26 April 2012

Jonah's Gourd Vine, by Zora Neale Hurston

Language-wise, this is one of Hurston's richer works, filled with gorgeous aphorisms and idioms, and beautiful narration. Plot-wise it's a bit thin. The intro tries to cast it as a Bildungsroman, but the strange thing about the book is how much of it seems to happen off-stage, how little we really know about the main character's thoughts. He leaves home, falls in love, but continues to have a chain of affairs. We never know why, or even how it happens. It's almost as if the narrator doesn't want to tarnish our sympathy for the guy, even when he's doing something flagrantly awful. Oddly enough, it's a somewhat effective strategy. His wife, who could have been a fascinating central character, fades into the background, passively putting up with her husband's horrible ways. As the book progresses, oddly, the reader seems to be expected to continue to sympathize with the hero and hope that he can avoid the consequences of his actions. It's really kind of odd.

More curious, perhaps, is the ethnographic angle. For instance, there is no tension between Christianity and voodoo in the text; they co-exist without any discernible contradiction. Even more noteworthy is a scene where the main character, a preacher, refuses to out someone as a voodoo practitioner in court, because he doesn't want "the white folks" knowing so much about black culture. Moments like this are part of why Hurston is such a fascinating but problematic writer; she makes you actively confront these questions of the ethical implications of publishing this kind of information at that particular moment in time. To me, it's part of a broader constellation of issues connected to the politics of her work; how she squares an interest in folk culture with an interest in modernization and reform. As I've mentioned before, Hurston is not necessarily someone you want to hold up as a political hero, especially when it comes to women in her works. But she is a fascinating case study. Actually, apropos modernization, one of the best moments in this novel, I think, is this fantastic scene when John first sees a train, and is totally enthralled by it. His perspective on this gigantic creature and its panting noises are pretty wonderful.

To be honest though, I'd say this is a book for die-hard Hurston fans or people studying her work, rather than for a general audience. The language is wonderful, but she's written much, much better books.

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