03 December 2015

Another Country, by James Baldwin

The first third or so of this novel is pure fire. Searing, magnetic prose that loops and dives through the most intimate and unsettling aspects of human experience. I don't know if such intensity could possibly be sustained over the course of hundreds of pages, or if one would want it to. In any case: it isn't. The novel reaches a climax and the latter 2/3 of it is essentially exploring the aftermath. The story becomes somewhat less compelling, and even, it must be admitted, a little tedious. What redeems the novel, and is moreover, actually quite stunning about it, is the breadth of emotional understanding in these somewhat rambling explorations.

People talk about the presumption of white authors writing characters of color, or men trying to persuasively write women, etc* -- well, here is Baldwin thumbing his nose at all of them. The narrator sees deep into the hearts of a diverse cast of characters; male, female, gay, straight, black, white, rich, poor, etc, and seems, impossibly, to understand the millions of subtle ways in which their perspectives are shaped by things that people unlike them simply cannot see, let alone comprehend. It is a dazzling piece of emotional intelligence; a real virtuoso performance. I found myself regretting that the story it was put in the service of was not more meaningful, but on the other hand, maybe that was the point -- that much of life's meaning is simply in this strange constellation of people and relationships that is unique to every individual. Relationships that, even as they shape our lives and interactions, are largely opaque, but also, perhaps, ultimately somewhat mundane, and even uninteresting.

*I am slowly working my way through The Racial Imaginary, a collection of pieces on this topic, and it is really really fascinating and worthwhile.