09 December 2015

MUST READING: BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

BY TA-NEHISI COATES 


What is there left to say of this extraordinary treatise? 152 pages short, packed to the brim with elegant prose, elegiac rumination, smatterings of racial and political history, and the nearly desperate questions of an intellectual mind trapped in a vulnerable black body. Must reading for every thinking individual, every person of any color who cares about racial disharmony.  
           
The winner this year of the National Book Award, the book takes the form of a letter to Coates’ son, a 15-year old coming to terms with his own susceptibility in light of what seems an escalating epidemic of young black lives destroyed by law enforcement officials. Perhaps no more so than in the past, Coates contends, rather more public by virtue of cell phone video and social media. And, perhaps, by a continued lack of obstacles, allowing in some way, police and like kind to run amok, even in the Obama era, a time that portended racial equanimity.

The book may be seen as a parallel to James Baldwin’s THE FIRE NEXT TIME, also written to a 15-year old [his nephew] although in a more optimistic tone of voice. In the original New York Times review, written by writer/activist Michelle Alexander, Coates was taken to task for his defeatist attitude, even as the book was praised for originality, writing, and brutal honesty. I cannot address this book in the way Alexander can, a person of color and a civil rights lawyer, although I have researched and written about race in my novel COLORS OF THE WHEEL. Still, I agree with this one critique that the book seems unfinished, as if the hypothesis to a scientific exploration was postulated without the ensuing methodology to prove the theory and suggest solutions.

As short as the book is, I had to put it down every so often, the pain of Coates’ reality often too hard to take. Of course, that is exactly what he wants us to feel, to not shy from the discomfort, as he and his ancestors have not been permitted to do, rather feel every punch. And now and then he drifts into more philosophical thoughts, so beautifully articulated, it is worth reading slowly and perhaps more than once.
            
So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.
            
I was especially moved by Coates definition of persecution as the control of the body. Not the mind or legal rights or social opportunity, as has been written many times, but the simple dominion over one’s own body. Black beings, particularly young black men and women, can never safely secure their own bodies. From lynching to backseats on the bus to police shootings, wherever they go, they are exposed.
            
As W. E. B. DuBois said shortly after the Civil War, blacks suffer from “Double-Consciousness” – no matter the achievements, the life path or intent, all people of color are considered first by color, second by all else, and must live up to double standards as well:
            
One ever feels his two-ness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
            
This country was founded on the domination of indigenous people of color and nourished into an economic force by the enslavement of Africans, and has yet, no matter civil rights laws, the election of a brown President nor the continuing elevation of black-Americans into positions of greater authority, to recognize that we are one. What happened to one for all and all for one? Whenever we lessen another life, or allow another life to be decimated, we diminish our own humanity.
            
As the writer of this fascinating work, Coates has every right, and responsibility, as journalist and parent, and citizen, to remind us we have a long way to go, and to do so in such brilliant writing is a gift.
            
Read it. Tell your friends to read it. Tell your college-age kids to read it. Talk about it. That alone is not going to create change, but it is a good start.
            
The birth of a better world is not ultimately up to you, although I know, each day, there are grown men and women who tell you otherwise. The world needs saving precisely because of the actions of these same men and women. I am not a cynic. I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every  new inch I discover. But you are a black boy; you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful – the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. And this is not reducible to just you – the women around you must be responsible for their bodies in a way that you will never know. You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton and gold.

Ta-Nehisi Coates BETWEEN THIS WORLD AND ME

18 October 2015

HISTORY-MYSTERY

E. L. Doctorow

Periodically I like to look back into the canon of a writer I admire and usually find gems lurking in their past, as well as a glimpse into the accomplished writer they’ve become. In this case, the great E. L. Doctorow, who sadly passed away recently, and Colum McCann, perhaps E.L.’s successor, as both write powerfully compelling fiction within historical context. As it turns out, both novels had at their core a mystery – a mystery of disappearance, a mystery of identities, as well as the greater mysteries of the universe – and both begin in NYC more than a hundred years ago. Add to this mix a first-time, self-published novelist weaving a thriller set in the months after 9/11, which might be said to be fictional history in the making.

