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.

How Snack Cakes and Thomas Kinkade Explain America

August 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Finished long ago: Pym, by Mat Johnson.

Pym is a wildly uneven book, its amazing premise (Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is a true story, as revealed by the existence of a narrative by Dirk Peters, the black sailor on the voyage) and brilliant, relentlessly inventive plot undermined by some uninspired language (the word “guy” is used excessively) and underwritten elements.  But any book that can move from a satire on academic tokenism to a post-apocalyptic scenario in Antarctica is worth a look.  It’s a worthy entry in the category of the American Weird; the book it reminds me of most is Victor LaValle’s Big Machine.

Johnson is really good at presenting the scope of America’s absurdity, and the overlooked pervasiveness of race and racism in its giant problems: he has a real gift for skirting close to allegory in his fantastic scenarios.  I especially loved the inclusion of two connected elements of satire in the comic character of the narrator’s friend Garth: his overwhelming loves for the paintings of Thomas Karvel and Little Debbie snack cakes.

Karvel is, of course, a thinly veiled reference to the self-proclaimed “Painter of Light,” Thomas Kinkade.  If you’re not American or have somehow, blessedly, missed seeing his work, just check out his website for an introduction.  You’ll see that, as Chris Jaynes  points out in Pym, the work “looks like the view up a Care Bear’s ass.”  Jaynes also points out that black people seem to have no place in the Karvel aesthetic: they are just not part of the “pretty picture.”

The cloying sweetness of Karvel’s landscapes is only matched by the HFCS-laden Little Debbies that Garth is addicted to, to the point of bring cases of them along to Antarctica.  Great fun is had with the Little Debbie name, logo, and long-lived slogan, “Little Debbie has a snack for you.”  The white American obsessions for centuries — racial purity, cleanliness, “wholesome family values,” the monetization, standardization, and mass production of just about everything — are mirrored in both Karvel’s factory-produced “masterpieces” and the omnipresent, addictive Little Debbie simulacra of homemade desserts.

Johnson’s greatest gift in this book seems to be for giving the abstractions of academic discourse — fear and attraction to the Other, sexual sublimation, the deep contextual underpinnings of American literature — lurid, provocative, narrative form.  To make them, in other words, interesting as entertainment.  The juxtaposition of Karvel and Little Debbie works beautifully on this level, bringing together many threads in American culture, politics, and aesthetics.  So do the brilliant plot twists in which Karvel and Little Debbies become the salvation of the black cohort of adventurers at the South Pole are a perfect example of this.  But to give too much away about that would spoil the fun.  The fantastical plot elements of the work do function, as I said, at an almost allegorical level for the predicament in which America finds itself: our gluttony and willful blindness to problems like inequality, racism, and global warming leading to a situation nearly as dire as that in which the black explorers find themselves in Antarctica.  Eventually the  hermetically sealed hothouse of Pollyannaish exceptionalism has to be exposed to the harsh elements.  The Little Debbies eventually must come home to roost.

American Weirdness

March 9, 2011 § 4 Comments

Finished: Big Machine, by Victor Lavalle.

Big Machine left me with the odd sensation of hoping it is eventually adapted as a feature film: I had the feeling throughout that it wanted to be a movie in the first place.  It’s instructive, in this regard: there’s a piling-on of incident and image, a technique heavy on flashback and punchy, nearly noir narration (complete with terse, hard-boiled, “surprise” final sentences to many of the short chapters), and a transparent, unremarkable syntax and style that makes the book seem like its native form is the horror screenplay.

And yet all of that leaves me sounding down on the book, which I’m not, or not completely.  I love horror movies, after all.  And there are things that Lavalle does with the cross-cutting of his short chapters to tie the slowly illuminated events of the past with the book’s present day in all sorts of interesting ways.  It would be a fantastic movie, smarter than just about anything else getting made these days, especially in genre films.  It would involve poor people.  And black people.  And cults.  And drug abuse.  And monsters.  And abortion.  And weirdness.

