Louis L’Amour, The Californios

{683035FE-823B-4BE9-9D11-82932C1AB5EC}Img100A very good friend and I, about a year ago, were hiking Torrey Pines Park and we were talking about good pulp writers, and not only that but how good pulp writing was really good writing. I consider myself a highbrow lowbrow man all the way. I have read and continue to read “serious” literature, though when I do it tends toward the satirical, but I like to read high-caliber crap. Crap in the best of senses.

So my friend told me, after discussion pulp sci-fi, Dashiell Hammett, and favorably comparing Fritz Leiber to Tolkein, I turned the conversation to Zane Grey, whom I have yet to read. My friend mentioned Louis L’Amour very favorably. I was somewhat shocked. I had in my mind associated L’Amour with both romance novels and the Reagan era, of which I know he wasn’t a part per se but which was the time in which I became aware of him. The romance novel association was because I remember seeing so many romance novels laid out in bookstores, end to end, and seeing a similar thing for Louis L’Amour novels. Or maybe the Western section was by the Romance section. I think it was, actually, in every bookstore there was. I say Reagan era because I remember developing a conscious antipathy to all cowboy mythology because Reagan was such a vicious ass in his faux cowboy gear. I have people from Montana, I know from cowboy, and Reagan wasn’t it.

So, having some time to kill, wanting a bite to eat, and not having a book handy, I stopped into the library and grabbed a L’Amour book. I had a feeling that they were all basically the same and I’ll bet $50 my feeling is correct. I chose The Californios because of the setting only. I figured I might as well root for the home team.

I blew through the book, which I think is the general appeal of L’Amour’s work. This is not simply a beach book, but a short day at the beach book. I don’t think that a brisk read inherently indicates a lack of substance, but I will say that the various critiques of L’Amour I spotted with a quick search–rote and predictable plotting, stereotypical characters–seem to apply. If you want a Western–so-called–that tweaks the genre, go elsewhere.

At the same time, I was surprised by the book. I had associated–Reagan–the genre with political conservatism, and a quick glance around the internet seems to indicate that I’m not the only one, though for some others a conservative bent is a good thing. L’Amour, though, seems like he was relatively good white people. While there’s a sense that indigenous people are of an older time, a typically white view that leads to horrific policy vis-a-vis actually-existing Indians today, native people in L’Amour’s book are real people, not just a vague threat worthy of genocide. The sympathetic white characters explicitly say, regarding native religion, that native people had lived on the land longer and so their religious practices should be taken seriously even if the white character in question didn’t fully understand. Imperfect, but complex. That’s about as good as white Americans get at this historical juncture. To boot, the female characters are as complex as the male characters. Not actually complex, but equally shallow you might say. The book was vastly less offensive than most Western movies, and that’s a good thing.

I can’t complain about the setting, in and around Los Angeles, Malibu most of all, just before the United States invaded Mexico on a flimsy pretext to up and take the land. It made me think about where I live, and at some basic level any book that makes me think is a good book, whatever critiques I might otherwise level.

Gyula Krudy, Sunflower

Krudy-SUNFLOWER-2007-001Every now and again I do a straight random pull off the stacks in the library and give a book a go that nothing in my experience would have led me to intentionally seek. To some extent, I fool myself, because it’s not entirely random. I tend to do this when I find myself in some section that I intended to go to and maybe I end up getting the book I came for and maybe I don’t. In this case, I had accidentally stepped on my Kobo and broke the screen, so I had gone to the library to get their copy of The Water Margin, which was on my Kobo. The library only had one volume of it, so I figured I’d just bite the bullet and replace my device. But my eyes wandered around the shelf where The Water Margin was, and I found Gyula Krudy. One book of his, my library has, but it is fantastic.