WATERWORKS by Doctorow takes place in the years following the Civil War in NYC. Narrated by a newspaper editor, a man with a nose for a story and an abundance of compassion, he goes in search of a missing freelancer with a complicated family history, who seems to have disappeared in search of his father, previously deceased. Or was he? And why are orphans and children on city streets suddenly disappearing? Told in Doctorow’s signature exquisite prose, and profound insights, this mystery is as old as the human race: what does it mean to be human and how do we defeat death? At the core of the mystery, an enigmatic physician who reminds me a little of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Moriarty. Add an unusually sensitive policeman, a clergyman with his own secrets, and the women and children who become collateral damage. Literary mystery at its best, with many insights into the early days of journalism and the darker side of politics and society in late 19th century NYC.

Our high-speed rotaries had come along around 1845, and from that moment the amount of news a paper could print, and the number of papers competing, suggested the need for a self-history of sorts, a memory file of our work. So that we needn’t always spin our words out of nothing. At the Telegram this enterprise was first put in charge of an old man down in the basement, whose genius it was to lay one day’s edition on top of another, flat, in wide oak cabinet drawers, which he kept immaculately polished. Only when the war came, and it became apparent to the publisher that salable books could be made of collections of war pieces from the paper, did cross-reference filing begin in earnest. Now we had three or four young men sitting down there with scissors and paste pots who were never more than a month or two behind – fifteen New York dailies a day were dropped on their tables, after all…”

Colum McCann
THIS SIDE OF BRIGHTNESS by Column McCann takes place in NYC at the turn of the century when subway tunnels were first burrowed by what became known as the Sandhogs – Irish and Italian immigrants, free black men, who spent their days, and many years, below concrete digging for a living and hoping to stay alive. Three generations later, a subset of the homeless community – their descendants – dwell in the remnants of those digging stations, above and beside the trains. The contrapuntal nature of their tales, and lives, is a signature style of storytelling for McMann, best known for the extraordinary “Let the Great World Spin” and more recently “Transatlantic.” Of Irish descent, his prose has the lilt of a poet and the descriptive clarity of Doctorow. From the optimism and hope of the building of a great city to the despair of those trapped in the rubble, this novel is spellbinding. And the mystery? Well, who is who and how did they get there? Most interesting to me was the title: McCann chose to focus on the light, where he might have called the book, The Cartography of Darkness…

He opens his eyes, looks at the graph paper, the rows of dots and the squiggled lines. He draws a quick ordnance survey profile of where he has walked. This is his most important ritual he cannot start his day without it. He exaggerates the features to ten times their map size, so that, on the paper, the next looks like a rumple of huge valleys and mountains and plains. Even the tiniest nicks in the wall become craters. Later he will transfer them to a larger map he has been working on for the past four years, a map of where he lives, hand-drawn, intricate, secretive, with hills, rivers, ox-bow lakes, curved creeks, shadows: the cartography of darkness.


“Consequence” by Steve Masover, takes place in the shadow of 9/11, a techno-thriller with a focus on the northern California Bay area counterculture and general global instabilities. Not so much mystery or history as socio-political fiction in which a group of idealistic and disenchanted environmental activists struggle to maintain integrity and personal relationships as they drift into the more dangerous territory of techno/eco-terrorism. What begins as concerns about genetically modified organisms [GMO] in our plant life, their battle takes on more ominous tones. Although Masover peppers the early narrative with a heavy dose of techno-speak more suitable to hackers, the narrative takes off as the community of self-anointed Knights takes center stage. He also weaves in romance, artistic metaphor, parental conflicts and the essence of communal living, all timely and relevant. The mystery? Who will prevail and at what cost? The writing is neither Doctorow nor McCann, he needs a few more books under his belt for that honor, but sufficiently skilled to have found a good publisher. Nevertheless, thanks to self-publishing technology, you can order a print copy online or e-read.  

12 September 2015

REVIEW: DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY/BILL CLEGG

Memoirist Clegg pens a great first novel. 
A terrific novel. The first fiction from memoirist, essayist, and literary agent, Bill Clegg, and before it published in September made the short list for the Booker Prize for literature. 

Deservedly. Although, in truth, “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng, reviewed here in August, is just as good. Both great reading, with similarities. One might dub these tales literary family mysteries/histories. Both take off from a tragic event. Both delve into the secrets and sorrows of a set of related characters. Both written in elegant prose. And both finales revealed in the last pages. 

The world’s magic sneaks up on you in secret, settles next to you when you have your head turned. It can appear as a tall boy who smells like fish who pulls your braid one night in a bar and asks you to marry him. Or it can be a kid who shows up on your doorstep.

