewed, it doesn’t rise to the heights of, say, Herrera’s novel, but apart from smaller issues of style and pacing here and there, it’s hard to find flaws with it. As the book progresses, it picks up pace, power and emotional resonance. It takes no formal or stylistic risks, there is no complicated mythical or metafictional conceit, but for a traditional narrative of immigration, it is exceptionally well done, and what’s more, lê has developed a very recognizable, very vivid voice right out of the gate that is not reliant on tricks, but on a solid control of language. Her observations and the images she chooses to use are usually on point – sharp, meaningful, insightful. The book’s broader range is chronological but the narrator keeps moving backwards to illuminate other episodes from her childhood, finally to reach all the way back to her earliest childhood in Vietnam. Dreams are incorporated into the narrative not as exotic or fancy artifacts but as parts of reality, equally as important to understanding the protagonist’s life as the wide awake observations of life as a Vietnamese refugee in San Diego. It is pleasant to read a novel that is both so solidly crafted, so well written and so emotionally resonant as this one. It’s what one hopes would emerge from the MFA author mills instead of the cheesy formulaic pap that usually ends up on our shelves. If you teach writing and structure to someone, a novel like The gangster we are all looking for is surely the desired result. lê conveys the cultural barriers that open up for refugees without hokeyness, she tells us of loss and family ties in a language that is both taut and expansive. Sure, the novel could have been a bit tighter, but I suspect that my quibbles with it stem from the joy I had of reading it. The gangster we are all looking for is an exceptional book that I immediately reread – and it somehow gets better the second time around. So if you are up for a lovely, conventional but exceptionally well done little book about the Vietnamese immigrant experience, do read this book.

The book follows its protagonist, a six year old girl, who lands with her father and four other Vietnamese men (she calls them the four uncles) in California, after an arduous flight that led them to the US via Singapore (look up Boat People if you want to know more). Her mother stayed behind, but would join them later. For the majority of the book the mother is present and significant. The book is broadly structured chronologically, with the first page essentially describing the landing of the six year old girl, and the last chapter structured around her return visit to Vietnam 20 years later. Between these basic elements, the book moves back and forth, withholding certain elements only to fill them in later. The management of time feels fluid and expertly done, the effect is of a mosaic of memory without losing readability or fluidity. I’m not surprised to read that the novel is, among other texts, based on a performance piece of the author’s, because that explains the taut cohesiveness of the whole book despite all the small episodes and the changes back and forth in time. An audience can’t just go back a few pages to figure out something confusing, it needs to make sense as a flow of story, in the moment. And that’s certainly true here. This fluid mosaic technique is not associative. Instead, lê uses hard cuts, having structured her book through paragraphs and chapters, which makes the easy cohesiveness (unlike, say, Jirgl’s excellent but less easy to read mosaic novel Die Stille, with each chapter/paragraph dedicated to a photograph) even more impressive. Another example of the author’s smooth handling of her material is the way the book is both clearly narrated by the adult who remembers the early days of her life, and yet in many childhood vignettes, we are offered the child’s sense of wonder and -sometimes- her obstinacy and strangeness, unmodulated, uncommented. We never feel, I don’t think, a real contrast between the way the childhood scenes are narrated and the way the adult fills in other portions of the narration (including occasional sections where other people’s thoughts are imagined). It’s all just – and I’m sorry to repeat myself here – extraordinarily well handled, so that the book’s surface is always smooth (but never slick).

