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