Tricky, this was a tricky read. I knew it would be a tough one for me. I heard about it when it came out and decided it wasn’t for me, and I voted agaTricky, this was a tricky read. I knew it would be a tough one for me. I heard about it when it came out and decided it wasn’t for me, and I voted against it at book club but what do you know.
But a challenging read is of indescribable value; it’s why literature and learning happen. And this book embodies that distinction, a good book that is enormously difficult rather than something that wastes your time.
I can’t say I liked it very much, but I don’t know that the book is for me to like, if it is for any audience specifically. I’m white and I don’t know what it feels like to be not white and read this many n-words in a book, for instance. I know how it makes me feel to read this many n-words in a book. Is that the result the author wanted to convey? Or was he working on a different job entirely, and I read his book and inserted myself like it matters? There is a scene in the book at an all-black comedy club when a white couple arrives and enjoys themselves immensely, part of the crowd, which incenses the emcee who furiously kicks them out from onstage. Preventing a crisis of appropriation, perhaps. Or self-segregating, perhaps, whispers the book.
Because the book is satire — a thing I struggle with — it is full of bald events like this one which whisper underneath. Is it saying the thing it says it’s saying, or is it silently painting another picture? I was thinking, while I read, of how I wanted to define satire in relationship to this story. I think it is like this: when a crazy thing happens, that might possibly happen in real life but which nervous people might definitely excuse as an exception to the norm, then in this book it will happen twenty more times. Crafting the norm out of crazy things you can’t believe, any one of which is probably real. Or provably real.
But realness, some kind of genuine punch, is what I read novels for, and so I have a really hard time remembering how to enjoy an “over the top” or satirical story. Stereotypes and caricatures, even deliberately drawn, are difficult for me to connect with. Probably I’m not supposed to connect with them exactly. (Listen, I didn’t enjoy Candide either so I’m just really not good at this.) This book pumps up stereotypes in order to be funny, but it is aiming at deadly serious business, and watching those hits happen is head-spinning and sort of nerve-wracking. Like the scene at the film festival of racist movies, when we see an interracial group of friends getting ready to leave at the end, not knowing how to feel with each other. Trying to laugh it off. Probably wishing they could retreat from the shared guilt of what they just watched, and pretend they never did.
It is so skilful, though, an incredibly interesting piece of writing. The first page is absolutely astonishing, my jaw dropped and I knew I was in for something real. Its style is breathless and wild, a bizarre monologue that zips through eighty-three weird and uncomfortable and hilarious ideas per page. The narrative rhythm is nothing short of masterful. (It benefits from prolonged reading, rather than short bursts on a commute or at mealtimes.) I thought: I’m tired of it being so completely vulgar, I’m tired of it using such completely racist language, I’m tired of it using so much slang and undertone that I wish there could be some sort of data on reader demographics and joke-reference comprehension*. But it’s amazing writing, and at times simply beautiful to any reader of any literature.
(*I’ve read this for a book club based outside the US, so that is going to make an interesting meeting.)
Unfortunately there are some things about it as a novel, regardless of genre, that I didn’t think worked well. Mostly, it’s disappointing to lose out on (view spoiler)[an ending that clarifies any aspect of the plot or what happens to any characters. Why don’t we get a clue about the Supreme Court verdict in the end? It’s too big a point in a book like this to just leave on the jumbled pile of crazy happenings. (hide spoiler)]. But I was so pleased that something soft did break through, for me, and in the end I saw there were embers of feeling there all along, in his lack of meaning in his father’s last words, in his love for Marpessa. And the raggedy genius of so many of the jokes (“Godard approached filmmaking as criticism, the same way Marpessa approached bus driving”), and the words often so earnestly ugly. What a cool and unique thing.