Another interesting aspect is the way the novel handles immigration or migration. We don’t really see the process of fleeing a country and entering another, apart from the occasional memory. The book begins exactly at the moment of landing: “Linda Vista, with its rows of yellow houses, is where we eventually washed to shore.” The author very rarely explains things and customs to us, so most of the time, our knowledge does not vastly outstrip the child’s – or rather, our horizons are similar. So of the process of immigration, the signing of forms and the learning of language, finding jobs etc., none of this really turns up in the book. Instead, migration is presented as a negotiation of living spaces. The child, her father and the “uncles” first live in a wealthy benefactor’s house and later, she lives with her father and mother in several different houses and apartments. Houses, according to Gaston Bachelard, “would appear to have become the topography of our intimate being” and they give us “illusions of stability.” It is that latter phrase that I find particularly interesting, in the light of some things I’ve been reading recently, but let’s start with the first phrase, because it describes part of the author’s method. The book very diligently takes upon itself to describe to us the different houses, especially in the early stages. While the child’s personality is being formed, our attention is being directed to the spaces wherein the transformation takes place. And transformation is the exactly right word. The author even suggests it to us in one of the book’s strangest and most intriguing sections: having found a butterfly trapped in amber, covered in glass, the child protagonist becomes convinced she can hear the butterfly’s wings, she can hear it talk and becomes increasingly interested in freeing the butterfly, which culminates in a minor disaster, and a borderline unhinged dialogue. The butterfly is an obvious reference to transformation, but the child’s truculent obsession with hearing its wings through the amber and the glass leads us to something else: the book’s dissatisfaction with the structures and houses that it builds up.

gangster 2“Illusion of stability,” indeed. Water moves through the novel in all kinds of places, doors are literally un-hinged, and family traditions and structures are reduced to symbolic acts, and unstable symbolic acts at that. Usually, immigrant narratives are about finding a place, a space, inscribing an identity onto the crowded slate of a national identity. Settling. Take another book I reviewed last year, Akhil Sharma’s Family Life. Most of the book’s post-migration narrative takes place in the same house, and while physical and mental illness destabilizes that new home, the ultimate result is one of growing roots and becoming almost too happy. Even immigration narratives that don’t end in success are basically negotiations of the same paradigm, just with a different outcome. In the case of this novel, however, lê cleverly combines two different movements. There’s the movement from house to house, trying to find, as they say with rescued pets, a “forever home.” That this search is unstable, with lovers from the old country, alcoholism, violence, poverty and desperation all helping to destabilize it, does not make this search any less goal-oriented. At the same time, the protagonist slowly but surely extricates herself from this process. This is no leaving the nest and growing one’s own home, the way Sharma’s protagonist did. This is just a dissatisfaction with this structure. It reminded me of Deleuze’s correction of Foucault in which he suggested that society is not just strictly structured through power, but instead through “lines of flight.” For Deleuze, it is desire that oozes out of structures, that opens up narratives of power, and lê’s protagonist’s path through the book charts that slow undoing of stability. As with the butterfly, sometimes lê rigs her book to make this process extra clear. For example, in an abandoned house, where the neighborhood children play, they put up a big carton box, just large enough for two kids to fit inside. They added a curtain to it and then they named it “The Other Room” and then just “The Box.” So I’m sure the box was meant for shenanigans to begin with, but we are not shown that. We are however shown the moments the protagonist spends in the box with a boy, moments we follow in extraordinary detail. The box itself is an attempt to provide additional stability to a stable but disintegrating environment, and what do we find inside? The discovery of desire.

But the Deleuze idea that I have been most preoccupied with these days is the idea of cartography. It’s primarily of interest to me with regard to Lowell’s and Bishop’s poetry, but the way lê structures the journey through houses can, I think, be excellently described using Deleuze’s concept of looking at journeys through maps as trajectories, journeys through different milieus with their own subjectivities and their own negotiation of territoriality. Those trajectories “merge […] with the subjectivity of the milieu itself.” If we follow Deleuze and look at the sturdy, seemingly immovable object of memory and the narrative of origin as “displacements” instead, it encourages us to see narratives of becoming, as the one that lê’s protagonist undergoes as a challenge to thresholds and simple identities. The book doesn’t end with an identity arrived at or confirmed, it ends in an absolute image of fluidity and open possibility. The narrator’s becoming-woman is inverted against the certainty of place and context. As a narrative strategy, it strikes me as unusual in immigration narratives. Take Sunjeev Sahota’s booker-shortlisted The Year of the Runaways, which starts in a similar environment, of adult immigrant men living together, negotiating their new space. But Sahota’s very good novel is primarily interested in looking at one milieu and a process of becoming that is determined by a very narrow set of thresholds and enclosures. The gangster we are all looking for is about a protagonist attempting to escape into indeterminacy. It’s quite a feat that the author manages to do all this and yet stay consistently readable. Ultimately, it’s this conventional smoothness that keeps this from reaching quite the heights that it could reach, but, you know, it’s really good, after all.

