The Second Person in Citizen: An American Lyric

January 30, 2017 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Citizen, by Claudia Rankine.

Reading next: Edgar Huntly, or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker, by Charles Brockden Brown.

Citizen seems a more or less unclassifiable piece of literature, as you read it, but its genre is right there in the subtitle: An American Lyric. That’s a choice that points in multiple directions. Most immediately we think of song lyrics.  While much of the book does not strike the reader as lyrical in this way — there are (what look like) paragraphs of prose along with sections that use line breaks we associate more with poetry — it’s a perfectly appropriate association for the kind of multimedia, multivocal, multigenre artwork that Rankine creates here. It also hints at the of-the-moment nature of the subject, of the violence that continues to be inflicted on black bodies, minds, and souls — particularly thanks to the book’s cover design, which pairs the title with artist David Hammons’ piece In the Hood, which immediately brings Trayvon Martin to mind (though its creation predates his murder by 20 years).  Lyric can also refer to a certain clarity, lightness, and moderation in a singing voice; I’m not sure I see that definition applying here, but I’d love to hear from someone with more musical knowledge than I have about it.

Then there’s the other definition, less everyday to us now but perhaps more resonant here, of the millennia-old tradition of lyric poetry which is focused on the direct expression of the poet’s emotions and passions. Not epic, not drama: affect, not action.  And a claim to a particularly American version of that tradition. The two valences of the title and its subtitle come together, in a way, in the work’s most famous passage, which is, I venture, the first iconic poetic verse of this century (at least insofar as we’re separating song lyrics from written poetry):

because white men can’t

police their imagination

black people are dying

That was really the only passage I knew from Citizen before reading it, along with the powerful “In Memory of” page it follows, which includes the names of African Americans killed by police in recent years (sadly updated with new names as the book is reprinted).  So I was surprised to find that most of it is written in the second person, from the point of view of a nameless “You.”

This seems to me a bold, brilliant choice.  The “You” narrator places the reader in an uncanny position. On the one hand, the reader is directly addressed, placed in the position of the subject of the work: the one experiencing the emotions, the reactions to the countless slights and aggressions and accumulation of daily “mistakes” that lead to the sense that “You” are something less than a full citizen of the nation.  On the other, “You” has a peculiar distancing effect. Because we are much more familiar with works in the first or third persons, in which we immerse ourselves in the perspective of an “I” or a “he/she/it” with whom we can identify but who is distinctly not us, the narration introduces a kind of dissonance into the reading.  There’s a numbness to narration by a “You,” a flatness.  A sentence like “You are enraged by what you just experienced!” comes off as cartoonish.  It wouldn’t work (or, rather, it works only in very specific contexts, such as text-based video games, role-playing campaigns, and some children’s books).  Another master of the “You” narrator is Lorrie Moore, and many of her stories have a similar deadpan manner that introduces equal parts comedy and grief.

So much of what Rankine writes about here relates to the lived experience of the ideas of W. E. B. DuBois, Frantz Fanon, and many others, of African-American double and/or dual consciousness: of seeing one’s self through the eyes of the dominant, colonialist society, of the African, European, American parts of one’s heritage and culture leading to a feeling of fragmented identity. (Apologies for this surely gross oversimplification.)  The “You” narrator allows Rankine a particularly powerful tool for expressing her experience across races and genders, and bringing readers into that experience.  How is it received within the body of African-American readers, of African-American women readers? I’m curious.

Postscript: I tend not to read criticism until I’ve written something down, and I came across two wonderful series about Citizen from the L. A. Review of Books after writing this.  All are quite a bit more cogent and fluent discussions of the book than mine and very much worth reading if you’re interested in the book; on the “You” narrator, see especially Evie Shockley’s “Race, Reception, and Claudia Rankine’s ‘American Lyric'” in Symposium Part 1: Roundtable Part 1, Roundtable Part 2, Symposium Part 1, Symposium Part 2.

It’s Not a Lie… If You Believe It

January 19, 2017 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Stammering Century, by Gilbert Seldes.

Reading now: Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler.

