Category Archives: New York

I was in no mood for people who tried to lay claims on me.

Open City, by Teju Cole

Identity and memory intermingle, both at the national level and the individual. Who we are is in part a creation of who we were, but our perception of who we were is itself a creation of who we think we are. Slippery stuff.

In the final year of his psychiatry fellowship Julius takes to walking the streets of his adopted home city, New York. His “aimless wandering” allows him to think, to observe. He is a  flâneur of the New World, and for much of its length Open City is an account of his thoughts and encounters during his dérive.

By its end, it’s much harder to say exactly what Open City is. It’s too fluid and too subtle to be so easily pinned down.

OpenCity

I ENTERED THE PARK AT SEVENTY-SECOND STREET, AND BEGAN to walk south, on Sheep Meadow. The wind picked up, and water poured down into the sodden ground in fine, incessant needles, obscuring lindens, elms, and crab apples. The intensity of the rain blurred my sight, a phenomenon I had noticed before only with snowstorms, when a blizzard erased the most obvious signs of the times, leaving one unable to guess which century it was. The torrent had overlaid the park with a primeval feeling, as though a world-ending flood were coming on, and Manhattan looked just then like it must have in the 1920s or even, if one was far enough away from the taller buildings, much further in the past.

The cluster of taxis at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South broke the illusion. After I had walked another quarter hour, by then thoroughly drenched, I stood under the eaves of a building on Fifty-third Street. When I turned around, I saw that I was at the entryway of the American Folk Art Museum. Never having visited before, I went in.

Julius was born and raised in Nigeria to a Nigerian father and a German mother, then college-educated in the US. He is an intellectual, a lover of art and literature and particularly of classical music. If his brow were any higher he wouldn’t be able to walk through doors without crouching.

Over the course of the novel he walks around; looks at some paintings; visits an elderly professor who has become a friend; has an extended holiday in Belgium; gets mugged; meets some old companions from his childhood in Nigeria. On the whole it’s pretty uneventful stuff. The action here is internal.

Themes slowly emerge: recurring imagery of birds; musings on what constitutes freedom; the towering emptiness of the 9/11 Ground Zero site; questions of memory. Julius’ mind turns to art or to the problems facing his patients or the people and places that he sees. Through it all his voice is cool and dispassionate. Although his movement through the city is profoundly physical Julius remains always inside his own head.

The language of the book is, not to put too fine a point on it, beautiful.

The following day, returning to Sheep Meadow, on a circuitous route to a poetry reading at the Ninety-second Street Y, I noticed the masses of leaves dying off in bright colors, and heard the white-throated sparrows within them calling out and listening. It had rained earlier, and the fragmented, light-filled clouds worked off each other; maples and elms stood with their boughs still. Above a boxwood hedge, the swarm of hovering bees reminded me of certain Yoruba epithets for Olodumare, the supreme deity: he who turns blood into children, who sits in the sky like a cloud of bees.

As readers we are privy to Julius’ thoughts, to his interiority. Those around him of course are not, and one recurring element of the book is how other African immigrants repeatedly see him as a “brother”, a fellow African who has some kinship with them by virtue of shared origin and heritage. The connection they see is literally skin deep. In the US Julius is seen as a black man, an African, but he’s half German and in Nigeria was viewed at least by some as a rich white. What the Africans he meets see as a common link is to him mostly just an imposition by strangers of a false commonality. These African New Yorkers aren’t educated sophisticates like Julius – they’re taxi drivers and postal workers. Where they see bonds of race, Julius sees divisions of class.

For most of the book I accepted Julius’ view of himself at pretty much face value, and took the focus of the book to be his observations of the world around him. Perhaps that reflects my own nature as a slightly introspective intellectual type. Then however Julius goes to Brussels, ostensibly to find his maternal grandmother with whom he’s long since lost touch but really as an extended holiday. He takes about a month there, which with all due apologies to any Bruxellois who may read this is a hell of a long time to give a very quiet city.

In Brussels he naturally muses on the doubtful legacy of King Leopold II in the Congo. Belgium still has public statues to Leopold II and at home at least he doesn’t seem to be seen as one of the worst colonial monsters of the 19th Century. History has been kind to Leopold, largely forgetting the monstrous cruelty and slaughter he presided over.

Brussels today is the capital of Europe; Belgium is the European Union in microcosm with different nationalities co-existing under a shared but federalised polity. I’ve been there several times and it’s quite charming if perhaps a little dull for the casual visitor. It’s full of good restaurants and has bars with more choice of beer than I could drink in a lifetime. It’s easy to forget that many of its grand public buildings were financed by horror. History, like memory, is a matter of negotiable perspective.

It was a bronze bust of the poet Paul Claudel, set on a plinth on the side of the road like a shrine to Hermes. Claudel had served as French ambassador to Belgium in the 1930s, and later went on to fame as a writer of Catholic plays, and as a right-winger. His support for the collaborators and Marshal Pétain during the war earned him much scorn, but W. H. Auden, himself a leftist agnostic, spoke kindly of him. Auden had written: “Time will pardon Paul Claudel, pardons him for writing well.” And as I stood there in the whipping wind and rain, I wondered if indeed it was that simple, if time was so free with memory, so generous with pardons, that writing well could come to stand in the place of an ethical life.

While in Brussels Julius becomes briefly friends with a Morrocan immigrant named Farouq; a semi-radicalised intellectual who works in a phone shop and who has become highly politicised in the face of local prejudices. Julius and Farouq are both immigrants concerned with the world of ideas, both have left Africa to make new and better lives, but Julius has fared much better than Farouq and is as naturalised to his new home as Farouq is alienated from his. Farouq, driven to the margins of Belgium, is filled with fire and anger; Julius, who has found status and a comfortable income in the US, is uncommitted and resolutely apolitical.