It’s a bad tendency of people from the United States to group together disparate societies into fictional wholes because they know next to nothing about them. Africa becomes a country, for example. So I feel somewhat hesitant in even mentioning that I went through a semi-significant phase of reading Czech literature, primarily Jaroslav Hasek and Karel Capek, in my 20’s. The impact was strong and there was a musical artifact of my own.

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I’m sort of embarrassed that having read a modest amount of Czech literature that I feel I have some background that primes me for a Hungarian writer. And yet, there it is.

I do know enough to know that I know very little about what we in the United States call Eastern Europe to know that nobody ever taught me very much about Hungary except that Magyar is not a Slavic language. This strikes me as really important in terms of why I had never heard of Krudy, who strikes me, at least from this preliminary example, as one of the finest novelists I’ve come across. The back cover uses descriptive words like “satirical” and “surreal,” or at least words along those lines, and there’s talk in the introduction of Krudy as a “modern” novelist. I’ve since returned the book so I can’t check for precision here. The point here is that upon reading the book it’s clear why someone would call much of what happens in the book “surreal,” or “satirical,” but when one says “surreal” one immediately calls to mind someone like Andre Breton, and the comparison is misleading. There is an outsized absurdity to the characterization–in an entirely satisfying way–that at times made me think of Gogol, but I like Gogol so much that I compare basically anything satirical to him and, in fact, Krudy’s satire, if we want to call it that, is not really Gogolian. And it’s a mistake to try to lump him in with literary modernism in the sense most people in this country understand it–Joyce, Stein, etc. He’s not really operating with the same parameters as that crowd. I got the feeling, reading him, that much as Magyar sustained an endogamous development, that I imagine its literature did as well. I could be horribly wrong, but Krudy’s work is, among what I’ve read, totally unique, and it’s for that reason that I make these suppositions.

Get the book. Krudy should be read much more widely in this country.

Haruki Murakami, After Dark

df124716-cfdb-58c5-a5f5-390bed2fa7ed.preview-300Six or seven years ago a good friend, also a reader, gave me two Murakami books for my birthday: Norwegian Wood and After the Quake. I read the latter first and absolutely loved it. The former I started but didn’t finish. I have a long-standing policy of not finishing books I don’t actually want to read. I think the habit must have started in elementary school, as soon as teachers started assigning books, because in all my schooling I never really wanted to read anything my teachers assigned, and I never really read anything in school. When the teacher assigned Vonnegut I thanked God it was The Sirens of Titan, which I’d already read on my own by that time. I actually did skim it for class which was for me a pretty good showing.

I will be clear from the start that I did finish the book and I did enjoy it. This speaks of a basic quality of the book. That said, After Dark is by no means a great book and this is particularly disappointing given Murakami’s elevated reputation. This is a writer whose name one drops for literary hipster cred. And I say that having really enjoyed, as I noted above, one of his books. I remember as I read it–before this “blog” came into being–thinking more than once, “ah…this is really interesting. I think that’s one of the things I read for, those moments when I see things in a way I hadn’t expected to see.

But here we have bits like the following. The full text is from the book, and the strikethrough is mine.

A thin cream-colored coat and red pumps. The shoe bottoms are worn out of shape. A deep pink, beaded crew-neck sweater, an embroidered white blouse, a tight blue miniskirt. Black pantyhose. Underthings of an intense pink with an unmistakably synthetic lace trim. These pieces of clothing give an impression that is less sexual than sad. (128)

There is nothing in the experience of a work of art that makes my skin crawl more than being told how to feel about something that happens. I’ve never expressed it here, but I detest everything Steven Spielberg has ever done, even the things I actually enjoyed watching. And why? Because he hates his audience. Only an artist who hates his audience would, as Spielberg persistently does, tell them how to feel. You can imagine my disappointment that Murakami descended here to Spielberg’s depths.

A writer should approach text like Hitchcock, not Spielberg. Hitchcock directed the viewers’ attention, where Spielberg directs their emotion. Strike out that last sentence, and we have perfect mise en scene a la Hitchcock, or that great shot in “Citizen  Kane” where Kane and the doctor break down the bedroom door, the one that’s in every film textbook.

