31 July 2009

Stadion: The Devil's Playground, by Ify Nwamana

So, I actually read this in Polish (the translated title is Stadion, Diabelskie Igrzyska) because I didn't realize it was a translation, but then when I looked online, it turned out that it's difficult if not impossible to get it in the original, or so it seemed. Which is ok though, because honestly, it's not a very good book.

Stadion is, basically, about African immigrants in Poland. It is written by a guy from Nigeria, so, you know, presumably someone who knows what he's talking about. It's particularly about people who start working - selling stuff - at the Stadion in Warsaw. Or rather, those who used to, because the Eurocup 2012 has pretty much ended sales there, which is a tragedy because in its day, the Stadion was an extremely impressive bazaar. I was a big fan of the place, and regularly bought pirated cds and random trinkets there. So I was excited to read this book, because it seemed right up my alley.

So, definitely, at moments, it's very interesting. I enjoyed seeing Poland through the eyes of a Nigerian immigrant. He made some really interesting points about Polish politics and life that I simply wouldn't think of. For instance, there's a scene where the main protagonist and his friends are talking, and they wonder why Poland doesn't ally itself - economically speaking - with Russia and Germany. At which point most Poles are inclined to think "Are you out your goddamn mind?!?" but he goes on to point out that the US and Britain, who Poland has been faithful to for CENTURIES, have pretty much done nothing but shit on us that whole time (which is true). So, hmmm. Good point. This is obviously a somewhat simplistic example, but there are plenty of moments like this that sort of make you see things in a new way.

What was most strange about the book, I have to say, was all the sex. So, on the one hand, the narrator talks about how there are all these stereotypes (in Poland, but really all over) of African men as having huge cocks and massive sex drives. But then, pretty much all of his characters have... you guessed it. And ain't nothin' subtle about it either. The sex scenes are actually gratingly obnoxious in this regard. In fact, there's a weird sort of auto-exoticization going on in a lot of the sex scenes, with lines like "She ran her hands over his rippling black muscles" that are just weird and kind of gross.

Ultimately, the thing is though, the book is boring. The plot is clumsy, the writing is flat, and the characters, though initially sympathetic, become less and less likeable as the text continues. In a sense, the plot arc chronicles how hard immigrants in Poland have it - how many of them end up in refugee centers, where they're given a mere pittance in spending money, but also not allowed to work. So many of them turn to illegal work - at the Stadion, for instance. Fair enough, makes perfect sense. But as the text progresses, you get more and more stories of people who are playing the system, shredding their passports on the plane so they can claim they're from whatever country they want, then making up a sob story of political oppression just to get a visa. Meanwhile people who have been genuinely oppressed are getting screwed. I mean, I have fairly radical views on immigration, but it bugs me how this guy is basically disseminating stories that confirm the worst fears of xenophobes. What's worse, is as the text progresses, the characters move from illegal work that really doesn't hurt anyone (well, except maybe major corporations like Nike) to cheating people out of their money. Usually people who have somehow helped them or befriended them. At this point, it's pretty hard to feel any sort of sympathy for them whatsoever. Throw on a side plot of how the main character is constantly cheating on his wife, and well, yeah, there's not much to like anymore.

Also, one of the characters, Charlie, is an obvious stand in for Simon Mol. It's not a particularly flattering portrayal - although the text doesn't come down either way on whether or not he knowingly infected women with AIDS (which is what he was accused of doing, though it was never proved), but it does depict all his human rights work as being purely for money and attention. It's a really, really negative depiction. It really makes you wonder - I mean, it's the kind of book where if someone Polish had written it, I imagine there would be an apoplectic response, at least in some quarters, of people infuriated by these negative portrayals. In fact, in some of the more clever moments of the text, this type of thing is actually depicted. And then the book blithely continues on with its own approach.

Now, there's something to be said for realism, and I don't think you have to paint all foreigners as angels. The problem is though, the characters in the novel are thinly veiled cliches, and the writing is terribly formulaic. The perspective may be "authentic", but the voice comes across as extremely canned. It reads like somebody took a Creative Writing 101 course and the product was published because the topic is interesting. And it is - I just hope that more gifted writers will take it on in the near future.

13 July 2009

Angry Black White Boy or, The Miscegenation of Macon Detornay, by Adam Mansbach

Another book that suffers from an underwhelming finale. Angry Black White Boy was shaping up to be one of the more impressive books I'd read in quite a long time, all the more so because it's so contemporary and timely and clever, and then it went wheels off the tracks in bizarro land. Granted, it would have been a tough book to conclude anyhow. But the solution the author came up with was like something out of a Choose Your Own Adventure story; totally strange, quite disturbing, and highly unsatisfying.