*

As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Kent Haruf: Our Souls At Night

Haruf, Kent (2015), Our Souls at Night, Knopf
ISBN 978-1-101-87589-6

418qIjdmtWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I have not read any reviews of Kent Haruf’s novel Our Souls At Night but I suspect that whatever books I can pull as reference and context for it might not be appropriate. I do know that the book has drawn quite a bit of praise and that fact alone is a bit puzzling to me. Well. I will accept: it is competently done. The quiet and orderly style has been perfected to the point of it becoming an object in and of itself in the novel. I can appreciate the craftsmanship that went into writing, balancing and structuring the novel, but as I read it, I was not able to shake the feeling that what I was seeing was a too-large short story, a book that might, in the hands of Carver, Gallant or Salter turned into a sharp tale of an unusual relationship, of age and love. Too suburban and content for Richard Ford, the material could have suited Cheever’s suburban pen, too. In fact, I spent some time today browsing his collected stories, because something in the back of my head nagged me to do it, but no success. It lacks the pull, the tension between dialogue and description that a well-executed short story can provide, but it doesn’t fill up the additional space well. The style and the repetitive, overindulgent nature of the way the story is told is a bit like one of those apartments that were en vogue in the early 2000s. Big spacious lofts with nothing to fill them. Really, come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever read anything quite like Our Souls At Night – a book that is clearly literary, clearly well-written and carefully built. And yet it is very emphatically not a good book. A big structure – not an empty room because the story is genuinely lovely, but a room too big and angular and impersonal for the small burst of life that’s inside. There is really no reason to read or recommend this book. No matter what your preferences are in fiction, or what element of this book could conceivably appeal to you, there are numerous superior options. Anyone attracted by summaries of this book is much better served with short stories by any of the authors I named in this paragraph, as are people looking for a story of aging love. Other writers who cover similar territory in much superior fashion include John Updike, Philip Roth, late-period Grace Paley. It’s really hard not to find a writer of genteel suburbia who hasn’t written a book or story that blows Our Souls At Night out of the water. And it’s the most frustrating thing because Kent Haruf is clearly a good, extremely competent writer with total stylistic control, and his take on loneliness and the darkness of life is often powerful. So let me return to the beginning of this paragraph and add this to my critique: this just may not be for me.