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In the film, Welles, like Hitchcock, has entirely prepared us to see the glass, spoon and bottle. No explanation is needed and we know entirely what it means. As a result, our feelings on seeing them are appropriate. The things onscreen elicit our response. This is how a writer, particularly a writer of fiction, should write.

As it happens, Murakami–who can, in fact, write–has likewise set up the scene. I remember reading the list of clothing and finding it incredibly sad. And then, that last line.

These pieces of clothing give an impression that is less sexual than sad.

When I read that it was like getting slapped in the face by an insult. One of my pet terrors is that we live in a society that is becoming more elitist while producing elites of diminishing quality. This line struck me as clear evidence of the process. If this is how one of the “great writers” of the day approaches the craft and his audience, we’re more screwed than I had previously imagined.

I also wondered who the h**l edited the book. No way would that have gotten past an editor of serious fiction at Random House back in the ’50’s or early ’60’s. The assumption was that the reader was capable of doing some of the work in the work of art. None of this back then, at least in “serious fiction.” Again, my strikethrough.

Backed up by electric piano, acoustic bass, and drums, Takahashi is playing a long trombone solo, Sonny Rollins “Sonnymoon for Two,” a midtempo blues. (163)

Now, any writer who cites Sonny Rollins scores a few points with me. And in my case, I would have gotten the reference immediately without aid. Most readers at this point, and likely when the record was new as well, wouldn’t have known the tune. But when Joyce packed Ulysses full of references, he very consciously didn’t pad them with explanations. He thought enough of his readers to assume they would put forth the effort to chase down his references if they were curious. And Joyce is not so scary and high-falutin’ as some people would have you believe, if you just put in the time and effort.

A work of art does not exist as a thing, but comes into being as it is experienced by an audience. The artist is not the most important part of the relationship between artist, work of art, and audience. It’s the audience. And when a reference in a novel doesn’t just let the reference be but explains it–in this case, tells the reader who composed the tune, and what type of tune it is–the novel, the author, and the industry kill the process of the reception of the novel as an active, imaginative process. We need novels that let their readers breathe, not that do their breathing for them.

Don’t misunderstand me. I finished the book. It was good enough to finish.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

invisible-citiesI’d read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities a number of years ago, decades. I’d read Borges, and started thinking about all the talk about “the postmodern novel” or whatever one might call it. I’d taken a course in college in which Calvino was assigned, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and I felt an antipathy toward it at the time. Likely, I felt an antipathy above all to what I felt, at times in hindsight justifiably but not as generally as I then felt, was an antipathy toward the pompous Lit majors who would pontificate about the book when they hadn’t read it. I only skimmed it, but I kept my mouth shut.

So it was part of a process of opening up to the world, at the time very incomplete, that I allowed myself to read Calvino in my 20’s. I read most of his work over a two-year period. As it happens, I really did enjoy If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler least of the lot. Invisible Cities, the first of a serier that I’d read on a friend’s recommendation, I enjoyed most, followed very closely by The Castle of Crossed Destinies.

I’ll start with the uncharitable read of the work. At some level, Calvino is Borges-lite, for the NPR crowd. Above all, he reads incredibly easily for someone who associated himself with semiotics. I am all for easy reading on its own merits, but the situation is ripe for abuse by the audience. While most of us won’t slog through Barthes if there isn’t credit attached to it, we can read Calvino, talk about postmodernism (-structuralism, semiotics, or whatever), and feel like we’re cool. We heard these terms on NPR on some report as we were driving to work. We know we should use them. With Calvino, you get a lot of name-dropping bang for your buck. You can say “Oulipo,” and then tsk-tsk your interlocutor for mistaking the word for a font.
Borges, on the other hand–or at least the Borges of Ficciones–is a graceful, engaging read, but not an easy one if you pause a bit and scratch below the surface. He’s playing–we will get to this–with some of the same things as Calvino, but in a way that is not quite as light.This gets to the charitable read of the work. Calvino’s real virtues, as far as I can tell, rarely get talked about. Above all, Calvino has as light a quality to his writing as anyone I’ve read. Lightness, I have said again and again my friends will attest, is my cardinal virtue in any form of art. This is a matter of personal taste, without doubt. Lightness, too, does not mean insubstantial, or “lightweight.” The best example I can find in any medium of this quality of lightness would be Jo Jones‘ playing in the Basie band of 1938.

