Various Nigerian Narratives, Part Two: Film Culture

February 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: GraceLand.

Reading next: Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare, and Everything and More, by David Foster Wallace.

Movies are everywhere in this book.  Just for one memorable example: when 10-year-old Elvis gets hooked on going to the latest Bollywood movies with his cousin Efua, he starts stealing the money his grandmother gives him to mail letters to her pen pals around the world.  But he needs to keep giving her responses so she doesn’t catch on, so “scenes from Casablanca, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Gone with the Wind were rewritten to fit his letters.”  But movies — mostly American — are woven into casual dialogue, the thoughts of the characters, everyday life.

An important scene occurs at the movies in chapter thirteen, when the rebellious, enigmatic King of Beggars (yes, this book involves characters named Elvis, the King, and the Colonel) takes Elvis to the new theater to see a Yugoslavian art film entitled Love Film.  (Possibly this, but then it might not be a real film at all.)  He’s trying to show Elvis an “alternative” to the world of violence and self-interest that threatens to swallow him.  And Elvis loves the movie; he loves its first line, “People are important.”  This qualifies as a major breakthrough in a world as debased, as corrupted, as nightmarish, as his can be.

But the most interesting scene involving the movies comes in chapter fourteen.  Elvis, now thirteen, goes to “the local motor park, where silent westerns and Indian films with badly translated English subtitles were shown after dark.”  These, as it turns out, are “shown courtesy of an American tobacco company” which also gives out free cigarettes “irrespective of age.”  In this case, the film is The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  It’s no glamorous spectacle, though: the screen’s a torn, dirty bedsheet and the old projector often eats films and jitters the picture from side to side, for which the crowd has learned to compensate by “sway[ing] from side to side while squinting off to the left.”

But this is not the best part.  The best part is that the films are made into a live performance, based on a kind of new folklore.  The projectionist narrates the action on the screen, creating a whole new story out of the images.  These narrations mostly involve the exploits of a mythological “John Wayne” and “Actor,” the principles in a recurring good-versus-evil storyline across many kinds of films.  As the narrator explains, “John Wayne acting as the villain in a film was Actor, and Clint Eastwood as sheriff was John Wayne.”

I have not yet been able to verify whether this is or was actual practice in Nigeria, but I strongly suspect it was.  It’s not even as simple as it seems, either.   Elvis walks into an argument between teenagers over whether John Wayne or Actor is superior — which is “the true hero.”  And Elvis prefers the figure of Actor, too, as “part villain, part hero,” and explains here:

Women preferred him to John Wayne and men wanted to be him.  His evil was caddish, not malicious, and Elvis knew that though most people dared not step out of the strict lines of this culture, they adored Actor.  He was the embodiment of the stored-up rebellions in their souls.

Actor, in other words, is a trickster to John Wayne’s ideal.  But the narration of the films also allows for audience participation, especially when the projectionist is drunk or annoying or misses something: here, the audience gets going on something and ends up arguing about which person on the screen is Actor and which is John Wayne.  (Particularly appropriate, actually, in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.)  That this is taking place in the late ’70s, during the emergence of the antihero (and even the black antihero — Shaft is referred to in this chapter) in American cinema, in the Nigeria of corrupt officials and in Elvis’s world with a drunk, abusive father and even worse uncle, makes perfect sense.  And of course, Actor is still alive and well (as one of the debaters argues, he cannot be killed): the Joker in The Dark Knight springs to mind as a prime example.

Various Nigerian Narratives, Part 1: Print Culture

February 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: GraceLand.

Sprinkled throughout this book are these fascinating little glimpses into Nigerian pop culture of the ’70s and ’80s.  Because of my work, I’m especially interested in the print culture in evidence here: the interesting uses and kinds of books that Elvis comes across in Lagos.  And I initially meant to write just about these, but so many fascinating little memes about movies, memories, and music kept popping up that I had to expand my vision of narrative to include these, and will address them in future posts.  But to begin with print culture:

References to Elvis’s reading pop up again and again throughout the book: it is in part a Bildungsroman, and a very interesting one, though I think it’s also more than that.  Elvis reads Rilke, the Koran, Gibran’s The Prophet, and many other books.  There are two book-focused episodes in particular that stand out.