The major draw of the book is not the story, it’s the writing. This may be surprising given that Haruf is a writer known for his “simple” style and not a Hemingwayesque simplicity at that. And yet, this style is quite something. There are no shadings to tone, no ambiguous phrases, vibrating with the unsaid. Everything appears to have been said just as intended. The writing is plain, but not flat. It’s not musical, but it’s also not dull. It’s a deeply functional simplicity that creates a space for the story to unfold. I gather some of Haruf’s other books are novels of space, of Midwestern landscapes and I am mildly curious about the way a writer like this would tackle it, because in Our Souls At Night, we are not offered a fullness of description as far as the environments and backgrounds are concerned. The language is all the space and room we get. There is a scene somewhere in the middle, when a dog is acquired, and a boy is asked to show it around the house. “I’ve never been in the other rooms myself,” the boy says and we might expect some kind of description of the house to happen, but it never comes. It is enough that we know it is a house. The rest is language and in it, much of the prose is dialogue, but it lacks the musicality and sharpness of real dialogue (Gaddis’ JR is my touchstone for creating a book built out of that) or the madness of dialogue in books like Nicola Barker’s underappreciated The Yips. At the same time, it also does not have the weight and accuracy of Beckett or Bernhard. In a way, the dialogue adds a second layer of description, joining the quality of the novel’s style. All of this adds up to an extraordinary stiffness. Scenes don’t move. As in a theatre, it takes the falling curtain of a chapter ending for the action to change place or direction. Some heartbreaking decisions are made, but they are made in between chapters and the chapter following the decision then plays out a scene where we try and come to terms with the situation. The sentences, fittingly, are short and declarative. Only when there is a small amount of movement, when someone enters a scene, or when a scene, rarely, requires a trip somewhere, the syntax unfurls. It’s quite impressive how disciplined Haruf deploys his writing, from the short, declarative base sentence to the longer, moving sentence of action. The book’s predilection for short sentences also has an odd effect on its dialogue. As I said, it’s not a dialogue possessed of a snappy rhythm. In fact, much of it feels like testimony, of one person testifying and the other acting as interlocutor. This effect is strongest in the chapters where the characters discuss their past, but they recur throughout. The result is a strong affirmation of the overall impression of stasis.

The story is the one of a short and unusual relationship between two widowed older citizens, living in a small town. They come together to fight loneliness. It is not about sex, although in later stages, that element enters their relationship. It is about the darkness of night that is so difficult to overcome for one person alone. In fact, in a more stressful period of their relationship, Haruf describes their insistence on the now-established patterns of their nights together like this: “They still held each other in the night when he did come over but it was more out of habit and desolation and anticipated loneliness and disheartenment[.]” Their relationship is an attempt to slowly, sneakily, do something new, something that makes them the talk of the town and something that doesn’t sit well with their adult children. Indeed, the whole writing and structure of the novel resists the mere idea of doing something new. Stasis and continuity is written into the very bones of the book. You can find it in all kinds of details. For example, in the memories. Twice, the man tells the woman a story from his life. First, he tells her of an old affair he had, and then he tells her of his love for poetry. Both times, the woman quietly listens to what he has to say and then suggests that maybe both passions may be ongoing. Not the affair or the writing and reading of poetry, but the love that powered both. “I think you still love her,” she says. Their children, similarly, are ties connecting them to their old past, as they are representative of their past relationships. Small town gossip serves a similar function. Both are known around town, known for their past, known for who they are. Striking up this new rleationship/friendship violates these old ideas and is, thus, shocking, without having to actually provide sensational content. Everything, really, is set up to promote stasis, and the only thing that pushes both of them to try and make it work despite everything is the terror of a night spent awake, alone, with no-one to talk to, no-one to hold, no-one to grab when the nights are rough. Haruf reinforces this contrast, between the stasis and the night as a force that pushes the new, by introducing the woman’s grandson, who, by dint of belonging to her ‘old’ family, first seems to drive the two apart, but it is his literal terror of the night, his night terrors, that send him crying to this unusual couple who, together, find a way to relieve the boy’s nighttime affliction.

Ultimately, the big empty rooms of the story reflect the echoing feelings of loneliness, of emotional need (or neediness). Really, any stylistic aspect of the novel appears to serve a function within the symbolic or emotional structure of the narrative. It is quite the impressive achievement, but a dull sentence is still a dull sentence when it serves to illustrate dullness. There is so much redundancy in the novel which, like a middle aged man, has gotten a bit flabby around the middle. The beginning is sharp and raises all the themes of the novel with precision and urgency. The ending, meanwhile, is much more dense with emotion. The way the book ends is with a few effective and emotionally striking brushstrokes that any reader would recognize from a certain kind of American short story. Even after rereading the book, I still fail to understand why this story had to be of novel-length. Nothing in it justifies its size. And all the dullness of certain parts is only striking because of the amount of time we as readers spend cooped up with that style. If you want a reason to read this book, read it for the devastation of loneliness and the way a deep need for companionship arises from that. There are many fancy ways to phrase love or affection, but what Haruf offers, in way too many (or too few) pages, is the simple, unadorned horror of being alone at night. It hasn’t often been expressed quite so directly, and with so much stylistic craftsmanship leveraged specifically for that effect and that effect only. And yet, maybe it is just this discipline and care in the way the writing works that makes for such a dull read. It’s a sense of functionality, of stylistic practicality. Haruf wrote this book as he was dying, from the precipice of that final night. A last look back at companionship, at the things between people that endure and the pressures we face. At some point, the man in the story says “[s]o life hasn’t turned out right for either of us, not the way we expected, he said.” and it is not a tragic moment. Things we can’t change we accept. The only things weighing us down are guilt, love and loneliness. These three endure.