Julius and Farouq’s conversations got me questioning quite where Julius stood. To be apolitical is a political choice, and Julius’ refusal to take a stance either with Farouq or to clearly break with him started to seem of a kind with his wider approach to life. He dislikes people who are too vocal about climate change, not because he disagrees with the science but from a distaste for “fashionable politics”. There can be such a thing as too much detachment. When he meets a postal worker who is also an amateur poet he agrees to go to a poets’ cafe with the man, but then makes “a mental note to avoid that particular post office in the future.” Most of us would do the same, but with Julius it starts to look like a pattern.

Julius is a perpetual outsider. In his role as flâneur he sees the city, but from a self-created distance. Where is the life in his life? He has his elderly friend, but where are the friends his own age? His girlfriend broke up with him, but where are the attempts to find someone new? He has his art, his music, but other than the rather sterile world of ideas who does he belong to?

Most of the people around me yesterday were middle-aged or old. I am used to it, but it never ceases to surprise me how easy it is to leave the hybridity of the city, and enter into all-white spaces, the homogeneity of which, as far as I can tell, causes no discomfort to the whites in them. The only thing odd, to some of them, is seeing me, young and black, in my seat or at the concession stand. At times, standing in line for the bathroom during intermission, I get looks that make me feel like Ota Benga, the Mbuti man who was put on display in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. I weary of such thoughts, but I am habituated to them. But Mahler’s music is not white, or black, not old or young, and whether it is even specifically human, rather than in accord with more universal vibrations, is open to question.

Near the end of the book Julius encounters people he knew from his days in Nigeria, one of whom remembers him in a way that is completely at odds with his own ideas of self. It’s a profoundly jarring and uncomfortable moment, one that jolted me as a reader from the comfortable Julius-space I’d come to inhabit, just as Julius is jolted from his easy assumptions of who he is.

Julius quickly reasserts his sense of self and moves on, untroubled, just as Belgium today worries little about Leopold’s Free State and the lasting consequences for the Congo. As a reader however I was left uncertain as to quite what I had read, what the significance of the intentionally anti-climactic ending that followed was, and who the narrator was that I’d spent so long with. In a genuinely excellent interview with 3:AM Magazine, Cole says “there’s no such thing as a right to remain untroubled.” Part of Open City’s strength, quite beyond the sheer beauty of its prose, is how troubling it is.

I’ll end just by noting how much more I could have said but didn’t. I’ve only mentioned in passing the use of birds as a recurrent motif, and will have to leave analysis of that to others. There’s a great deal to be said about how Julius embodies a form of cosmopolitan diversity which is both internalised and very modern, and yet which very clearly belongs to an internationalised class of the highly educated and highly paid. There’s a great deal more to be said about the treatment of memory in the book. There’s a lot here. This is a book that merits close reading, and rereading. In the end I’m not sure there’s any higher compliment one can make to any book than that.

Other reviews

In terms of blogs fewer than I thought, though it may just be that I’m not finding them. Hungry Like the Woolf’s review is here, and is good on the birds and makes some interesting contrasts with Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending. Just William’s Luck’s review is here, and discusses among many other things the meaning of the title which I haven’t even touched upon. There’s a review at a political blog here which for me makes the mistake at one point of conflating Julius’ worldview with Cole’s, but which otherwise is highly perceptive and very strong on the book’s political elements. As ever, please alert me to any I’ve missed in the comments.

Edit: Cathy and Rough Ghosts both flagged their reviews to me in the comments. Cathy’s (which I had commented on but clearly had forgotten) is here and reading it again I’m struck by how thorough and insightful it is – it really is very good. Rough’s is here and makes some nice comparisons with Sebald as well as picking up on the very current nature of the novel.

In addition, while I don’t normally link to newspaper reviews since I figure those are easy enough to find, it’s worth reading the tremendous comment by Bix2bop below the line at the Guardian’s review here. The review itself is fine and has some good points on negative space in the novel, but the comment is genuinely good and well worth reading.

Finally, here’s a quote from Teju Cole taken from the 3:AM interview I refer to above:

In my view, the novel is one of Europe’s greatest gifts to the world. America and Africa collaborated to give the world jazz. We’ll call it even.

That seems fair.

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Filed under Cole, Teju, New York

“Death always doubles off”

The Crazy Kill, by Chester Himes

Over Christmas I read an article which quoted PD James. She talked about how the pleasure of crime fiction was the knowledge that by the end of the book order would be restored. Bad things happen, but good wins out. The world is, ultimately, just.

That’s true of some crime fiction, but not of any crime fiction I enjoy reading. It’s not true of Chester Himes. In the 1950s Harlem of Himes’ novels the bad guys generally do get punished, but so do several other people along the way and there’s no restoration of order because there was never any order to begin with.

Here’s the opening of The Crazy Kill:

It was four o’clock, Wednesday morning, July 14th, in Harlem, U.S.A. Seventh Avenue was as dark and lonely as haunted graves.
A colored man was stealing a bag of money.

The bag is full of change. It’s on the seat of a double-parked car, just near a cop on patrol and a grocery store manager who’s opening up and will be back in a moment to pick up the bag and take it inside. Problem is, a bag doesn’t have to be left alone long in Harlem to go missing.

Nearby at a wake Reverent Short is leaning out of a first-story window watching proceedings. He leans too far out, falls and ends up in a large basket of bread sitting outside the bakery below.

The Reverend’s fine, but when he returns to the wake he does so with what he claims to be a vision. He saw a dead man, and when the partygoers go outside they find right in that same bread basket the body of Valentine Haines, stabbed through the heart with the knife still jutting out.

Before long everyone’s wondering who killed Val. Was it Johnny, local gangster and Val’s business partner? Was it Dulcy, Johnny’s girl and Val’s sister? What about Chink Charlie? He’s got the hots for Dulcy and he owns a knife just like the one sticking out of the corpse. Everyone says Val had no real enemies, but there seem to be a lot of people who might be in the frame for his death.