Lots and lots of weirdness.  The book never reads like a dream — the language is too straightforward, the events too linear — but the linkages between fantasy and reality, between the supernatural and the mundane, and the characters’ acceptance of these linkages, do seem like a kind of transcript of a dream our culture’s having.  I guess this is what we normally call mythology.

The obvious and interesting comparison, at least for me, is with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.  They’re both books that feel right, as mythology, but right in different ways.  One of the things that Neil Gaiman said about his book at the Gathering of American Gods that’s stuck with me is that the book was one of the ways in which he came to discover the strangeness of the country he’d adopted as his home.  It is a story by an outsider, of outsiders, those brought to the country with their own ways, and how those ways mutate in a new place with its own ways.  It feels very true, as that kind of story.  Big Machine feels true as a different kind of story: an inside kind of story, a story the culture tells itself.  The story of a black man whose people have formed the culture, despite all attempts to prevent them from doing so.

And so we get details like the Washerwomen, and their Bible rewritten to take place among Southern blacks.  While the Washerwomen are inventions, he’s not inventing the Biblical revision: a man named Clarence Jordan translated sections of the New Testament into American idiom, changed place names from the Middle East to the American South, and changed crucifixion to lynching.  We get an organization of “spiritual X-Men” who dress up as high-society swells in 1930s Harlem and track down the paranormal through small-town newspapers — printed newspapers! — in the age of the Internet.  We get the “big machine,” doubt, and a recommendation from a cult leader that it be considered a good thing, and that we remember “King Jesus as our greatest doubter.”  We get another big machine, a real machine, that maybe undercuts that suggestion. We get a couple of miracles and a really well done near-death scene with some freaky cats. Vengeance and forgiveness.  Terrorism and holy war.  Angels and demons.  Managing not to oppose these things, but see them as potentially just different perspectives on the same thing.  A whole country busy distracting itself from its overwhelming need to believe.

The Sex Thing

March 5, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Confessions of Nat Turner.

As you may know, when NT was published in 1967 there immediately followed a firestorm of criticism, controversy, indignation, scorn. It was a novel written by a white Southerner impersonating the voice of a black slave uprising leader, and it was 1967/68, for God’s sake. Between MLK’s assassination in April 1968, the Black Power movement, the rise of Black academia, and the times’ generally radical politics in intellectual circles, it was bound to stir things up. (Styron probably saw at least a measure of this coming: his carefully worded “Author’s Note” at the beginning points out that he took liberties, but based his account on the sources he could find, and tried to remain truthful to those meager sources whenever possible.)

One of the sticking points for a number of black intellectuals was— ahem— the sex stuff. Here are, so far (I’ve just started Part III, around page 275), the major juicy bits in question: Nat masturbates as a teenager, always to a fantasy of a white girl (see p. 172-73, and 180-183). A little later he befriends another slave, Willis, and the two end up pawing and masturbating each other after Nat has slapped Willis for swearing (203-04). And years later, as his hatred for white people increases, he has a detailed fantasy of raping a white woman who is crying in the street, unable to understand the black man from whom she asked directions (262-66).

There are some other things we could bring up, but I think this is probably enough to give you the idea. Obviously Styron has taken liberties here— scary, questionable, even objectionable liberties. I feel offended by this stuff, frankly, especially the rape fantasy— I can only imagine what a black person would feel reading that, seeming to corroborate and perpetuate hundreds of years of ridiculous miscegenation terrors and myths of black men endlessly craving white women.

That being said, a review of events like the one I gave above is always a bit of a lie without the scenes’ context, and (especially) without the nuances of experiencing the book as a whole. There are, in two of the cases, adjacent negative-exposure scenes of a white overseer raping Nat’s mother, and Nat’s second owner, Reverend Eppes, groping and propositioning him (unsuccessfully). But more than that, there’s the details of language and mise en scene that I can’t get into fully; they bring into focus Nat’s religious self-denial and the disgust for most blacks which he harbors from his (limited) education and his upbringing in the big house. They foreground Nat, I guess I’m trying to say–the individual, not the representative of a race. And I think we’re building to a crucial element at the climax of the book— Nat’s single personal murder, of Margaret Whitehead, a girl who had been kind to and even (after a fashion) befriended him. So the jury, for me, is still out.