*

As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Fran Ross: Oreo

Ross, Fran (2015 [1974]), Oreo, New Directions
ISBN 978-0-8112-2322-5

oreo coverLet me apologize in advance if this review is a bit odd, I have not had sleep in quite a while. On the other hand, this likely leads to a shorter review. That said, I hope I’ll still manage to convey to you that Oreo, Fran Ross’ first and only novel, is an absolute masterpiece. A book that should rank among the classics of 20th century American fiction and it’s regrettable that it does not. Originally published in 1974, it appears to have sunk like a stone in the waters of literary attention. In 2000 it was republished by Northeastern University Press (by the way: the series “Northeastern Library of Black Literature,” published by Northeastern University Press, cannot be praised highly enough for bringing excellent and unusual books back into print that have not fared well upon the sea of canonicity. I want to point particularly to their reprints of George Schuyler’s strange and important oeuvre), and then again in 2015 by New Directions, which is the edition that I finally encountered the book. Oreo is a book that feeds off several traditions, and cannot be easily labeled, which may have contributed to its lack of canonical durability. Written at the height of afrocentric literature (and a contemporary of Alex Haley’s Roots), the book rejects the expectations that come with a first novel by a black author. Her book borrows from a Jewish tradition as well as a black one, and it comments on misogyny as well as racism. It is kin to the behemoths of ludic postmodernism such as John Barth, of mythical modernism such as Joyce and Eliot and it is related to older books about the African American experience as well, Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig comes to mind. But more than books preceding Oreo – it’s a newer generation of writers that best shows the power and fascination of Fran Ross’ only book. Black writers like Zadie Smith (Autograph Man) and Paul Beatty (White Boy Shuffle) (as well as slightly earlier examples like Trey Ellis (Platitudes)) offer us novels about the black experience that break with stereotypes and expectations. If Ross’s novel was published today, it would be seen as primus inter pares, as the first among many equals. Back in 1974, however, the novel’s innovative writing and its rejection of simple identity politics impeded its immediate cultural impact.

oreo renaultThe story of the book is quickly summarized: it is a story that’s both old fashioned family history and quest narrative. Following the myth of Theseus (the reference is made plain both by chapter titles and by the author’s afterword), it offers us Oreo, a girl of mixed heritage: her father, an aspiring actor from a Jewish family, left her mother, Helen, who was a similarly culturally talented woman from a black family. Both Helen as well as Oreo’s father left Oreo, so that the young woman grew up with her black grandmother, Louise, who had never found a dish that she didn’t like. Eventually, Helen informs her daughter, that her father had left her a series of clues that would lead her to discover the secret of her birth. She then embarks on that adventure (which, really, is just a trip to New York), encountering many odd characters. All of this fits, in one way or another, the template from Greek myth, up until the catastrophe, which, at this point, we expect. The early 70s is an interesting time to engage not just greek myths but this one particularly. Fran Ross is not the only writer to tackle the topic. Most well known, at that time, I suppose, is Mary Renault’s two volume take on the Theseus myth, the first of which, The King Must Die, is a steaming, passionate retelling of history. Despite Renault’s stated claim of trying to write a more realistic story, it’s full of magic and odd superstitions, including oracles and witches. The Theseus story and various stories surrounding it, has long been a tale of the advent of a new age, a story of rising masculinity (a crucial part of the story takes place in matriarchal Crete) and a fresh Athenian democracy. Theseus’ is a founding myth and if you want to unsettle expectations regarding narrative and history, it’s a fantastic place to start. A good example of how this era of history/myth is used in literature are André Gide and Christa Wolf. Gide, in the 1946 novel Thésée, emphasizes the masculinity, the epochal power of the story, more than Renault, even. Christa Wolf, writing in 1996, only peripherally touches the story of Theseus. Her focus is Medea (the novel is simply called Medea, published in English by Nan A Talese) and her encounter with Jason (Medea is also part of the Theseus story). Wolf takes on a story with a female villain and reverses it, showing, in her use of sources and narrative, to be a patriarchal treatment of a strong female mythical character. Fran Ross, more than two decades earlier, does something similar, but her literary approach couldn’t be more different.