The Reverend’s throwing out accusations and stirring up trouble; Dulcy doesn’t seem to mind Chink Charlie paying her a little attention; and Johnny’s a jealous man with a violent temper. If things carry on as they are Val’s body won’t be the only one with a knife sticking out of it. Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed are soon on the scene and applying pressure.

The questioning was conducted in a soundproof room without windows on the first floor. This room was known to the Harlem underworld as the “Pigeon Nest.” It was said that no matter how tough an egg was, if they kept him in there long enough he would hatch out a pigeon.

I won’t say more about the plot. It’s only there because without it nothing would happen. As ever with Himes the real substance is in the characters, and in the sense of Harlem life. Johnny is a successful gambler and gets a lot of respect, even from the police. He wears sharp suits and drives a fancy car. The Reverend says, and believes, that he’s sworn off all alcohol, but he drinks a nerve tonic of his own devising which is a mix of hard drugs and harder liquor.

This is a Harlem filled with gambling joints, whorehouses, the Holy Roller Church where the Reverend preaches and where the congregation roll around on the floor when the spirit moves them. It’s Summer, it’s hot as hell, and tempers are running high. The only place there’s any relief is in the bars and gambling joints where people like Johnny spend their time:

Inside it was cool, and so dark he had to take off his sun glasses on entering. The unforgettable scent of whisky, whores and perfume filled his nostrils, making him feel relaxed.

In a sense this is Damon Runyon territory. It’s a different decade, a different part of New York and everyone’s black, but otherwise he’d recognise a lot of this. Just look at the names some of the characters have: Chink Charlie, Baby Sis, Reverend Short, Valentine Haines, Deep South, Mamie Pullen, Dulcy, Johnny, Pigmeat, Poor Boy, Doll Baby, Alamena, and of course Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed themselves.

The difference though is that Chester Himes doesn’t write comic novels. His characters have none of the loveable nature of Runyon’s rogues. Take away Runyon’s humour, and his affection, and the milieu isn’t so different. Damon Runyon after all portrays a world in which people scheme, cheat, take crazy risks and kill. Runyon does it with a laugh. Himes’ books have plenty of laughs, but hollow ones, and you can smell his characters’ sweat.

There’s always a question with novels forming part of a series as to where one should start. With the Harlem cycle the answer has to be at the beginning with A Rage in Harlem. The answer definitely shouldn’t be The Crazy Kill. It’s solid, but probably the weakest of the three I’ve read so far.

Jones and Ed barely feature, which isn’t vastly problematic as Himes’ interest is always more in his criminals than his detectives, but their presence sets up expectations about the kind of novel this is which aren’t quite realised. The plot, clearly intentionally, makes very little sense which is fine as Himes is all about the atmosphere but does make what happens all a little random (which again is clearly intentional, but even so is a little unsatisfying).

Although The Crazy Kill features a crime, and detectives who solve that crime, it’s not really a detective novel. At the end I found myself wondering if it would have been better with a little more detecting, or with none at all. It’s messing with Mr. In-Between that causes the problems there are here.

In writing this I found two reviews online by other bloggers, here and here. That first link has two extremely well chosen quotes and so I’d strongly suggest at least following that to get a little more of a taste of Himes’ prose. Otherwise, if you’ve read the first two Himes and enjoyed them then you should absolutely read this, but if you’re not already a fan this won’t be the one to convert you.

The cover up above is from the Vintage Crime edition, which I don’t particularly recommend as it has absurdly large margin spaces. There’s a Penguin Modern Classics edition now available, and if I were buying this now that’s what I would get. For the curious there’s also apparently a biography of Himes written by James Sallis, which makes it rather fitting that this review follows my review of Drive.

On a very final note, I found two alternative covers for this online, which I thought I’d share because they’re just great examples of vintage cover art. Particularly the first.

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Filed under Crime, Hardboiled, Himes, Chester, New York, Noir

Keep cool, fool

The Real Cool Killers, by Chester Himes

I read (and wrote about, here) the first of Chester Himes’ Harlem detective novels back in March 2009. It was a larger than life portrait of 1950s Harlem that showed it as an absurdist abyss of poverty and violence. It was lively, funny and ultimately very angry. I liked it.

Himes didn’t just write genre fiction, in fact he didn’t even mostly write genre fiction, but it’s the Harlem detective novels for which he’s (not very well) remembered. That’s probably unfair, but serious works about the impact of racism on labour relations just aren’t as easy a sell as fast moving crime novels with oversized guns and frequently comic mayhem.

Well, it’s a year and a half later and here I am reading another of his genre novels, and I still haven’t read one of the serious ones. The funniest thing about The Real Cool Killers though is that for all it’s lurid excess and mordant humour it comes with a sucker punch. It’s hard hitting, exciting and grotesque but by the end of it all it makes real points about Harlem life. It’s a serious novel after all.

Here’s the setup. A white cola salesman named Galen is in a black bar in Harlem watching the locals dance to the jukebox. A black man takes exception to Galen’s presence and tries to cut his throat with a knife. The bartender protects Galen, and ends up cutting the knifeman’s arm off with a short-handled axe.

Galen leaves the bar, but outside gets chased down the street by another black man named Sonny who’s firing a pistol after him. Soon after, Galen is killed, shot dead in front of a teenage street gang called the Real Cool Moslems (none of whom are moslem). It looks like Galen was killed by Sonny, but Sonny’s pistol only fired blanks – he was high and looking to give someone a scare. That means there was at least a third person after Galen. It also means it really wasn’t Galen’s night.