Prior to that, however, it's a tremendous book, and a really intelligent examination of race issues in the US today. Macon Detornay is a white kid from the suburbs of Boston who loves hiphop in a major way, and desperately wants to live by its teachings. He's also smart enough to realize that he is not and will never be black, and that it would be extremely offensive of him to pretend otherwise. He has, however, learned to hate white people, and this includes a strong dose of self hatred.

If the novel were entirely from Macon's perspective, it'd be irritating in the extreme. Because he's not only self righteous and pretty full of himself, he's also ridden with hypocrisy (though at least he's smart enough to realize it sometimes). But the novel refuses to take the timeworn irony excuse - yes he's annoying but you're meant to (occasionally) read him ironically and figure that out - no, the author is smart enough to realize that a lot of the problems of Macon's worldview might be too subtle for the reader to catch, and therefore occasionally makes one privy to the thoughts and reactions of others (who may themselves be flawed). It's really, really well done, and it's a highly thought provoking text. The examination of race issues, especially as related to hiphop, is given an added layer by a bit of deeper history - Macon is related to a key player in the history of the segregation of baseball. It might sound cheesy, but it's actually a really nice touch.

But the book doesn't just stop at the problem of white fans of hiphop - it also considers the problem of political action. You see, Macon has decided to fight against White People (and raise awareness about racism) by robbing them. And - it strains credibility a wee bit, but it's worth going along for the ride - he becomes a kind of folk hero. Well, to some. To others he's a race traitor, and to others he's just plain crazy. But in any case, he becomes An Event of sorts, and the consequences are thought provoking.

Also, it should be said, the book is often hilariously funny, and for hiphop heads, full of tidbits of music history and some surprisingly good rhymes, on occasion.

It's a worthwhile read, especially for hiphop fans, just be forewarned - the ending is a let-down.

10 July 2009

The Grass is Singing, by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing is an amazing writer in many ways. Her prose is harsh yet lyrical, evocative and absolutely gripping. Politically, she's a fascinating writer, excoriating ignorance, racism, and greed but without resorting to caricature - her characters are revolting and yet strangely human and sympathetic. This book is no different - except for the last 3 pages, where it falters badly.

The novel begins with the murder of Mary Turner by a "native", and then Tarantinos it to explain how it happened. It's all well and good at first, a seething misery of a woman descending into madness that's brilliantly evoked. It doesn't seem unreasonable that the perspective of Moses, the murderer, is missing, because the text is obviously rooted in the perspective of the Turners, and is engaged in depicting their ignorance and oblivion.

But then, in the last pages, it seems to turn its attentions to Moses. And you think, ah! Perhaps I will now learn why he did what he did, and what he thinks of all this. But no. Despite being in his perspective, you never enter his head. What his thoughts are, the work says, "it is impossible to know". Why is it so impossible? wtf? Isn't that why I read novels, to know? Is the mind of the native truly so unknowable? I doubt it. While the text is solid in depicting white ignorance, it can't seem to make the move to actually overcome it. As someone I was talking to once put it - "First there were novels that didn't realize the natives had interiority. Then there were novels that used irony to critique white people for not realizing that the natives had interiority. But when will there be novels that actually depict the native's interiority?"

Indeed. A good book - a great book, even - for the most part, but the last few pages were a decisive let down.

04 July 2009

Run, by Ann Patchett

Ah, my streak of mediocrity continues. Actually, to give Patchett her due - her prose is quite absorbing. There's just something, I dunno, highly readable about it. It's a pleasant enough book, and often emotionally compelling, despite its weaknesses, the greatest of which is the fact that it's utterly unrealistic.

To begin with, the characters are all way too good to be true. Everyone is noble and good and a bastion of integrity, even when they're irritated or selfish. The character who ought to be the most despicable, Sullivan, is so laden with pathos that he becomes a kind of tragic hero, an image that's only reinforced by his redemptive kindness to children. Likewise Tip, who is in some ways curmudgeonly and selfish is ultimately redeemed by his love of fish, which bespeaks a kind of warmth and aesthetic refinement. It's charming, in a way, but it turns the text into a kind of feel good fairy tale, where all these heroes grapple bravely with tragic events that seem largely arbitrary, despite being products of human creation. For instance, Sullivan's tragic car accident is presented as a complete blank, where he's no memory of it at all but is left to live with the consequences.