Invisible Cities–I haven’t yet actually described the book–is a series of descriptions of imaginary cities threaded together as an ostensible dialogue between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. These descriptions are by no means all equal. At their best, though, they give a feeling of a lifting of the reader, this reader anyway. It’s like I’m in a hot air ballon, floating somewhere. This feeling is absolutely priceless.

This is the kind of thing that I never hear discussed about Calvino, and which I’m sure he’d be thrilled to hear. Calvino associated with hip postmodernists before it was hip, but he also, like Bakhtin, was fascinated by pre-modern popular culture, in particular folk literature as his collection of Italian folktales retold bears witness. Calvino’s approach at some level is that of a storyteller rather than po-mo novelist.

Calvino might be hip, but I have a clear sense that being hip was not his agenda. Rather, like a storyteller in a traditional setting, he very clearly wanted to produce in his reader a sense, through fiction, of a wider world of being than what any one individual’s daily life encompasses. Reading Invisible Cities, I get a clear feeling that the world is wide and that anything is possible. Art can communicate this. With Welles, people talk about his use of the camera, his play with narrative, his self-conscious artificiality, but his real virtue as an artist is–present tense–that he communicates the idea that anything can be done. I get this feeling with Calvino.

As with Welles, Calvino plays with his medium. The most obvious example of this is The Castle of Crossed Destinies, the writing of which he began by laying down a bunch of tarot cards on a table to see what lay where. It is this sense of play, in the most basic sense, not in a hipster po-mo kind of non-play play pretension, that produces that feeling of lightness so critical to the beauty of any work of art.

So, with Calvino, we need to discard all talk of the postmodern novel, semiotics, and post-structuralism. Attaching these terms to Calvino is like attaching lead weights to an air ballon. Rather, when we discuss Calvino, we need to see his work for what it is. Calvino’s work is light, fun, easy reading that opens a reader up to the idea that the possibility of the world is far from exhausted. I can’t imagine that Calvino wouldn’t prefer this type of discussion.

George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings

A-Clash-of-KingsBeset by illness, I plowed through the last 200 pages of A Clash of Kings much more quickly than I expected to. A part of me had thought I’d finish both it and the ensuing A Storm of Swords before the third season of the HBO series began, but that train’s left the station. 960 pages is long. Needless to say, the best part of being fairly sick was the time spent with this book. Generally I felt awful.

Substantively, A Clash of Kings improved on A Game of Thrones. We all miss Ned Stark, but what struck me, having seen the series, was how well-developed the characters are in this second book compared to the series. Arya Stark stands out. There’s a lot more going on with her in the book than the show. So too Davos, Stannis Baratheon’s “Onion Knight.” These are fantastic characters, and the show simply does not do them justice.

Any glance at any of the bits I’ve written on fantasy here will reveal that one of my hobby horses is to bemoan how thoroughly Eurocentric the genre as it exists is. I noted that while Martin certainly demolishes Tolkein’s almost entirely-male conceptual precedent, he does so in a world that is, basically, late Medieval Europe. In particular, I am concerned when indigenous people–in Martin’s world we have “the Children of the Forest” are “all gone” or at least presumed to be.