I still can’t believe it, honestly: that we went all the way down the rabbit hole and elected the demagogue. The racism, the sexism, the xenophobia: that was the worst of it, of course, but it’s not why I couldn’t bring myself to believe he’d be elected. No: I thought it was just so transparent that he was a fraud, a con man, a bad, bad salesman. Incompetent. Obviously in it for the “winning,” for the chase, and not for the opportunity to do something good or to serve the country.

Honest to God, I thought we were smarter than this.  (The “we” here, throughout, stands for the citizens of the republic as a whole–we all get the same elected officials, after all, whether we voted for them or not–but this all happened because of we the white people. Particularly we the white men.)

Now obviously, had I thought about it and been less often curled into a mental fetal position of terror and rage and loathing, I would’ve recalled the long tradition of confidence men in American literature, who are there to point out that Americans love to be conned.

The Stammering Century is about radical religious movements in the nineteenth century, so of course it’s also about con men.  It really seemed as though anyone in nineteenth-century America could proclaim himself (or, sometimes, herself) the Messiah and get at least a few people– including many socialites and nouveau riche and intellectuals–to follow along and do his bidding. One of the most compelling chapters concerns Robert Matthews, aka Matthias, who decided he was God and was put up in style in 1830s New York by his well-heeled acolytes, at least one of whom he very likely murdered by poisoning (after having been cut off monetarily by that disciple, and having taken the wife of another as his own).

People getting conned, over and over again, through the course of 120 or so years (the book was published in 1928), out of money and rights (given the timing of publication, there’s a lot about temperance and prohibition) and, yeah, immortal souls.  If someone tells us with enough repetition and clarity that they are our ticket out of whatever horrible circumstances we think we’re in and back to or on to a new golden age, many of us buy it on whatever flimsy evidence.  The Fox sisters, who are the focal point of another wonderful chapter, started the spiritualism craze in 1848 more or less as a goof by causing the sound of rapping under a table (thanks to the slightly dislocated toe of one of the sisters) in response to questions posed to the dead.

Of course, many of the self-proclaimed messiahs, then as now, believed their own bunk–either due to mental illness or by simply convincing themselves of their own righteousness. As George Costanza said: “It’s not a lie… if you believe it.”


Padgett Powell for 2017

January 8, 2017 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Cries for Help, Various by Padgett Powell.

Padgett Powell writes unclassifiable things that mostly get classified as “short stories” or “novels.” His newest book of short Powell-things contains a story, two pages long, called “Dizzy.” It’s a wonder, this very short piece of writing. It contains multitudes. To me, it feels a lot like being alive at the turn of 2016 to 2017.

I knew several distinguished older men who have died who had a better grip on things than I do. I wonder if they can see me floundering…. They had the astute capacity not to deign, presume, meddle. They hunkered down within the castle walls of their particular potency, whatever it was, and did not send loose emissary of themselves about the uncharted ground of their purlieu.

It seems to me that if you do not deign, presume, and meddle, though, that the forces of the world at large, sometimes in the form of a kind of anonymous aggregate power, will pile up on you in an ambient deigning and presuming and meddling that will render you helpless. It is this way today: I am helpless here, dizzy and looking through badly fouled glasses at the bright, challenging world.

That’s just the middle. Somehow this three-paragraph “story” also interjects an imagined discussion with the reader (also involving deigning, presuming, and meddling, which get interesting treatment throughout) and develops an inimitable voice that is distinctly Powell’s own: a succinct and cryptic mix of working-class syntax (“I need to drink me some…”), vocabulary b0th broad (aerie, purlieu, deign) and scatologically deep, eclectic but distinctly American and often Southern subject matter, humor from unexpected angles and unforeseeable juxtapositions, and a goggling disbelief at our infinite human absurdity that somehow leaves this overwhelming sense of loneliness and sadness lingering under everything.

Padgett Powell is, I’m afraid, the writer who most strikes me as laureate for this moment,  in which it seems as likely as not that “loose emissary” from a thin-skinned old confidence-man with a Twitter feed and an a-bomb will get us all killed. Sorry, Padgett.

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