By the time Harlem detectives Grave Digger and Coffin Ed turn up there’s a huge crowd gathered. Matters get out of hand with the teen gang. Coffin Ed opens fire and kills an unarmed gang member and shoots a bystander in the leg. It’s chaos, it’s Harlem in the 1950s and it sets the tone for a novel the entire story of which takes place in just one night.

It takes a while for the police to realise that Sonny’s gun wasn’t loaded, so when he escapes from custody they set up a dragnet over the whole area and start house to house searches for him. Nothing can get in or out. Meanwhile, Grave Digger carries out his own investigation using his local contacts and street knowledge. He has to work alone. Coffin Ed is under suspension for his two shootings and it turns out that might be for the best because as Grave Digger digs deeper he starts to realise that Coffin Ed’s own daughter may be somehow involved.

I have to admit, I rather groaned when I found out that Coffin Ed’s daughter might be involved. Even in the 1950s it must already have been a cliché. Thankfully it’s the only one and it’s at least used well.

The novel follows two main strands. One is Coffin Ed kicking down doors and beating up anyone who might know anything, determined to find out what went down. The other follows the Real Cool Moslems – black teenagers who dress up as fake arabs and who luck into hiding Sonny after he gets away from the police. Both strands get steadily darker as the night goes on. Coffin Ed finds out that there were good reasons for Galen to have enemies. Sonny finds that he might have been better off in police custody than the gang’s as their leader Sheik starts thinking of ways to amuse himself with his captive.

This is the opposite of the traditional cosy crime novel. Here the criminals aren’t cold blooded, they’re hyped up on drugs, furious or just plain malicious for the sake of it. They act on impulse and try to cover up afterwards and generally they’re not particularly competent. Grave Digger too is no Sherlock Holmes. He’s not stupid but his way of finding out whodunnit mostly involves beating people up until they tell him what they know. The whole picture is one of savage brutality and casual violence. The only white faces present are the police and the occasional visitor from outside Harlem come to enjoy an illicit thrill that they can’t get back in their part of town. Here, a white club goer complains about Grave Digger roughing up a witness in front of him, and Grave Digger responds:

“I’m just a cop,” Grave Digger said thickly. “If you white people insist on coming up to Harlem where you force colored people to live in vice-and-crime-ridden slums, it’s my job to see that you are safe.”

Grave Digger is no politer to other black men. Later that night he returns to the diner where Galen’s evening began. A couple of seats are cleared for him. The men previously in those seats object until they realise they’re dealing with a cop.

Both rose with alacrity, picked up their glasses and vacated the stools, grinning at Grave Digger obsequeiously.
“Don’t show me your teeth,” Grave Digger snarled. “I’m no dentist. I don’t fix teeth. I’m a cop. I’ll knock your teeth out.”
The men doused their grins and slunk away.

Grave Digger spends the whole novel angry. What’s fuelling that anger though is something more than the lies he’s told and the ugliness of what led to Galen’s death. What really makes Grave Digger angry is Harlem itself. It’s a place born of inequality, a place where he’s assured by someone that Galen wouldn’t have been killed for sleeping with a man’s wife because sleeping with a white man doesn’t count as infidelity – it’s just an easy way to bring some more money into the family home. Harlem is the zoo and the whites are keepers or visitors, all of them wondering why the animals behave so badly while making sure they don’t get out of their cages.

As the novel reached the end, the pointlessness of it all became inescapable. This is a book in which a fair number of people die and in which a lot of others go down for some serious time. It’s all meaningless. It’s just another night in Harlem and that’s the sucker punch I talked about at the opening of this blog entry. Everything that’s happens during the long Harlem night is exciting, it’s hardboiled, but it’s also futile and ugly and Himes wants the reader to know that. As dawn breaks the tone shifts and it’s suddenly apparent that all this adventure adds up to is some ruined lives and some ended ones. Crime novels are exciting to read, but Himes wants the reader to know that living in one isn’t nearly as entertaining.

Uptown in Harlem, the sun was shining on the same drab scene it illuminated every other morning at eleven o’clock. No one missed the few expendable colored people being held on various charges in the big new granite skyscraper jail on Centre Street that had replaced the old New York City tombs.

The Real Cool Killers

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Filed under Crime, Hardboiled, Himes, Chester, New York, Noir

We are the fucked generation

A common piece of advice given to new writers, is to write what they know. It’s terrible advice. All too many writers don’t know anything much except attending writers’ workshops and struggling to make it as a writer, frequently in New York City. It’s not always New York City, but they often seem to move there, which extends their range to stories about trying to make it as a struggling writer who just moved to New York City, frequently from a small town.

I’ve read that story far too many times, I’ve seen it on film, I’ve been to a musical in the past year which turned out when I got there to be about a struggling writer who had recently moved to NYC and the bohemian people she met there. In the unlikely event anyone reads this who happens to be a struggling writer living in New York (actually, given how many there seem to be, that may not be that unlikely), here’s my bit of advice. Write what you don’t know. Write about a young girl coming of age in 1840s Copenhagen, or about an old man moving into a hospice he knows he’ll never leave, or maybe a satire of contemporary religion from the perspective of a church cat. Whatever. Surprise me here.

Anyway, that aside. Shoplifting from American Apparel is a novella by Tao Lin. It contains a few incidents from the life of Sam, a young Chinese-American writer living in New York. One could possibly call him struggling even. Irritatingly then, I rather enjoyed it. It’s well written, subtle and very unusual in its approach to narrative.

Shoplifting was written in 2007, and is very much of its time. Sam talks to his friends on Gmail chat (as do I most days), checks stuff on Facebook, there are references to the Obama and McCain campaigns. It’s plotless, Sam has desultory conversations, vague relationships with a few girls none of whom he really engages with, goes on a few trips, and gets arrested twice for shoplifting (once from American Apparel, you can’t say the book doesn’t live up to its title). As in Bret Easton Ellis’s 1985 novel Less than Zero it starts at no particular point and ends equally unresolved, it’s simply episodes from a life, with the implication that the episodes not in the book are much the same.