The first is in chapter five, where we get a glimpse of Elvis’s library use.  We find that he has been using the United States Information Service Library on Victoria Island, which carries “the show-biz magazine Entertainment” among many other things.  Here’s what he has to say about the local library:

Apart from the endless old tomes on chemistry, physics, electronics and philosophy, the local library had an anthropology section that only had books with the word “Bantu” in their titles… Something about the word “Bantu” bothered him and made him think it was pejorative.  Maybe it had something to do with not ever hearing that word used outside of that section in the library.  The only other books there were treatises on Russian and Chinese culture and politics.  These came either printed in bold glossy colors or in badly bound volumes with the fading print slanted on the page as if set by a drunken printer or as though, tired of the lies, the words were trying to run off the page.

This is fascinating in a number of ways: Elvis’s preference for the US-sponsored library, his distrust of his own local library’s labeling and categorization of African people as “anthropological,” the shelves of “endless old tomes” and propaganda that are supposed to edify but have no interest for him.  The USIS library is a propaganda tool, too, but an attractive, useful, well-stocked one, with the products (however curated and propagandized) of a free press.  In a culture with an American pop-culture obsession, access to an American library for a kid like Elvis is a real treasure.  I think Abani is interrogating that America obsession throughout the novel, but more so with mass-media products like movies and magazines than with books.  I think he presents the USIS library as a good thing, however Elvis chooses to use it.  (The USIS was actually disbanded in 1999, another Cold-War casualty.)

The second is in chapter eleven, when Elvis visits the huge Tejuosho Market to buy some clothes.  It’s a very evocative scene, with Elvis threading his way through the open-air stalls viewing the fruits and vegetables for sale, hearing the cries of kids selling Cokes, the crowded bustle of people about their business.  And then he stops at a used bookseller’s cart: Abani’s descriptions of the Western-canonical paperbacks (Dickens) and West-African novels (Achebe, but also “thrillers like Kalu Okpi’s The Road“) give you the true feel for the cart and for the market.  It has the ring of truth, this mix of used books, at least to someone who’s never set foot in Africa.  Elvis buys two books, slyly symbolic of the crossroads he’s facing: “a torn copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and a near-pristine copy of James Baldwin’s Another Country.”  There it is, in a nutshell: will Elvis turn to the life of crime, corruption, and self-interest, of masculine posturing and violence, or will he follow his artistic dream, his desire to help and support his people and his country, and (perhaps) his homosexual inclinations?  But the books are not just symbols or signifiers of Elvis’s identity crisis; they’re possible pathways out of that crisis.  In other words, it’s not just important that we the readers get the significance; it’s also important that he get it — that he read the books.  That he’s buying them in the first place, when he’s dropped out of school and has very little access to books in general, adds important complexity to his personality.

Then Elvis hears another bookseller calling out from an adjacent stall, and we’re introduced to another fascinating aspect of Nigeria’s print culture: the Onitsha Market pamphlets.  As the bookseller sells them, they are “de books written by our people for de people.”  Here’s Abani’s description:

These pamphlets, written between 1910 and 1970, were produced on small presses in the eastern market town of Onitsha, hence their name.  They were the Nigerian equivalent of dime drugstore pulp fiction crossed with pulp pop self-help books.  They were morality tales with their subject matter and tone translated straight out of the oral culture…. The covers mirrored American pulp fiction with luscious, full-breasted Sophia Loren look-alike white women.  Elvis had read a lot of them, though he wouldn’t admit it publicly.

Elvis scans one that the bookseller suggests for an “educated man,” called Beware of Harlots and Many Friends. He turns it down, though, opting for the more narrative-driven Mabel the Sweet Honey That Poured Away. These are, apparently, real Onitsha pamphlets: Abani gives their full citations in his acknowledgments.  And if you’re really curious, you can see a bibliography of over 100 and 21 digitized examples from the Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas here.  Elvis hides his pamphlet between the Dostoyevsky and the Baldwin, and this too signifies, I think, in some way: the indigenous culture Elvis is embarrassed of, but that Abani celebrates — giving us an excerpt from Mabel between this chapter and the next.