But of course Nat always remains a representative of his race. Styron would seem to have no truck with ideological interpretations of literature— all the better— and the examples above should indicate that he was, if nothing else, fearless in his attempts to get at the truth of the matter, not at some kind of allegorical depiction of what we’d like to imagine the truth should’ve been. He was building a story based on the limited facts, but more than that, he was trying to build a story that would resonate not as history, but as meaningful literature for his time (and, I would think, all time). It’s troubling, though, and I wonder where it’s headed.

The Gospel of the Flies

March 1, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Jaime and I saw the gospel group the Dixie Hummingbirds in concert a few weeks ago. (They shared a twin bill with Solomon Burke, and last night we saw another twin bill of Booker T. Jones and the Maceo Parker Band. It’s been a good music month.) The Hummingbirds got me thinking about gospel music, for some reason; watching them, somehow gospel made sense to me in a way it hadn’t before.

I’m not an expert by any means, and I’ve never studied gospel, so what I’m about to say is probably blindingly obvious to many. Suddenly it made sense that gospel would be connected so intimately to Jesus, specifically. And it made sense that the profound connection of African American music to religion would be made through the figure of Jesus. He’s an almighty being, mysteriously connected to a father-figure, brought to a strange land, in thrall to his fate and his flesh. With the power, should he choose to use it, to stop the whole chain of events leading to his subjection, brutal abuse, and agonizing death. But choosing, instead, to go through with his physical and mental torture, sacrificing himself that others might be reconciled to their wrongdoing.

I had never thought about this before, how gospel music focuses to such a large degree on Jesus and on the prophets that (in the common Christian understanding of the Bible) prefigure his life and suffering. How of course, if gospel was born of slave songs, those songs would focus on Jesus, on suffering, on redemption. Duh.

Nat Turner, in Styron’s book, quotes compulsively from the Bible, but at least so far he is an Old Testament aficionado: Psalms, Proverbs, Job. His is a religion of people subjected and fighting to throw off their subjection, with a wrathful Jehovah’s encouragement. There’s a remarkable passage, early on, in which Nat watches a fly in his cell. He first thinks of a fly as “one of the most fortunate of God’s creatures. Brainless born… unacquainted with misery or grief.” But he quickly changes his mind, thinking of them instead as “God’s supreme outcasts, buzzing eternally between heaven and oblivion in a pure agony of mindless twitching.” He thinks, “Surely then, that would be the ultimate damnation: to exist in the world of a fly, eating thus [on whatever offal presented itself], without will or choice and against all desire.”

His thoughts connect to one of his masters “saying that Negroes never committed suicide.” And he realizes that this has been true in his experience. Then there’s this:

“…in the face of such adversity it must be a Negro’s Christian faith, his understanding of a kind of righteousness at the heart of suffering, and the will toward patience and forbearance in the knowledge of life everlasting, which swerved him away from the idea of self-destruction. And the afflicted people thou wilt save, for thou art my lamp, O Lord; and the Lord will lighten my darkness. But now as I sat there amid the sunlight and the flickering shadows of falling leaves and the incessant murmur and buzz of the flies, I could no longer say that I felt this to be true. It seemed rather that my black shit-eating people were surely like flies, God’s mindless outcasts, lacking even that will to destroy by their own hand their unending anguish…”

That’s rough stuff. “The righteousness at the heart of suffering” does seem, indeed, to reside at the very core of gospel music (Christianity in general, of course, from denomination to denomination in varying degrees). Music seems to have been part of a whole array of somewhat miraculous activities that, quite simply, kept slaves living, working, dying. It’s beautiful, profound music. And you can see that dark side, that side that Nat identifies in the end of the passage above. What to make of some of these songs now being part of most hymnal books, being performed in concerts as entertainment and part of the American songbook used by anyone, everyone, Rod Stewart, Tony Bennett, et al.?