Shoplifting opens with Sam chatting online, in a sequence that manages to both be very funny (if you’ve used Gmail chat anyway, possibly less so if not) and surprisingly accurate about the peculiarities of that form. Here’s two snippets of Sam’s chat:

“What should I eat”’ said Sam. “I have two choices. Cereal or peanut butter bagel.”
“Cereal,” said Luis.
“I wanted the bagel. I’m eating the bagel, I don’t know why I asked.”

“Has Marissa ever threatened to kill you,” said Sam.
“Oscar Wilde said that a genius is a spectator to their own life, to the point that the real genius is uninteresting,” said Luis. “No, Marissa has never threatened to kill me.”

I love the inconsequentiality of the conversation, the pointless question about what to eat when Sam’s already decided. Chat for its own sake. Equally, Lin captures the curiously intercollated nature of Gmail chat, where each participant is often a sentence or so out of sequence with the other. Leroy is talking about writing just before that second quote begins, makes his point about Wilde, but while he was writing that Sam’s already asked the question about Marissa. Leroy answers that, which ends up tagged on to the Wilde quote. My own experience of Gmail chat is very similar, if someone changes topic, you’ve often written out a reply to the previous topic before you receive the message telling you they’ve moved on to something new. It may seem unimportant, but then if there’s any theme to Shoplifting at all it’s that everything is equally important or unimportant.

It’s hard, incidentally, not to see that Wilde quote as something of a metacommentary on the novella itself.

Lin is very good at capturing small exchanges, everyday conversations. Although his characters don’t really do anything, and their motivations for what they do do are never really explored (we’re not privy to Sam’s inner life, merely his comments on what it is), there is a sense of the quotidian here which many novelists struggle to achieve. Having just come from The Road, with its dialogue tending to the profound and the symbolic, it’s refreshing to read a work which simply captures the small comedy of everyday life.

There’s a danger to too much analysis of a work like this, it deals very much in surfaces after all, there’s a risk of putting a weight on it it’s not intended to bear. Why does Sam shoplift? Who knows? His only explanation is that he’s stupid, there’s a feeling almost of why not. It is another source of comedy, as an American Apparel manager complains that they’re the good guys and if he’s going to shoplift he should do it from a company with bad labour relations. It also does take Sam from his own milieu briefly, to police holding cells filled with aggressive drunks and possibly crazy people, but he learns nothing from that.

So, Sam learns nothing, he constantly reflects on his own life but in an essentially narcissistic way, there’s no drive to change anything nor does he seem to particularly enjoy it. He just sort of is, aimlessly. His friends are equally aimless, comparing the Amazon rankings of their books and doing occasional readings, but there’s a sense they’re waiting to be discovered rather than working for it. They haven’t opted out, they’ve just never really opted in. Some have talent, many plainly don’t (at one point a band explain with great seriousness that their new song is about how Jesus was a zombie as he came back from the dead, they seem unaware – as Lin I’m sure isn’t – that it’s a commonplace internet joke).

The issue always with plotless novels, is what to read them for. Since much of what I read these days is fairly plotless, it’s a question I have to answer quite often. Without plot, really you’re looking at character and prose. Shoplifting’s light on character, Sam and his friends are fairly interchangeable (itself possibly a comment on them), so you’re left with the prose. Lin has an often dryly ironic tone, which is combined somehow with a stye rather like champagne foam, insubstantial but no less enjoyable for that. He also has a nice eye for the absurd:

“I want to change my novel to present tense,” said Sam. “Is there some Microsoft Word thing to do that.”

or

… my face was bathed in the soft blue light of Internet Explorer.

If I had to criticise, I’d say that some of Lin’s influences are a bit obvious. I enjoy Douglas Coupland as much as the next man, and I’ve read a fair bit of Bret Easton Ellis, but their fingerprints here are easy to spot. At one point a character is even mentioned to be reading an Ellis novel, that’s nicely self-referential and all but (as I’d like a few more TV writers to realise) hanging a lampshade on the point doesn’t mean it’s no longer an issue. That said, Lin has nothing of the ultra-violence (or indeed vampires) so frequent in Ellis’s work, and which for me was the weakest part of Ellis’s material, so arguably he’s improving on Ellis rather than merely imitating him.

Self-referentiality is another big part of Shoplifting, Sam is a Chinese-American writer who writes books about “two people alone in rooms in Ohio and Pennsylvania talking to each other on Gmail chat.” Shoplifting, of course, is a book by a Chinese-American writer and opens with two people alone in rooms talking to each other on Gmail chat. Is Sam essentially Tao Lin? Again, who knows? To me, it’s a form of joke, a metajoke even, Sam writes stories about characters like himself while appearing in a story which may have been written by someone like himself. That said, there’s a laziness to post-modern irony at times, and what works at this length could become very tiresome at full novel length.

If I had to sum up the characters in Shoplifting, I’d do it with the following quote. Here someone is explaining what happened when he ran away from home, an adolescently romantic impulse that descends into banal futility:

Joseph said he stopped going to school when he was sixteen and saved money and left Kentucky on his bike without telling anyone and climbed onto a train, because he had heard of people doing that, and the train went somewhere but then came back and didn’t move anymore and he bought a Greyhound ticket and went to San Francisco and then Arizona.

Sam and his acquaintances lead lives of tremendous material comfort. They have laptops and ipods and all manner of useful things, all they really lack is much of a point. They live in a blanket of pleasant inconsequence, with nothing much to struggle for. They are not religious, or political, or in any way driven. They are the products of a world in which want has largely been abolished, for the children of the middle classes anyway, swaddled until it’s hard to feel anything at all:

“…there was nothing I could do with the emotion really,” said Sam. “It just went away after a while.”