Reading this even though I didn’t think that I wanted to was a sharp, sharp reminder that it’s stupid and cruel to be shy of things I don’t know how to engage with. If I don’t feel like it’s my job to do it, I’m probably just supposed to learn....more
This was a “finally” read for me, as a title that’s repeatedly arisen during my life as a reader, but I’ve never actually gotten close to it before. TThis was a “finally” read for me, as a title that’s repeatedly arisen during my life as a reader, but I’ve never actually gotten close to it before. Then it was my inaugural read for a new book club, and that seemed like fate!
The truth is that I was a little bit disappointed. A bit, perhaps, a case of too much hype — even the Waterstones guy at the mall in my neighborhood had to stop, as he handed it over. “Great book, absolutely heartbreaking… Wonderful, though!” Okay, it was going to be sad. Okay, it was going to be wonderful! In some way or another I’d heard this all my life, so, I had it pegged.
Before reading, I couldn’t really grok how the premise would get us anywhere, and in a way I still feel this after reading: a “mute” (the term used at this time for a deaf man who doesn’t speak — is this word still used in the deaf community?) becomes the confessor for four lonely souls in a southern US town. This is exactly what the book is, structurally. Simply put, there’s four people who decide that this man is special, and bring their troubles to him. He can read lips, sometimes, but he never says a word.
Troubling, of course. We can see them failing at their confessions right away; the relationship is primarily perceived on their parts rather than real. Singer doesn’t know why they come to him. He watches their lips to be polite. He hosts them in his room, even buys them a radio he can’t hear, to be polite. Because he, too, doesn’t want to be alone. He, too, has a friend to whom he tells everything, another deaf man to whom he signs passionately during their visits… but who doesn’t seem to actually understand any sign language. And so it goes.
But I had trouble following the logic of people’s feelings. It’s hard to build all this emotion on what we’re given. There is a deeply tragic ending, and although we can believe what we’re told — that these people depend immensely upon one another like a stack of dominoes — I didn’t really understand that it would all come about the way that it’s shown to. For a novel that is essentially nothing but character-driven, it felt a bit like pure plot contrivance. It felt a bit like a first novel. (It, of course, was.)
On the other hand, certainly, there is more in the depth of the book than its premise. Some very famous and beautifully written lines of literature, which I recognized, are here. (I love the design of this Pocket Penguins edition which places a beloved quote where the title page would go.) The fan favorite, I think, is the teenage girl Mick, who yearns and sacrifices but also is given a frank and surprising chapter of lovely happiness and confusion, lyrical and fading. The standout of the book, for me. Also, Mick convinced me to go and listen to Beethoven’s third symphony, so thank you Mick.
The main thing that gave the book power to me was the prescience in its politics. Primarily, Dr. Copeland’s sections in which he contemplates the failure of a lifelong passion are so moving and also disturbing. He reflects on his world as a black man, and the achievement of becoming well educated in the first half of the twentieth century in America. He longs to lead, to improve the lives that make up black society. He wants them to rise, to want to rise. But he sees his adult children: they are too like their mother, they didn’t study, they speak in a poor dialect and hardly speak to him at all. He looks at the victims of the cycle of poverty and projects a generalized rage and blame. He is sort of a proto Bill Cosby, activism-wise. But he tries to educate, he tries to raise others up. He dreams of organizing a march on Washington for black people, and is p-shawed. How could that ever succeed, African-Americans organizing a mass march to D.C.?
The fact of this book existing in 1940 is what got me. It references current news events — some uneasy side-eyeing at Hitler, a WPA art class for the kids — and inhabits the moral ambiguity of the time. Although it often feels like Our Town: The Novel, it’s also quite real and to read it knowing what its characters and readers were about to experience in the next several years is profound. But it is also of its time in less readable ways; it uses the n-word and other racist language even in its sympathetic views (I counted three references to homes with “a certain Negro smell” and many over-repeated descriptions of thick lips). And I can’t decide whether the story is punishing Mick for her one good day, or whether it is portraying a realistic result.
In the end, the book hurt most because it made me think about how good a talk can be. I missed my friend with whom I had the best conversations of my life, someone I haven’t heard from in a long time. Lightning in a bottle, a loneliness I can’t bear.