I’ll have more to say later about the use of Elvis’s mother’s journal and other excerpts from written works later on.  For now, I hope I’ve given a taste of the complex, intricate ways that Abani is using books and Nigeria’s print culture in the text.  It reminds me a little of Joyce, in Ulysses, with the various books and pamphlets and scraps of culture that Bloom and Stephen come across and mull over in their heads.  (Not a huge stretch.  This is a really, really good book.)

Xerox City

February 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: GraceLand, by Chris Abani.

“Name it and Lagos had a copy of it, earning it the nickname “One Copy.”

Our narrator, Elvis, is a copy of sorts himself: named after Elvis Presley, and in love with dancing, he makes the logical choice to become an Elvis impersonator.  He’s growing up in ’70s and ’80s Nigeria, in the slums of Lagos, having moved with his father from a smaller town after his father loses an election.

But there’s no such thing as an exact copy or a perfect impersonation, and therein lies the interest.  Wearing a wig and “white shoes and trousers,” covering his face with talcum powder when he runs out of “sparkle spray” — but still aware that “this was not how white people looked” — he sings “Hound Dog” and dances for tourists at expensive hotels.  Humiliatingly, in the encounter we witness at the beginning of the novel, the tourists try to get him to stop with chocolate, then pay him a pittance to go away.  And when he goes back to the bus after this embarrassment, a woman getting off asks him, laughing, “Who do dis to you?”

If Elvis took it all as a joke, just bilking tourists out of their money with a minstrel show of one of their Western heroes, it would be one thing.  But he grew up listening to Presley, his hero.  His identity is intertwined with the white American’s.  And he takes his act very seriously: it is what he loves to do.  It is an act of art.  Constrained by his inability to use makeup (so as not to be confused with a prostitute or homosexual), confused with a beggar or huckster, he is stuck with his existence like a cheap copy.

Abani weaves these threads of cultural cross-pollination, post-colonialism, and skewed facsimile through the beginning of his narrative quite skillfully: songs on the radio (American, Caribbean, African), the movies Elvis becomes addicted to (the cheapest old silents, the newer Bollywood films), the snacks he eats watching them (American soft drinks), many other subtle asides.  It’s not simple symbol or allusion, though: there’s nothing forced or artificial about these references, just a portrait of lived life in Nigeria at the time.  A cool example that made me laugh in delighted surprise: the girls and women of Elvis’s family plaiting their hair into elaborate patterns and shapes, as Al Green plays on the radio in 1976.  “Aunt Felicia had invented a plait called Concorde, complete with a Concorde-shaped aircraft taxiing down the crown of the head to the nape.”  Even the dialogue of  Elvis’s grandmother Oye, who speaks with a kind of Scottish accent and idiom she picked up from missionaries, is utterly believable in a strange way.

Is Abani playing with one of the great themes of world (especially European) literature in the 20th century, the Double?  Is Lagos a doppelganger of sorts for a western city, a kind of distorted mirror image, with its massive disparity between large numbers of  millionaires in mansions and hotels and a huge impoverished population in swampy shanty-towns built on stilts?  I think there’s more to this than that; I think Abani’s novel is shaping up to be rather distinctively its own thing, just as his Lagos seems like quite its own thing despite its “One Copy” of everything; but I also think he’s keenly aware of and interested in traditions, literary and cultural.  Elvis reads a lot of western literature (which I hope to talk about in the next post), and before most of the chapters there are descriptions of Igbo rituals and recipes.  This novel’s blazing a trail between canon and experiment.

Just for the hell of it, and because it’s pretty great and I’d never heard of it, here’s one of the greatest music hits from Nigeria in the ’70s, mentioned in the novel, “Sweet Mother” by Prince Nico Mbarga:

The Twelve Year Olds

February 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

Finished a while ago: The Graveyard Book.