beatty white boy

An underrated, excellent novel on black male identity in our time.

So now I spent a paragraph vaguely contextualizing the book and another one on its story and connection to myth and I haven’t even mentioned the book’s best quality: its incredibly multifaceted and complex writing. In many ways, I think it’s fair to say that Fran Ross’ novel is primarily about language – about the joy of using it, using it to shape stories and silly games. Oreo is a profoundly funny, endlessly quotable book. It contains charts and tables, a large amount of puns, and references that are equal parts clever and silly. Much of it offers us a plea to read the world the way we want to and not the way cultural signposts and expectations want us to read it. The novel comes as close to explaining this point as you can in a novel without becoming just too obnoxious for your own good. It starts with a fictive Wittgenstein quote as an epigraph (“Burp!” is the quote, used because, as the author remarks, “Anything this profound philosopher ever said bears repeating”). There is a list with clues that will lead the protagonist to a secret she is seeking and early on, she decides to read the clues based on her understanding of reality as she engages with it and not the other way around. In other words, contra genre expectations, Oreo, the protagonist of Oreo, does not interpret the note or map and then collect similarities or clues in the real world around her. Instead, she interprets and engages reality and then decided on which clue to connect to it. The linguistic playfulness moves from small observations to linguistic games that pervade the book. Sometimes she plays with the expected gender of words and names, sometimes with the ambiguity of geographical names, sometimes with the tension between story and cultural narratives interwoven with said story. The whole book is also enormously interested in speech and dialect. Early on, we are told that Oreo’s mother Louise speaks in a thick Philadelphia accent, really, so thick and unusual that people generally have trouble understanding her. The author mostly renders it understandable and, early on, even gives us a metafictional aside:

From time to time, her dialogue will be rendered in ordinary English, which Louise does not speak. To do full justice to her speech would require a ladder of footnotes and glosses, a tic of ostrophes (aphaeresis, hypherisis, apocope) and a Louise-ese/ English dictionary of phonetic spellings. A compromise has been struck. Since Louise can work miracles of compression through syncope, it is only fair that a few such condensations be shared with the reader. However, the substitution of an apostrophe for every dropped g, missing r, and absent t would be tantamount to tic douloureux of movable type. To avoid this, some sentences in Louise-ese have been disguised so that they are indistinguishable from English.