Beautiful Absurdity

February 17, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Invisible Man.

Having just finished this, and with a great deal to process and look into, I’ll say that the book is clearly a masterpiece, and no wonder Ellison had such trouble finishing a second novel: where do you go from here? Two things nag at me, the way small flaws in otherwise perfect constructions do. One is the opening paragraph, which, after the power of the first sentence–the famous “I am an invisible man.”–is stiff and verbose in ways the rest of the book avoids. The other is chapter 24, very near the end, which is weirdly tedious, annoying, and overlong in its explication of a drunken night between the narrator and one Sybil. There’s a point to all of this, too, of course–the constant fear of miscegenation that’s haunted America, the superstitions of sexual power this fear has assigned to black men, and the comic debunking of same–but the tone and the tedium seemed all wrong to me for a chapter so near the end, and it seems wildly out of place. At times it seemed to me simply an excuse to have drunken Sybil call the narrator “boo’ful,” with its potential to signify beautiful, boogieful, and boo-ful (as in, ghostly, invisible, scary) all at once.

There’s far too much going on near the end of this book to go into all of it–the final chapter, with its surreal race riot and the fascinating image of Ras (now Ras the Destroyer) on his black steed, holding a spear and spiked shield, leading his warriors against a police troop while stores are looted around him; not to mention the narrator’s dream, on an underground coal pile, of a bridge brought to life as an “iron man” by the transplant onto it of the narrator’s castrated testicles–but I wanted to focus on one small phrase near the end. The narrator says, in the midst of the wild riot:

“I looked at Ras on his horse and at their handful of guns and recognized the absurdity of the whole night and of the simple yet confoundingly complex arrangement of hope and desire, fear and hate, that had brought me here still running, and knowing now who I was and where I was and knowing too that I had no longer to run for or from the Jacks and the Emersons and the Bledsoes and Nortons, but only from their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine.”

Beautiful absurdity… this is the phrase that Ellison chooses to sum up American identity. And he includes all of us in it–black and white, rich and poor, revolutionary and reactionary. It’s a phrase the narrator enacts himself, in previous chapters, in his impersonation of one Rinehart–equally rind and heart–who turns out to be a popular preacher promising to make “the invisible visible” (there’s a handbill shown here reminiscent of the famous J.A. Dowie handbill in Ulysses) but also a numbers-runner, womanizer, and general sleazebag.

And it’s a phrase that might also be the key to understanding the contents of the narrator’s pocket. Throughout the book he collects these somewhat talismanic objects in his pocket: first the leg iron given to him by Brother Tarp, a kind of symbol of slavery, and used as a kind of brass knuckles to escape from a couple of jams; then one of Brother Clifton’s “Sambo” paper dolls; then the dark, green-tinted glasses he bought to hide his identity and which convinced passers-by that he was Rinehart. These are all symbols of identity: of identifying who he is, who his people are, how they are perceived or not perceived. This strikes me as a beautifully absurd collection of objects to carry around in a pocket.

But so what’s meant by “beautiful,” anyway? Is it tied to the fact that, as the narrator says in the epilogue, “one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker every day, and the blacks striving toward whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray”? This is an appealing theory, to me, but if so, why does this description of American unity-in-diversity use ugly words like “dull and gray”? Is it because of the struggle against this becoming? The “absurdity” is more obvious: no one seeing who they are, where they came from, where they are going; no one taking the time to delve into their connections to others, or their own motives for the actions they take or do not take. Plus, of course, there’s the absurd distance between America’s foundational principles and the actions of the ones we entrust to uphold and enforce those principles. Hard to find beauty in that, though.

And it’s the “beautiful” in that phrase, I think–a phrase which is very close to a self-summation of the book–which keeps the book from being a polemic, a manifesto, or (only) a “social” novel. “Beautiful” is open-ended, subjective, ambiguous, personal. Because Ellison is concerned with the aesthetic, and is concerned with the individual. It’s a book about individual perception and awareness, as much as anything–about self-discovery and its power, and the beauty of those things.