Now reading: The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers.

Reading next: GraceLand, by Chris Abani.

One of the worst years of my life so far was when I was twelve.  I was just a mess of self-imposed fears, ridiculous longings, critical examinations of my own clueless dorkiness.  Seventh grade: irrationally terrified of two eighth graders who I thought were out to humiliate me (and kind of were, but no more than other kids), pining away for an older girl with whom I had zero chance, dreaming of impressing and being befriended/adopted by my teacher and basketball coach, throwing myself into religion as a bulwark against all this confusion (yeah, between that and reading all that Tolkien, the kids’ll totally realize you’re not a dork).  It all seems more or less standard issue, now; at the time there were many days like a feverish nightmare.

As it happens, The Graveyard Book and The Member of the Wedding have both gotten me thinking about that crappy year that I mostly prefer to forget.  “Nobody Owens’ School Days” in Gaiman’s book tells of the ill-conceived attempt to sneak eleven-year-old Nobody into school, to assimilate him into society in a gentle, subtle way.  In a brilliant metaphor for the experience of many kids at this time, Nobody uses his ability to “Fade” to avoid drawing attention or even being remembered by his classmates and teachers.  But Nobody can’t stand to see the school bullies shaking smaller kids down for lunch money; he ends up confronting the two bullies, first in a straightforward way, then using his ability to “Dreamwalk” into their dreams to warn them to stop if they don’t want him to keep giving them nightmares and terrifying them in other ways, as well.

It’s an interesting chapter.  Gaiman walks a fine line here, in that the chapter is a bit of a revenge fantasy, but he does not wrap things up with a PSA about the bullies learning to change their ways and Nobody learning to get by at school, or with a straightforward well-deserved humiliation of the bullies in front of their classmates.  Instead, Nobody really goes too far, overcompensating for the bullying (which is really pretty minor stuff) by giving the bullies truly terrifying nightmares and scaring the bejesus out of them when they’re alone and vulnerable.  He underestimates what terrified people will do, and gets himself in trouble with the law, leading to Silas having to get run over by a police car to bail him out.  Then he scares one of the bullies even worse, a rather cruel act that will surely haunt her for a long, long time.  (This is what surprised me: it’s really quite out of line for Nobody to suggest to a twelve-year-old girl that he’s going to haunt her forever, when her bullying will probably pass in a couple of years.  And it’s somewhat daring, even dangerous, for Gaiman to suggest that bullies deserve this sort of payback, in a book geared towards kids of precisely this age.  But then, it’s absolutely true to what an eleven year old with that sort of power might do.)  And then he simply leaves.  He quits school.  All of this is much more true to the experience of life at this time than typical representations of pre-teens, literary or otherwise.  You have no sense of scale — everything in your life seems huge — and you have weird new attributes and you want to punish, love, and be elsewhere all at once.

It’s still not as true to my twelve-year-old experience as the first part of The Member of the Wedding, though.  This is the best rendering of a (or at least, my) twelve-year-old’s consciousness I’ve come across.  It has a perfect first paragraph — an unusually long first paragraph, which establishes both the themes and McCullers’ unique rhythm and language beautifully.  Here are the famous first four sentences:

It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old.  This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member.  She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world.  Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.

Frankie’s in the throes of early adolescence, and she has that twelve-year-old longing to have it over with already: not “to be left somehow unfinished,” as she sees everything around her, but completed, in the wholeness of childhood or full maturity, not to be the “Freak” she feels herself.  But more than anything else that I’ve read, what McCullers captures perfectly is the twelve year old’s desire for a new family, the tendency for outsized attachment to those just on the other side of the transformation you’re just beginning.  With Frankie, it’s her brother and fiancee, about to be married.  She conceives a plan to leave with them after the wedding, and live with them in the exotic-sounding Winter Hill, a town that sounds as far away as possible from the Southern August she’s living through.  These crackpot schemes, these crazy devotions to people you’ve just met or haven’t seen for years: it’s twelve-year-old syndrome all over, and it’s not likely to end well.