Look on your works, ye baby boomers, and despair.

I heard of Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel over at John Self’s blog, The Asylum. He gave it a positive review, the comments to which are also well worth reading. John has my thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Shoplifting from American Apparel

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Filed under Lin, Tao, New York, Novellas

Rejoicing City That Dwelt Carelessly

Manhattan Transfer, by John Dos Passos

I was introduced to John Dos Passos by Kerry’s blog Hungry like the Woolf, here. Before that, I’d heard the name, but wasn’t familiar with the work. Kerry piqued my interest, and a recent trip to New York seemed the perfect opportunity to give Dos Passos a try, starting with his 1925 novel Manhattan Transfer (published the same year as The Great Gatsby, but taking a very different approach to grappling with the issues of the day).

Manhattan Transfer is a panoramic novel, it starts in the late 1890s (not that this is made explicit, but to a contemporary reader it would have been obvious), and then sweeps on through around three decades of New York life. It seeks to show the reader the city as a film might, a sweeping vista in which all its life is made apparent and the metropolis’s intricate mechanisms are laid bare.

To an extent, it’s a fairly unsympathetic portrait. New York is a vast machine that processes people, absorbs them and shapes them – but without regard to their own hopes and fears. The city is a monstrous engine of capitalism, indifferent to the small lives of its citizens and driven by impersonal forces to its own blind ends. The novel was written at a time when socialism was a live force in American life, hard as that is to imagine now, and a socialist current runs through it with the workers’ struggle and the prospects for class revolution concerning several of the novel’s varied cast. Of course, revolution never happened, and as a naturalist novel it doesn’t arrive here either, some may dream of a better world but Manhattan Transfer doesn’t make that world seem all that attainable.

Stylistically, Manhattan Transfer is a little unusual. Each chapter opens with an indented impressionistic passage in a smaller font than the normal text. The following passages are the opening paragraphs of the novel, the first of the two properly should be in a six or eight point font but sadly I haven’t worked out how to achieve that in WordPress so I’m afraid the effect this has in the actual book is a bit reduced here:

        Three gulls wheel above the broken boxes, orangerinds, spoiled cabbage heads that heave between the splintered plank walls, the green waves spume under the round bow as the ferry, skidding on the tide, crashes, gulps the broken water, slides, settles slowly into the slip. Handwinches whirl with jingle of chains. Gates fold upwards, feet step out across the crack, men and women press through the manuresmelling wooden tunnel of the ferry-house, crushed and jostling like apples fed down a chute into a press.

The nurse, holding the basket at arm’s length as if it were a bedpan, opened the door to a big dry hot room with greenish distempered walls where in the air tinctured with smells of alcohol and iodoform hung writhing a faint sourish squalling from other baskets along the wall. As she set her basket down she glanced into it with pursed-up lips. The newborn baby squirmed in the cottonwool feebly like a knot of earthworms.

What’s noticeable in that first, indented, passage is that it’s not a classic piece of descriptive prose. Rather it’s a collage, a series of images which together create an impression. Here the result is fairly straightforward, in some chapters though it can take concentration to even work out what’s being described, the point isn’t accuracy, it’s sensation (but not to be fair sensationalism).

What’s also I think immediately noticeable is the strange compound words used in those two paragraphs. The novel is filled with them: orangerinds, manuresmelling, cottonwool. Words here mash together, sometimes to create an apparently more meaningful whole, but sometimes just colliding as if the sheer velocity of the prose has pushed them into each other. Equally, the imagery is often repulsive, inhuman. A newborn baby is like “a knot of earthworms”, men and women arriving on the ferry for their day’s work are like “apples fed down a chute into a press.” The whole effect is slightly dizzying, jarring, and that for me made this an often challenging read. The language is dense, clever, tricky in its deliberate ignoring of the normal rules of grammar (and indeed spelling, dialogue is often written as pronounced rather than as spelled). Kerry’s blog speaks to Dos Passos’s stylistic approach in some detail, so I won’t repeat that too much here, but I will say it means that I had to pay attention to read this novel, it requires a little dedication.

Manhattan Transfer is impressionistic in other senses too. Each chapter consists of a number of, often very short, passages dealing with different characters. Out of work men new to the city hoping to find work, ambitious lawyers, immigrants, actresses, Bowery bums, business tycoons, journalists, bankers, seamstresses, everyone is here. The novel dips into these lives a few paragraphs, rarely more than a couple of pages, at a time. Characters recur, their lives develop and sometimes intertwine, but overall the effect is of skimming from life to life with people meshing together as small cogs in a a huge city brimming with ambition, failure, potential, passion, despair, humanity.

There is a cost to this approach, characters’ internal voices are often extremely similar. Spoken dialogue varies a great deal (though often more in terms of dialect than content), but internal monologues not so much. Equally and inevitably, some characters are far more developed than others, many remaining essentially just a representative type. This isn’t really a character driven novel, and if one approaches it looking for acute psychological insight then that isn’t really here to be found.

But of course, that’s not the point. The individual this novel focuses on isn’t Jimmy Herf or Ellen Thatcher (to take the two most developed characters), it’s New York City itself in all its splendour and inhumanity. As a portrait of any given individual, this novel isn’t a great success (save perhaps for those two I just mentioned), as a portrait of a city and an age though, it is.

One of the advantages of Dos Passos’s huge cast is the number of viewpoints it affords us, from the Upper West Side to tenement apartments where upstairs neighbours carry out illegal abortions and snooping landladies mean young couples with no money can have no privacy at all. Money comes with societal expectations that control your life, poverty with a lack of opportunities that mean your fate is just as circumscribed. The only people in the novel who seem at all free are those who live on their own terms, without compromise, those who accept the city’s terms are bound by them and live for it rather than themselves. Even so, that breadth of viewpoints means we see the city’s rich and poor, the struggling middle classes, the upwardly and the downwardly mobile, we see it all.