More Humanity

February 11, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invisible Man.

The narrator, the invisible man, has stumbled onto the eviction of an old black couple from their home, and has, in spite of himself, made a speech (beginning as a call to law-abiding behavior and long-suffering) leading to an act of violent uprising. This catches the eye of a socialist group, led by Brother Jack, which grooms him to work for them and speak for them.

In chapter 16 he makes another speech, this time in a crowded auditorium of proselytes, and has similar impact. He says, at one point, after “a stillness so complete that I could hear the gears of the huge clock mounted somewhere on the balcony gnawing upon time” that he feels “more human” before them. He makes a powerful, emotional appeal to them, telling them that they will rise up, and they react powerfully, and he sobs.

He is, of course, being used. The words had poured out of him and it is unclear whether or how deeply he meant them, and where they came from. Immediately after leaving the stage, he meets up with Brother Jack and the other party leaders. In a funny scene, the head socialists are cold and disgusted by his appeal to emotions–his “antithesis of the scientific approach,” his stirring up of the common people. But the organizers, the ones on the streets–they loved it, loved the enthusiasm he generated.

Ellison is opposed to both sides, I think, and is most bothered by all those eyes on the surface of his invisible man, by the enthusiasm of a crowd witnessing the baring of a soul and thinking it mere rhetoric, merely the talking points of their agenda. The narrator himself is troubled by “more human,” and what he might have meant by it. He wonders if he heard it in the literature (Irish Lit?) class he was in, taught by a Dr. Woodridge, who said, of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, “Stephen’s problem, like ours, was not actually one of creating the uncreated conscience of his race, but of creating the uncreated features of his face. Our task is that of making ourselves individuals.” Ellison does want us to move past race, I think, without neglecting it–to become more human without making anyone become “less of what I was, less a Negro.”

To digress: it all (and maybe obviously) reminds me of Barack Obama. I remember watching his speech at the Democratic Convention in ’04; I remember it was amazing, beautiful, powerful, star-making (maybe more so after all the clunky, wooden verbiage of Kerry and Bush’s utter lack of anything like a believable rhetoric). And obviously it was. And it seemed realer, somehow: you got the sense that he felt it, not just that he knew it was his chance to make a name for himself. We’d gotten to like him, in Illinois, and I was actually excited for him, and about him, and to see him showing it to the rest of the country. I remember the analysts on PBS after it ended. They were clearly very impressed, clearly thought highly of this kid from Illinois–and I caught a whiff of dismissal, a sense that he might amount to something after three or four terms in the Senate. Putting him in his place; bemoaning his lack of the scientific approach.

Anyway, I digress. “More human” is clearly an ambiguous, dangerous, problematic phrase for Ellison and his invisible man, but I do think it’s a perfect statement of what I (we all?) want to end up with in this election. More humanity, for God’s sake. We’ve got no choice but to vote for an operator, but let’s at least vote for someone with a sense of what they’re operating for, and who they’re operating on.

Id, Ego, and Supercargo

February 5, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invisible Man.

Chapter 3 presents a wild, wild scene in a bar/house of ill repute called the Golden Day. The narrator, driving a trustee of his college to the bar to get him a “little stimulant”–whiskey–to shake him out of the shock he’s taken, runs into a pack of patients from the insane asylum down the road. They take over the Golden Day; their orderly, named Supercargo, is hit with a bottle of whiskey and trampled.

This is a funny, diagrammatic chapter a la Ulysses: Supercargo is cast as superego, the reckless patients as id, Halley the bartender as ego, just trying to make a buck and keep his bar out of trouble with the law and the local bigwigs. But there are a number of complicating elements, as well, muddling my sense of what Ellison’s trying to do here.