It Takes a Graveyard

February 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.

Reading next: The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers.

In the aughts Neil Gaiman went from being a sort of byword for coolness with the literary-fantasy crowd to being the Second Coming of Stephen King.  He’s another one-man industry, generating a remarkable amount of product in any different number of formats and genres.  Now, I’m exaggerating here: Gaiman’s output is not nearly as metronomic as King’s (who claimed to be retiring a few years back — remember that? — but simply could not stop himself from producing novels), nor is his work as repetitive, nor does Gaiman seem as loose as King at lending his ideas and characters out for brand-expansion and remakes and prequels and whatnot.  (Though he is a little more laissez-faire with comics, it would seem, and the idea of him allowing an American Gods comics series without his direct input is not that farfetched.)

But the comparison’s instructive, and I don’t mean to use it disparagingly.  I love Stephen King, warts and all.  He and Gaiman are very different writers.  The remarkable thing about King is the energy with which he still writes, the investment he still has in his work, the raw power of his narrative which can still be quite engrossing long after the (relatively few) patterns of Stephen King story have been established.  With Gaiman, the most remarkable thing has been the quality he’s maintained.  His prose and story construction are fine, his conceits are frequently brilliant, his characters are compelling and diverse, across and between genres and formats.  I don’t think Stephen King’s a hack, but with Gaiman you never even need to worry about mounting the defense.  It’s bloody obvious he’s not a hack.  He’s damned good.

It is impossible to imagine King writing something even remotely like The Graveyard Book: it’s just not in his range.  Nevertheless, part of me wouldn’t mind seeing the Stephen King version of the story, because I find myself longing a little for his approach here.  The book begins with an incredibly dramatic, startling event — the murder of a family and escape of the family’s toddler into the nearby graveyard, where he’s given the name Nobody and adopted by the ghosts of the dead and an undead “guardian.”  The event is presented elliptically, even rather lyrically (the shiny black shoes of the murderer, “the moon reflected in them, tiny and half full”), but is nonetheless gripping: it is right on the fault line between fairy tale and modern horror novel, this beginning.  Amazing, and quite ballsy, in a book for children or at least “young adults” that ended up winning the Newbery Medal.

The tone shifts once we’re in the graveyard, and the book essentially becomes a series of linked short stories about various events in the boy’s childhood, as he comes to know and is raised by the dead.  The murderer, “the man Jack,” drops out of the narrative, to reappear in the book’s second half.  Once you’re into the book, this shocking opening comes to seem a folkloric, almost whimsical origin story, a way to get the boy into the graveyard where he belongs.   But Jack comes up just often enough (including one big near miss) to maintain the reader’s sense that his part in the story is not done, while maintaining his aura of mysterious dread and power.  Again, ballsy, and quite an ambitious narrative structure: Gaiman is gambling that his stories, almost completely disconnected from the framing narrative of the toddler’s miraculous escape from gruesome death, will be entertaining enough to overcome the reader’s annoyance that he’s not getting back to what the deal is with this “man Jack.”

If this was a Stephen King novel, there would be no loosely connected vignettes.  The man Jack’s true nature, motivations, and activities would be given their own sections of narrative to keep the sense of a chase happening behind the scenes, interspersed with the chapters in which Nobody grows up and gets to know the graveyard’s inhabitants, whose back stories would be more fully developed (especially Silas, Nobody’s possibly vampiric guardian).  The book would also be 500 pages longer, and much less beautiful.