At times, it’s rather funny, I particularly liked this conversation between some newly arrived immigrants:

‘Eh bien you like it this sacred pig of a country?” asked Marco.
‘Why not! I like it anywhere. It’s all the same, in France you are paid badly and live well; here you are paid well and live badly.’

There is part of me that thinks eighty years later that comment still holds up pretty well.

More importantly though, as this is not a comic novel, is the quality of the writing. Dos Passos can write. I’m quoting the following passage in full because it gives a good feel for Dos Passos’s style, but look out for the line “… the hunched shoulders of men asleep, faces crumpled like old newspapers pillowed on arms”, which I think is simply wonderful.

Joe Harland had slumped down in his chair until his head rested on his arms. Between his grimestiff hands his eyes followed uneasily the lines on the marbletop table. The gutted lunchroom was silent under the sparse glower of two bulbs hanging over the counter where remained a few pies under a bellglass, and a man in a white coat nodding on a tall stool. Now and then the eyes in his gray doughy face flicked open and he grunted and looked about. At the last table over were the hunched shoulders of men asleep, faces crumpled like old newspapers pillowed on arms. Joe Harland sat up straight and yawned. A woman blobby under a raincoat with a face red and purplish streaked like rancid meat was asking for a cup of coffee at the counter. Carrying the mug carefully between her two hands she brought it over to the table and sat down opposite him. Joe Harland let his head down onto his arms again.

Equally, this short passage packs a great deal into very little space, and with considerable elegance:

They had to change at Manhattan Transfer. The thumb of Ellen’s new kid glove had split and she kept rubbing it nervously with her forefinger. John wore a belted raincoat and a pinkishgray felt hat. When he turned to her and smiled she couldn’t help pulling her eyes away and staring out at the long rain that shimmered over the tracks.

There is a restless energy to Manhattan Transfer. In an excellent (and extremely well written in its own right) introductory essay by Jay McInerney, there is a comment that the characters are trying to seek the centre of the city, to find the heart of things, as summarised here by Ellen Thatcher on taking her job at a fashion magazine:

‘… what you want to do is make every reader feel like Johnny on the spot in the center of things.’
‘As if she were having lunch right here at the Algonquin.’
‘Not today but tomorrow,’ added Ellen.

The centre though is unattainable, indeed there isn’t one. There is just the city, a vast ant farm in which the individual is swallowed up, a machine in which each person is processed and absorbed. McInerney’s main criticism of the novel, a valid one, is that in showing how capitalism robs people of their humanity, their meaning, Dos Passos perhaps does the same thing. As he says: “The rapid-transit, discontinuous narrative brilliantly captures the pace of the city, the sense of brief, promiscuous contact with other lives. The metallically impersonal narrative voice carries the hard-edged din of the city at the same time that it keeps us at a distance from the residents; though it may swoop down from the smoky Manhattan skies from time to time to inhabit one of the characters, we are never long in the presence of a sympathetic consciousness. The danger with this method is that the victims of oppression are damned along with their chains.”

Manhattan Transfer is a difficult novel in some respects, I had to consciously push myself through it and it took me far longer to read than I expected. It comes together at the end, however, in a very rewarding fashion which for me really made that effort worthwhile. There are novels that are let down by their endings, and novels (like Aldous Huxley’s Antic Hay) where the ending redeems the novel changing the experience from irritation to enjoyment. Manhattan Transfer never irritated (though Dos Passos does share Huxley’s fondness for dropping in bits of dialogue in untranslated foreign languages, a habit I dislike), but it wasn’t easy and if like me at times you find it hard going then it is rather marvellous to reach the end and find it brought together into a coherent artistic whole that as a completed work is intelligent and rewarding. It’s not flawless, but it is excellent for all that.

My final comment would be that if you are to read this, it may be worth just spending twenty minutes or so first reading up on early twentieth Century history on Wikipedia. I mentioned at the start of this blog entry that to a contemporary reader the period details would be obvious. To a modern reader that isn’t necessarily the case, and early on I got quite confused as to exactly when things were happening, what period I was actually in. A very basic grasp of what to a contemporary reader would have been common knowledge will help keep the chronology straight, this isn’t historical fiction with that genre’s helpful explication and Dos Passos didn’t seek to help out future readers whose recollections of to him recent events such as the Russian-Japanese war might perhaps be less than the novel assumes.

Manhattan Transfer

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Filed under Dos Passos, John, Modernist fiction, New York

A good feeling is a sign of death, Daddy-o

Chester Himes is a new author to me, one that I had never heard of until I saw A Rage in Harlem recommended in a Waterstone’s Staff Pick.

However, that reflects more on me than it does on Chester Himes, because some investigation reveals that he is in fact a highly regarded African-American novelist with some forty years of output, not least among which is a series of detective novels collectively referred to as the Harlem Detective series. Himes’ fiction often dealt with issues of race and justice, issues he was perhaps unusually qualified to speak to having spent eight years in jail himself for armed robbery.

A Rage in Harlem is the first of the Harlem Detective series. Written and set in 1957, in it we first meet his two detective characters, Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. In later novels I understand they take a more central role, but here they are closer to plot elements than characters, larger than life forces of nature the presence of which drives the actions of others. The real protagonist of A Rage in Harlem is one Jackson, a “square” and churchgoing man, honest and with a profound faith in his girlfriend Imabelle.

As the novel opens, Jackson has been introduced by Imabelle to men who claim to be able to raise ten dollar bills to hundred dollar bills, using a secret technique they possess. As they proceed, they are raided by a man claiming to be a police officer, Jackson is apprehended but the other men run taking their equipment and Imabelle with them. The policeman asks for a bribe from Jackson in return for letting him go, and to get the money Jackson is forced to steal money from his employer’s safe. To get that back, Jackson goes gambling, and loses everything he has (in one of the better written gambling sequences I have read). By the end of this, fairly short in terms of the novel, sequence of events Jackson is penniless, a thief and believes that he is pursued by the police.