Secondly, the book is meant, I think, to be a kind of meditation on biological ties versus emotional ties, with an underlying interest in how dynamics of race factor in. You've got Tip and Teddy, the black adopted sons of Doyle, and then they encounter their birth mother and her daughter. The text ultimately moves to (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER) the seemingly ├╝ber happy ending of one big family, except for that vaguely fucked up part, namely, that the problematic element, the poor black mother, has been conveniently removed from the picture. One could say that it's only fair, given that the white mother was herself killed off early on in the text, but that hardly seems sufficient. The text further tries to ameliorate this, however, by using her death as an occasion for political critique - would a rich white woman with insurance have been allowed to die of the same thing? - and even goes so far as to have Tip pursue a career in medicine. Then, curiously, it changes its mind, and tells us that Tip's medical studies have taught him that actually, what happened was actually exactly the kind of thing that one wouldn't notice, with fatal consequences, and that it might have had nothing to do with race. And then, to retreat from the cliche of the son becoming a doctor, he decides to abandon the career on the very day of his graduation. And then! Just when the book has seemingly disavowed cliche, it announces that Teddy has decided to become a lawyer and is currently working with the homeless. It's borderline ridiculous, and there's something vaguely offensive in that kind of idealism, in that it seems to shut down political critique.

So the plot is poorly structured. Actually, this is most glaringly obvious in the way that Tennessee, the biological mother, is treated as a character. The text seems to realize that leaving her out entirely would be problematic, so it decides to give her a chance to explain herself (ie, reveal herself as saintly by a supposed exposition of her deeply human flaws) and goes for a terribly ham-fisted supernatural intervention. Whenever a text that is otherwise secular resorts to the supernatural, it's a sign that something has gone awry in its composition. Here, again, there's a compensatory gesture, whereby good old Uncle Sullivan gets invested with Christian magic superpowers, which in turn allows for some of the standard reflections on faith, miracles, etc. It's all terribly clumsy.

Patchett has a talent for style and lovely descriptions, but the plot is horribly amateur and rather offensively removed from reality. You get the sense that she knows absolutely nothing about the worlds, and people, she's describing. Perhaps this has something to do with the racial politics involved, and a sense of discomfort on her part about being a white woman writing black characters. But ultimately, she didn't handle it particularly well at all, ending up with this strangely utopian work that is occasionally moving, but never convincing.

01 July 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

I wanted to like this book. It was described to me as a kind of lively exploration of philosophy, but embodied in a real-life context. And I suppose this is not entirely untrue, but another way of putting it is that it involves characters who spend a lot of time thinking Profound Thoughts. In this case, very self-consciously so - the novel is a blend of two tales, one written by a 50 something year old concierge in an apartment building, who despite her lower class status - as she repeatedly makes it a point to say - is extremely well read and contemplative, and the other written by an extremely precocious 12 year old girl. Both characters are rather lonely and anti-social and alternatively despairing and somewhat proud of the fact that they're surrounded by idiots who cannot appreciate their genius. Which makes them fairly irritating and highly unsympathetic.

Unsurprisingly, of course, they ultimately form a kind of unlikely friendship by both becoming attached to the newcomer in the building, a Japanese guy whom both fetishize as the ultimate in elegance and refinement, a worthy companion for their own lofty souls.

I'm being snarky, and actually, the text is somewhat more sympathetic than that, but that doesn't get around how obnoxious it is. The 12 year old, in particular, is irritating in her extreme narcissism. She has a great scheme to kill herself on her 13th birthday, and is thus keeping a notebook of "profound thoughts" to bequeath to the world in her absence. Her thoughts are not very profound. Her complaints about the people around her are somewhat understandable, but mostly elitist and tiresome. What is most annoying about her, though, is that she's not even remotely believable as a character - Burbery asks us to believe that she is as genius, and has read and understood, for instance, Lacan, but also that she mostly reads only manga. I think that what I find so annoying about it is that it actually masks a vague sort of anti-intellectualism - there's a sense that a 12 year old could have read all these texts and understood them, and yet, not be much better for that knowledge. Likewise with the concierge - it seems that all that their reading has given them is a few ideas to play with a sense of superiority.

Finally, there's the seemingly coincidental resonances in their thought that I find clunky and obnoxious. I suppose it's meant to be an elegant echo of different concepts across the pages, but it feels horribly contrived. And the ending - oh man. I won't spoil it for you, but it's the crowning jewel of obnoxiousness.

Alright, enough hateration from me. Time for dinner.

ps - Oh, I should add - some of the problem of the prose could be translation. I suspect it reads much better in the original French - in English, the attempt at combining refined vocabulary and slang comes across pretty poorly, which makes the characters seem even more pretentious.