My point has nothing to do with fantasy lit per se but rather that I’ve had too many conversations with actually-existing white people (it’s white people that concern me most because I am one, and because they still hold, as a group, social sway in this country) who say things like, “gee, the Native Americans really had a good thing going. Too bad they’re all gone.” This, despite the very real presence of all kinds of Native people not only on reservations but living in your city, white man. This approach allows this country to not deal with the present results of past genocide, and it’s not good. So, when I see that trope play itself out in fantasy lit, I know that it soothes the white subconscious in a way that will not move us forward.

So, let me then say that it’s becoming clear that Martin’s approach to indigenous people is more nuanced than was clear, or at least clear to me, in A Game of Thrones. First, we meet Jojen, who has the ability of greensight. He is of a group of people who, while not children of the forest, “keep the old ways.” Those old ways, clearly, still work in this new world of Westeros, and that is leagues removed from the idea that “those nice people are all dead and gone now.” It puts the question of our full, human relationship to land and ancestry into the present, rather than the past. There are other examples as well: Bran Stark is a “warg,” inhabiting the body of his direwolf in dreams, and one gets the feeling that we will meet children of the forest in later volumes. Good for Martin.

I’m nearly 200 pages into the third book as I write this. I don’t feel like I’ll bother with the HBO series for some time, if at all. Good series, better books.

Mariama Ba, So Long a Letter

I first heard of Marieme Ba’s Une Si Longue Lettre when living in Dakar, but despite its great reputation and brevity–89 pages in my translation–I only just got to it.  My mistake, in some ways, but on the other hand, having gotten a bit older, gone through a lot, and learned to understand more about people, it’s just as well I came to it now.

To briefly rehearse the plot: Ramatoulaye’s husband took, as allowed by law and custom, a much younger wife.  She rightly understands this as a rejection.  He dies suddenly, and she faces both her past and her future.  She pens a long letter–89 pages in my translation–to her friend, Aissatou, relating her thoughts.

The book, more than one bit on the internet points out, is often used in post-colonial lit courses to illustrate the “woman’s point-of-view,” etc.  This is certainly appropriate, such as it is.  It is also pointed to as an example of an African feminism, which I would not disagree with either.  I am in favor I will stress of both endeavors.

The problem is that a lot of people will read those two descriptions above, imagine that they know what to expect–post-colonial=Europe bad, African feminism=African and European men bad–and completely miss what’s actually happening.  It’s well-known that liberatory movements are often misrepresented, but less commonly noted that this is often done by sympathizers.

As regards the book’s post-colonial place: Ba was of the first generation of independent young people in Senegal.  As such, and not unlike the brilliant Ousmane Sembene, she works through, in her literature, the realization that independence was the start of a lot of work for the country–in this case, Senegal–even more than it was the end of a process.  A line stands out:

One does not easily overcome the burdens of a thousand years. (73)

Ramatoulaye is shocked to find her daughters smoking:

Suddenly, I became afraid of the flow of progress.  Did they also drink? Who knows, one vice leads to another.  Does it mean that one can’t have modernism without the lowering of moral standards? (77)

There is nothing conservative about these concerns, despite the internal discourse in the United States.  Ba is facing a central fact of modern capitalism: it doesn’t care about people.  It cares about selling.  I had a friend who spent some time in Russia immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union.  He noted a proliferation of old US pornography, Penthouse more than anything, he said, sold on the “free market” in Russian kiosks.  Yes: one can’t have modernism without the lowering of moral standards.  We can discuss the dynamics of those morals, i.e., who makes them, how they are enforced, etc., all from a critical angle, but I say as a leftist that at some point we need to discuss in more detail not just the problems in out societies, but what kinds of communities we want to form.  This is where those of us living in citadel of capital need to shut up and listen to the peripheries.