The key to understanding why this gap exists is another writer, a predecessor of both: Ray Bradbury.  Gaiman wrote a short story called “October in the Chair” (it’s in Fragile Things) that, in his words, served as a “dry run” for this book: he dedicated it to Bradbury.  The Graveyard Book‘s structure reminds me quite a lot of Dandelion Wine, Bradbury’s unbelievably gorgeous prose poem about growing up in the Midwest, a book I love beyond expression.  Its conceit, tone, and characters, on the other hand, seem a direct homage to Bradbury’s stories about the Elliott family of supernatural beings, another of my favorite Bradbury creations.  I’m thinking especially of “Homecoming,” maybe the best of those stories: young Timothy, the “abnormal” normal, human kid who doesn’t like the taste of blood and can’t fly or do much of anything to show off at the family reunion.  Here’s a paragraph of Timothy’s mother talking to him right at the end, before the final, gorgeous concluding sentences:

She came to touch her hand on his face.  “Son,” she said, “we love you.  Remember that.  We all love you.  No matter how different you are, no matter if you leave us one day.”  She kissed his cheek.  “And if and when you die, your bones will lie undisturbed, we’ll see to that.  You’ll lie at ease forever, and I’ll come visit every Allhallows Eve and tuck you in the more secure.”

There, as here, it takes a graveyard to raise a child.

Winning a Bundle, Losing It All

February 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Gambler.

Dostoyevsky had a serious gambling problem.  This is not news.  Still, it’s incredible that a mind like his could seriously think that he would get rich playing roulette.  It’s so incredible, in fact, that Edward Wasiolek, in his introduction to this edition, makes a pretty convincing counter-argument: Dostoyevsky was a serious masochist, happy in life and in love only when miserable, and always played until he lost everything or nearly everything because, deep down, he wanted to lose.  What good is faith if it actually gets you something?  Fyodor’s soul probably wandered up to the Pearly Gates and then “accidentally” took the path back to purgatory.

All of which makes for great psychodrama in the novel’s climax.  Alexsei decides to gamble his meager savings to try to save his beloved Polina from the suave Frenchman, de Grieux, who has loaned Polina’s father 50,000 francs.  This swing for the fences is presented in startlingly romantic terms by Dostoyevsky:

Yes, sometimes the wildest idea, an idea which should seem utterly impossible, will become fixed in one’s mind so firmly that one finally begins to take it for something practicable… Even more than that: once such an idea is connected with a powerful, passionate desire, one may eventually take it for something fated, inevitable, predestined, for something that simply must be and is bound to happen!

And so Alexsei begins an “utterly impossible” run of luck.  This gambling to win the freedom of the beloved is reprised in Tom Tykwer’s 1998 film Run Lola Run; the pertinent scene is below:

There is a massive amount of tension and satisfaction built into scenes like this — the clear-cut conflict of man vs. fate, a bounce of the ball meaning the difference between love and misery, life and death.  The major difference between the two strokes of luck is that Alexsei’s run is much longer, and much more plausible (even though still highly implausible) than Lola’s: while she wins her entire necessary amount (100,000 marks) on two spins at 37:1 odds, he builds his stake surely, but incrementally, with losses and gains, until he rides red for a remarkable streak of 14 consecutive plays.  For Lola, roulette’s simply the quickest means to her end: she is desperate and needs money quickly, so she picks the number foremost in her mind and guides the ball to it through sheer will and intimidation.  On the other hand, Alexsei — and through him, Dostoyevsky — recounts his streak with loving detail, with a fond memory for how the plays developed and how the piles of money grew, recounting with a frenzied passion the euphoria of winning with massive amounts of money on the line.  It’s obvious, as he tells the story, that it’s not about Polina anymore: he’s in love with gambling.  He’s in love with the chase.  He’s an addict.

Interestingly, both Run Lola Run and The Gambler arguably undercut their romantic notions of the power of love and the intervention of fate or God into the casino’s operations.  Lola only gets to her trip to the casino after we’ve seen her quest fail and be restarted twice, leaving us to choose whether to believe in the “reality” of this version or to think of it all as a fantasy or delusion.  And Alexsei’s triumphant offering to Polina is rejected after their night together, leaving him to throw it all away with money-grubbing Blanche in Paris (a move which makes sense only if you believe he is consciously trying to get rid of his money) and become a sordid casino-haunter, working for gambling money when he must.  (But couldn’t that be construed as classically romantic in its own way?  The fallen man, rejected by his love, slumming around Europe, gambling just so he can feel something, either hope or despair?)

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