Additionally, there is a completely invented dialect, spoken by Oreo’s little brother, as well as the lilt of various Jewish inflections of American English (without falling into the traps of the goy-authored “jewish novel”, as exposed by Cynthia Ozick’s famous takedown of John Updike’s faux-Jewish Bech: A Book), not to count all the other iterations of nonstandard language. The effect is not only magnetic for the reader, who is immediately drawn into the music and rhythm of the book, it also offers an alternate position between the ribald postmodernism of John Barth, where nonstandard speech is usually on display as odd and humorous, but unconnected to the commitments of the work (such as they are with Barth), and the more straightlaced identiy politics of the afrocentric novel, where nonstandard speech expressed identity and difference. A commitment to a different experience and historiography as we have, so far, seen it in novels. Toni Morrison’s scintillating work is an example of that écriture.

medeaI find it important to stress just how innovative and exciting Fran Ross’s enterprise is in Oreo. In what could be read as a thoughtful encounter with Johan Huizinga’s theory of games an playfulness, Ross is engaged in cultural and political criticism without falling into sincerity and seriousness. She clearly assumes that this topic is best tackled with playful engagement and subversion. Replacements and indirect speech mark much of this book’s language and imagery. In fact, the author foregrounds her method: young Oreo has a teacher of English who is obsessed with etymology and will at times only speak indirectly to his student who keeps hunting for words in dictionaries, but

Oreo became adept at instantaneous translations of the professor’s rhizomorphs. “Mr. Benton is worn out by childbearing. Of course, his paper was an ill-starred bottle. I don’t wonder he threatened to sprinkle himself with sacrificial meal.” “You mean,” said Oreo, “that Benton is effete, his paper was a fiasco, and he wanted to immolate himself.”

A few things come to mind. One that, in keeping with the professor’s method, it’s hard not to see the whole episode as an aside referencing the cultural obsession with “roots” among her fellow black writers (which would, two years later, lead to Haley’s blockbuster success Roots). And two, it offers a template for reading the book as using two levels of language (or multiple levels of anything, really; after all, the Theseus intertext also fits in here). Finally, it stresses the role of the reader in assembling and figuring out all the texts sometimes very disparate elements. In this, there are simililary to the Eliotic “mythical method,” but Ross actively undermines the myth, just as she criticises the present. For a black female novelist, the past, mythical or not, does not offer solace or order. The past is mediated by the same cultural tools of oppression as the present, and Ross resists both. This is a book that declines to be part of any group, no matter how tempting or easy it is to attack oneself to a movement. It’s a novel by a writer with a critical eye that asks its reader to look at words and narratives, to look at them and examine their roots. This exceeds simple swaps, even though Ross replaces the virile Theseus with the female Oreo. The book contains violence, deception, an attempted (though hilariously thwarted) rape, but it coats all of it in extraordinarily humorous language.

The cover of the Northeastern edition.

The cover of the Northeastern edition.

For Huizinga, myth-making is, if I remember correctly, a form of play, and play has the power to change, to move things. In the case of Oreo, the challenge is to question everything. Diderot once wrote that “[i]l existoit un homme naturel: on a introduit au dedans de cet homme un homme artificiel, et il s’est elevé dans la caverge une guerre civile qui dure toute la vie.” In a way, and if we stretch the image a bit, a similar war can be said to take place in mid-20th century postmodernism. There are people who are happy to deal with the artificial human inside, some of them using the “mythical method,” which, according to Eliot, is “a step toward making the modern world possible for art.“ They question authority and narrative, but they don’t have anything to put in its place in terms of commitments. On the other side are those writers, like Morrison, who offer a more earnest version of postmodern critical writing. They replace one historical certainty with another, and frequently succeed at establishing tremendous counternarratives. Oreo (and Oreo) declines both possibilities. It is a playful, funny novel that is at the same time deeply cognizant of narrative and oppression. It’s just that Fran Ross appears to believe that playful interrogation is the best way to deal with it. But as the careers of many writers have shown (say, Delmore Schwartz): resisting the siren call of literary movements by being just o so slightly ahead of your time can lead to a quick exit from the memory of literary history. The aforementioned George Schuyler is another frustrating example of this. Look, look, I don’t know whether I made sense 100%, but if you need a tl,dr, it is this: Oreo is an excellent masterpiece. It should have become a classic and we are all fortunate that New Directions decided to bring it back into wide circulation. Now is the time to make up for earlier neglect. Go forth and read Oreo. It is very good.

*

As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)