The question of African feminism is critical as well.  I will note anecdotally that both my wife at the time and I noticed in Senegal that we saw patriarchy everywhere, but very little if any misogyny.  Neither of us would have allowed the possibility that the two were separable before we lived there, but we witnessed it.  We were there nine months, too–not just a quick trip.  By no means were things equal: as Ba notes as a matter of course, there are strict limits on women in the Senegal of her day.  However, she conceives, contra a universalizing white feminism in which everyone is essentially the same save for social construction, or an essentializing white feminist in which all women are more or less the same, a feminism which means that people are free to be who they are.  She does not, however, reject a dualistic approach to gender:

I remain persuaded of the inevitable and necessary complementarity of man and woman. (88)

You can reject this proposition and furthermore note its heteronormativity, and I’ll say that for my part I do, but do so understanding its context.  This is not a feminist who is behind the times (the white people in the US being au courant), nor has she merely been browbeaten by the oppressor.  This is a reflection of a place where there are emphatically two unequal gendered spheres, but in which each values the other.  This is a far cry from US misogyny.

Ishmael Reed, Flight to Canada

As I have noted more than once before, Ishmael Reed is likely my favorite living author and certainly my favorite living satiristFlight to Canada is a very good friend’s Reed book of choice.

This may very well be the Reed book with which to start.  Mumbo Jumbo certainly puts forward a broad critical-theoretical framework in a way that Flight to Canada doesn’t, but by Reed’s standards the fact that Flight to Canada feels, using a more conventional syntax that either Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down or Mumbo Jumbo, like a more conventional read, makes it a good way in.

Reed, as far as substance goes, sacrifices nothing.  Set during and immediately after the United States’ Civil war, the topic here is black resistance.  Correctly, Reed gives us no compliant Blacks in the narrative, but rather shows numerous different, active responses to slavery and racist violence.  There’s the titular escape, but also Uncle Robin’s staying close to Master Swille and ultimate reliance on ancestral gods/spirits to inherit his estate: certainly a victory.  Reed has a sure sense of what resistance is, but a broad notion of what it might be.  Famously, on p. 88 of my edition:

Each man to his own Canada.

Words to live by.

Briefly: Reed’s humor is entirely on display throughout the novel.  Frequently, I laughed out loud, and as far as raw, satirical humor goes, his only equal might be the Marx Brothers at their best.  Truly, he’s that funny.

I’m at a loss for further words and have already returned the book to the library.  Get the book an read it for yourself, and fill with gratitude.

Frank Herbert, Dune Messiah

Cover of "Dune Messiah (Dune Chronicles, ...

Cover of Dune Messiah (Dune Chronicles, Book 2)

I suppose I should sum up right at the beginning.  Both Frank Herbert and I should have left well-enough alone: he in the writing, and me in the reading.  I had been told that none of Dune‘s sequels was cut from anything resembling the same quality of cloth, and Dune Messiah proved the point.

Famously, Miles Davis asked John Coltrane why he soloed for so long.  Coltrane responded that he didn’t know how to stop.  Miles then said, “take the horn out of your mouth.”  I side in that discussion with Coltrane, but Miles, had he been speaking with Frank Herbert, would have been right on point.  Put down the pen.  If nothing else, Dune Messiah is a cautionary tale about the dangers of continued writing after a story is over.

A few points about Dune itself.  It straddled a lot of lines politically, and this allowed some appeal.  Paul Atreides, led the Fremen, an occupied, indigenous underclass on its own planet, Arrakis, to not only power but to conquest of other planets.  Written in the 1960’s, Dune benefited from the broader historical context of the anti-imperialist struggle.  One sympathized with the Fremen, who were the good guys.  Herbert, as I noted in my first piece, focused on Paul–we might call him “Lawrence of Arrakis”–for reasons I wasn’t entirely sure of.  Was it a plot device or did Herbert see natives as historically passive?  We find out in Dune Messiah that, indeed, natives are historically passive.  No surprise here, but certainly disappointment.