Ng was in everyone's head at once and wove their perspectives together. Clegg, however, alternates chapters from the perspective of several characters, some whose relationship to the core family is not apparent until much later in the novel. These intersecting lives form a mosaic that ultimately defines and decipher the tragedy faced by the main character, June, whose daughter and fiancĂ©, her former husband and her lover, die in a fire the night before the daughter’s wedding. No spoiler here, this event happens on the opening pages, and the how and why it happened is revealed slowly through various characters. Just as in Ng’s novel, the how and why is unraveled until at last we what happened gains clarity. 

This form of fiction is sometimes referred to as satellite fiction – the best of which in my mind is Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin” and is the literary technique I used in “Colors of the Wheel.” An opportunity to weave individual sagas into the larger tapestry. Clegg uses this masterfully. And doesn't life work in just this way? A series of otherwise disconnected paths, and seemingly random moments, ultimately converge. In this case, tragically. With far-reaching ramifications. 

Clegg also uses June's profound grief to reveal her ambivalence about her past, ruminating on her perceived sins of omission and commission.

She wonders if Adam registered her ambivalence then and for the first time considers how those feelings might have set an early course for what would later play out in the marriage. … Still, deep down she knew it was more likely to fall apart than succeed. She knew, but she smothered that knowing, with the future that everyone in her life saw for them and that she could, through their eyes, occasionally see. 

June’s ensuing journey is the path to which all others lead, and especially poignant. I too am writing now about how we grieve. Not a new subject. Always good fodder for fiction. And Clegg handles this with tenderness and insight.

She has no one to call, no one to rush home to. But when has she? She reviews the few possibilities… None of these people were ever hers. They either belonged to someone else or had lives or lies that put them out of her reach, or should have. This is not news, but what surprises her, after being alone for so long, is that it’s only now that it feels unbearable.”


Another excellent new novel. And many more to come this fall, with a great line-up of writers publishing, including Salman Rushdie, Colum McCann and Margaret Atwood. Stay tuned.

18 August 2015

EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU

Celeste Ng's first novel is a winner.
From the opening page to the very last, this work of fiction wows. Hard to label. A bit of mystery, yes. Family drama, yes. Cultural portrait [the 70’s] definitely. Reflection on life on the margins, affirmative, and the power, and potential devastation, of intimate personal relationships, oh yes. This novel has it all.

The writing is pitch perfect. Skillful and elegant, Celeste Ng writes powerfully descriptive prose. She is in everyone’s head at once, and this is a very difficult voice to achieve. Riveting. I was in awe.

The noise outside the car was deafening: a million marbles hitting a million tin roofs, a million radios all crackling on the same non-station. By the time she shut the door, she was drenched. She lifted her hair and bowed her head and let the rain soak the curls beneath. The drops smarted against her bare skin. She leaned back on the cooling hood of the car and spread her arms wide, letting the rain needle her all over.

Ng draws us in and holds us in the palm of her hand on a roller-coaster ride with one mixed-face family [Chinese-American] at a time when mixed marriages had just been legalized. Add the emergence of modern feminism and the conflict between generations of women. And a dose of the Mars-Venus male-female thing. This novel is a great study in contrasts and contradictions. Who pays the price? Everyone, although the children most of all, and in this, Ng skillfully depicts the trauma of loss, from the seemingly benign to the most painful. This was a time when no one was paying much attention to the profound impact of parental behavior on the children.

Simple on the surface. A teenage girl has disappeared. Her brother believes he knows what happened. Her mother, a disappointed woman, living dreams through her daughter, realizes she doesn’t have a clue. The father, a professor, is, in fact, clueless and self-absorbed. And the younger daughter, neglected in the dramatic maelstrom, has unusual powers of observation, although no one is paying attention in the midst of this maelstrom.

It happened so quickly that if she were a different person, Hannah might have wondered if she’d imagined it. No one else saw. Nath was still turned away; Lydia had her eyes shut now against the sun. But the moment flashed lightning-bright to Hannah. Years of yearning had made her sensitive, the way a starving dog twitches its nostrils at the faintest scent of food. She could not mistake it. She recognized it at once: love, one-way deep adoration that bounced off and did not bounce back; careful, quiet love that didn’t care and went on anyway. It was too familiar to be surprising.

We learn where is all started and how it evolved, with a number of surprises along the way, and all is ultimately revealed in a poignant, breathtaking chapter. A literary page-turner, oh yes. 

One of the best pieces of contemporary writing I’ve read in a long time. Ng has published stories and essays, but in this first novel, she proves her mettle. I cannot wait to read what she writes next.

Now out in paperback and of course an e-book.