At one point a patient with some medical knowledge calls the trustee, Mr. Norton, “A trustee of consciousness,” adding to the psychological allegory. Supercargo (a noun meaning a ship’s officer in charge of its commercial concerns) is a white-clad orderly; his name, outfit, and place in this allegory would seem to associate him with the only white person in the bar, Mr. Norton. His boorish bullying of the war-veteran mental patients, coming down from his room upstairs to try to establish order in the bar with his boots and fists (and receiving worse in return), seems to indicate that Ellison means to tell us something about the workings of race relations in addition to the workings of consciousness in this chapter. This chapter contains multitudes, a whole bizarre array of social strata (prostitutes to bankers) and events and crypto-events (race riots, nervous breakdowns, self-doubts).

Modernists get a bad rap for this kind of thing, now–this kind of heavily symbolist, deeply weighted narrative–but I’m a sucker for it. Especially the kinds of rich, mingled layers of meaning that Ellison digs up here. And the sentences! I mean, look at this semi-soliloquy recited by the mental patient/vet/former doctor to Mr. Norton:

“Rest, rest,” he said, fixing Mr. Norton with his eyes. “The clocks are all set back and the forces of destruction are rampant down below. They might suddenly realize that you are what you are, and then your life wouldn’t be worth a piece of bankrupt stock. You would be canceled, perforated, voided, become the recognized magnet attracting loose screws. Then what would you do? Such men are beyond money, and with Supercargo down, out like a felled ox, they know nothing of value. To some, you are the great white father, to others the lyncher of souls, but for all, you are confusion come even into the Golden Day.”

I mean, whoa! What a range of styles, meanings, associations.

(Full disclosure: I once wrote a heavily allusive, diagrammatic bar scene of my own. My bar, in the novel I wrote in college, was called the Broken Road; its walls were covered with pictures of hitchhikers; and its men’s room was missing the ‘n,’ so it was the Me room. Obviously I’m not comparing myself to Ralph Ellison, James Joyce, or anyone else in any way whatsoever– but what is it about bars that calls out for this kind of literary treatment?)

Morrison, Ellison, and the Grotesque

February 3, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison.

Yesterday, Groundhog Day, was another case of literary serendipity, for me. In the morning I read the first chapter of Invisible Man–not expecting the famous “Battle Royal” chapter, awed references to which in various places finally spurred me to read this book (somehow it was never assigned to me in school). A couple of hours later, I heard Toni Morrison read, in Duke Chapel at the Reynolds Price Jubilee here, from her manuscript for a forthcoming novel set in 1690.

But first, IM. The first 50 pages have basically exhausted everything I knew about the book. The prologue–a tour de force itself–introduces the titular character, squatting in his famous light-bulb-filled, Dostoyevskian “hole.” He takes a reefer-fueled trip into the “cave” behind the “hot tempo” of the Louis Armstrong song “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue” and hears a rousing sermon there. (This sermon, with its Jonah references, is an homage to Moby-Dick; Melville and Dostoyevsky are both all over this prologue, and, while we’re playing the “Literary Influence Parlor Game,” the IM’s trip into the grooves of the Armstrong song reminded me strongly of a similarly hallucinogenic scene involving jazz in Gravity’s Rainbow.)

And after that, we get the battle royal. This raging, pseudo-allegorical, horribly violent, soul-bearing chapter must have felt like a kick in the head when it first appeared (modified, of course) as a short story in a magazine in the late ’40s. Grotesque is the exact word to describe it. How else would you sum up a fight among ten young, black, blindfolded men, staged for the amusement of a town’s respected leaders–followed by the same fighters being forced to grab for money on an electrified carpet?

Anyway, seeing Morrison (her reading was excellent) reminded me of Beloved, and the grotesque elements in that novel, as well. Ellison’s achievement in the battle royal chapter, I think, is to make his scene heavily symbolic while simultaneously deeply troubling, visceral, and realistic. Really, how often do you come across a piece of symbolism–say, Eliot’s Waste Land (another influence, it seems)–which also seems like it could have actually happened–or, what’s more, is happening? That’s how this chapter feels. It feels real. And I speculate that this effect has resonated throughout subsequent African-American literature; I speculate that Morrison’s depiction of the grotesqueries of slavery may have been abetted, if not consciously inspired, by just this chapter, and its deft balance of character, violence, allegory, and emotion.

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