The bulk of the struggle in the book, if not necessarily the plot, is Paul’s regret over his role in history.  He unleashed a Fremen jihad, leading to the deaths of billions, and can do nothing to stop it.  Poor boy gets all weepy half the time in his imperial helplessness.  We now get Herbert’s take on liberation movements: aren’t they all just bloody messes in the end?  This is how liberals justify the maintenance of a bloody, but normalized, status quo.  Oh, but if we changed things, people might get hurt.  I don’t suggest that bloodshed should be taken lightly, but this line of thought is precisely the kind of thing that Gramsci was dealing with when he looked at liberals’ role in capitalist hegemony.

Much is made, largely through the character of Alia, Paul’s sister, of the cultishness of the Fremen.  Paul detests what he takes to be their naive superstition.  One can take this position if one wants, and we can agree or disagree–I myself  have had enough experience in meditation to no longer doubt the possibility of basically any religious sentiment or experience.  The problem here is that Paul detests this superstition, or religiosity, while getting filthy rich off it.  Paul, seen through the lens of his personal morality and its revulsion at bloodshed, is sympathetic.  Seen through the lens of his class position, he is, at best, an ass.

I have been told not to bother with the other books in the series.  An AA buddy told me that, in fact, they get progressively more inane.  I accept his advice.  Let it be known though, that Herbert did, in fact, write one great novel.  That’s an achievement.

Ben Okri, Songs of Enchantment

I’ve read and commented on Ben Okri beforeSongs of Enchantment was marketed as a sequel, but the word implies a type of linearity that doesn’t apply with Okri.  I don’t know the extent to which I began the book in an unfocused state–which I definitely did–and thus found it less than dazzling or whether the book was in fact itself was less than its predecessor.  I admit to the former but incline to the latter.   I invite opinions to the contrary.

I should make a few things clear.  First, I am not opposed to formula, as my appreciation of crap fantasy should make clear.  What I am opposed to is formula that I spot as I’m reading it, and while Okri didn’t necessarily follow the type of formula one might be taught in an introductory creative writing class, there is a somewhat predictable ebb and flow to the book.  A chapter presents a series of events–I saw a swarm of green butterflies fly from the nose and mouth of the dead man after he called my name backwards (my invention in Okri’s style)–and ends “and then everything we knew changed overnight, period.  The next chapter picks up and goes somewhere else with little sense of connection to the previous.  I am not wedded to linearity, but when one’s words seem to demand it and one doesn’t deliver, I’m not inclined to attribute it to careful writing, especially after Okri proved his worth so thoroughly in The Famished Road.

One should not expect any author to conform to any external standards.  That said, one should expect that if one creates expectations, that one fulfils them in some way.  The ending to the Sopranos, for example, was a categorical cop-out, made worse by the way some people tried to rationalize its total failure.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnT7nYbCSvM%5D

I would have loved to have been genuinely surprised rather than disgusted, but that ending cheated me.  We can on slightly different terms disagree with Okri’s decision to write this book.  Rather than finishing before the actual end, he continues long after.  The Famished Road is the novel.  Songs of Enchantment is merchandising.

Interestingly, Azaro, the focal point in the first novel and a deeply engaging character there, is fairly peripheral here.  Madame Koto was a deeply tragic figure in The Famished Road.  She began, outcasted socially but connected to Azaro, as heroic: a single woman making her way in the world, and one with powers to boot.  Then–taking a cue from Things Fall Apart–the outcast sides with external powers almost as revenge against her local adversaries.  Her bar becomes the local hangout for the Party of the Rich.  It’s sad, but very understandable, and the difficulties of her changed relationship with Azaro moved me very genuinely.

In Songs of Enchantment, I would imagine a few different things might happen.  Mme. Koto, I would hope, would redeem herself in some way.  I’m a sucker, I admit.  On the other hand, she might die.  What actually happens is that she periodically pops into the novel with no development at all beyond what we got in The Famished Road.

I practice Buddhism, and it is the best thing in my life.  As such, I don’t want to suggest that stasis is a bad thing.  What I would say, though, is that stasis isn’t static.  Things happen, but things don’t just happen.  Above all, we don’t go to a novel for stasis.  We go to our cushion.  My earlier point, that Songs of Enchantment is marketing, was honest.  I genuinely am convinced that the impulse for the novel came from the publisher rather than the author.

Ishmael Reed, Juice!


I’m pretty sure that Ishmael Reed is my favorite living novelist from the United States.  I won’t dwell on whatever controversy Reed has engendered, above all accusations of misogyny or a tendency to characterize groups without nuance.  I read novels because I get something meaningful out of the process.  Gogol was an anti-semite, but Dead Souls is required reading, for example.  As far as whatever controversy goes, Reed has been assailed and defended himself, and that’s between other people I won’t even bother looking up to find links to.

Prior to reading Juice!, I’d read only two of Reed’s novels, Mumbo Jumbo and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down.  Both had an absurd feeling that reminded me of the Marx Brothers, both demolished United States mythologies, and both posited a particular and at the same time open Blackness–not Reed’s specific word–as an alternative to white, racist capitalism.  I was particularly pleased at how Reed made ancestral religious practice current in both novels.

I’d read none of his later novels, until this most recent one.  Without doubt, times have changed and Reed’s approach has as well.  The novel centers (entirely–it’s from one perspective throughout) on an older Black cartoonist who becomes by his own admission obsessed with O.J. Simpson‘s murder trial, which he sees as a proxy trial for Black men generally, a sound perspective as far as I can tell.

I did not follow the trial when it happened.  I was in grad school and was more interested in playing jazz, drinking, drinking more (nothing glamorous about this, it screwed me up), and finding time in those last minutes to cram for class.  When he was acquitted, I figured there was a reason.  I didn’t know enough to say with certainty anything, but I know that things are stacked against a murder defendant, and if there’s an acquittal it indicates that there was some issue with evidence.

I mention this because much of the book reads more like an essay demonstrating evidentiary flaws in the prosecution’s case.  It’s interesting and I don’t feel that a novel need or even should be strict narrative.  Many people think O.J. murdered his wife, and might be upset with this discussion.  Don’t know what to tell you.

The real point of the novel, though, has nothing to do with whether or not O.J. murdered his wife.  Indeed, the narrator’s views on the subject change, though not as dramatically as some of his friends.  The point is the social use of the trial.  In this, I can’t but find Reed’s presentation of it flawless.  The Simpson trial made it safe for the white media–often called the “mainstream media”–to excrete all of its racist anxiety over Black men and call it “The News.”  This “Jim Crow media” hasn’t changed since the trial.  As almost an afterthought, as it falls chronologically at the end of the story, Reed points out that President Obama faces the same media.

The white media, Reed points out, does not by any means always present a white face to the public, even though the characters in the book who either own or manage the TV station at which Bear, the narrator, works are white.  The white media, like the British Raj, seeks collaborators from among the colonized to act as intermediaries with the public.  Three cases-in-point stand out: Princessa Bimbette, a Latina broadcaster who presumes O.J.’s guilt during the trial, and Jagid and Jagan, who host “Nigguz News,” which showcases Black people behaving badly and has some of the highest ratings on the station.  Reed in one passage puts it more broadly:

After two years, white women were over fifty percent of the employees at KCAK, but there was a growing number of Latinos.  The ‘right’ Latinos.  Those who were opposed to Latino Studies, bilingual education, and those who were not offended that the only consistent stories about Latinos KCAK broadcast involved girl gangs and Mexican immigrants.  (206)

The door is open if you fit the profile and can turn off some of the workings of your intellect.

One particular line stood out in the novel, because it throws the entire episode of the Simpson trial and its aftermath into proper historical context, that of the past 500 years or so:

In a settler society, when one of the settlers is murdered, the nearest native has to be burned.  (203)

This is not about whether or not Simpson did anything.  It is about the requirements of a settler colony, of which the United States continues to be one.