It is not giving anything away to reveal that the policeman is one of the gang of swindlers, that Jackson is the subject of a grift, and that he may well be one of the most gullible men in Harlem. All that said, he decides that Imabelle would not have gone with the others willingly, and so with the aid of his brother, a con man and junkie who cross dresses as a nun to swindle the poor by selling modern day indulgences, he sets out to rescue her.

A Rage in Harlem then is a novel of extremes. Goldie, Jackson’s brother, is an extraordinary character. He lives with two other professional criminals who cross dress as part of their own grifts, and they inhabit a world that squares like Jackson cannot comprehend (if they could, they wouldn’t be squares). Many characters are grotesques, many scenes are grimly comic, absurd even with unbelievable elements happily thrown in. At the same time, all this sits with a convincing depiction of life in Harlem in the late 1950s, a life often of grinding poverty, poor education and remarkable isolation from the wider New York City.

The language of the book is vivid, as you would expect, here we have an exchange between Jackson and a taxi driver:

A black boy was driving. Jackson gave him the address of Imabelle’s sister in the Bronx. The black boy made a U-turn in the icy street as though he liked skating, and took off like a lunatic.
‘I’m in a hurry,’ Jackson said.
‘I’m hurrying, ain’t I?’ the black boy called over his shoulder.
‘But I ain’t in a hurry to get to heaven.’
‘We ain’t going to heaven.’
‘That’s what I’m scared of.’

Similarly, here Jackson trades remarks with a shoe-shine boy:

‘Man, you know one thing, I feel good,’ he said to the shoe-shine boy.
‘A good feeling is a sign of death, Daddy-o,’ the boy said.
Jackson put his faith in the Lord and headed for the dice game upstairs on 126th Street, around the corner.

As the novel progresses, Jackson essentially falls through a crack in his world, moving from the realm of god fearing and church going people to the world of hustlers, con artists, pimps and killers. He moves from the world of prey, to the world of predators, and since he is by nature prey he spends a good part of the novel running from people and desparately hoping not to be brutally killed, for brutal death is rarely far away in Himes’ Harlem and in the course of the novel a fair number of characters do die – as often as not from sheer bad luck or meeting the wrong people at the wrong time.

Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson move through this world of casual violence and relentless criminality as part of the forces devoted to keeping some kind of order in place, they are both themselves black, coloured detectives as the people of the time term them. The police department is largely white, the white officers whenever depicted have neither understanding of nor sympathy for the blacks of Harlem, Jones and Johnson don’t have much more sympathy than their white colleagues, but they do understand and that coupled with their remarkable capacity for violence makes them effective and feared men.

They took their tribute, like all real cops, from the established underworld catering to the essential needs of the people – gamekeepers, madams, streetwalkers, numbers writers, numbers bankers. But they were rough on purse snatchers, muggers, burglars, con men, and all strangers working any racket.

Discussing the attitudes of the police, takes me to the depiction of race in the novel generally. As is common in novels of this period and earlier dealing with issues of race, black characters are routinely described in terms of how black they are. One may have a coal coloured face, another be an ordinary brown, all of which is essentially merely descriptive, but then a sharp line is drawn between black people who are variously brown skinned and those who are “yellows” or “high yellows”, people whose skin is light in shade. High yellows are seen as more attractive than the brown skinned, and characters (including black characters, almost everyone in the book is black) will refer to others as a “high yellow” making distinctions as finely honed as would be found in any caste system. At one point a bystander quotes an old folk saying, as follows:

Black gal make a freight train jump de track
But a yaller girl make a preacher Ball de Jack

I have seen this distinction made before, in the works of writers such as Hammett and Spillane and in the songs of artists like Leadbelly (who in one sings of his “yellow girl”). A fairly formal differentiation between people according to the degree of blackness present in their skin tone appears to have been fairly common in American life in this period. For all the distinctions drawn, however, between the brown skinned and the yellow skinned, the key difference is with the white skinned. In this book blacks and whites barely communicate, the black characters occasionally interact with white policemen and that unwillingly, their world is a self-contained one and points of contact between black and white experience are few.

Life in Harlem is difficult, poverty is endemic, the police are feared and never assisted – which given they spend most of the novel arresting anyone in sight who looks a bit out of place is hardly surprising. At one point Jackson flees through an alley, slipping in mud, tearing his clothes, getting covered in blood and filth and reduced to rags. When he hits the street, he is not the worst dressed man in it, his appearance is not of itself remarkable enough to attract the near constant police attention.

Colored people passed along the dark sidewalks, slinking cautiously past the dark, dangerous doorways, heads bowed, every mother’s child of them looking as though they had trouble.
Colored folks and trouble, Jackson thought, like two mules hitched to the same wagon.

With poverty comes violence, at one point Jackson goes to a rough bar, where he is surrounded by whores and grifters, marked out by muggers, a whole ecology of crime clustering around an obvious mark. A fight breaks out, to the entertainment of all (the people of Harlem here love watching the troubles of others), and swiftly descends into farce:

Two rough-looking men jumped about the floor, knocking over chairs and tables, cutting at one another with switchblade knives. The customers at the bar screwed their heads about to watch, but held on to their places and kept their hands on their drinks. The whores rolled their eyes and looked bored.
One joker slashed the other’s arm. A big-lipped wound opened in the tight leather jacket, but nothing came out but old clothes – two sweaters, three shirts, a pair of winter underwear. The second joker slashed back, opened a wound in the front of his foe’s canvas jacket. But all that came out of the wound was dried printer’s ink from the layers of old newspapers the joker had wrapped around him to keep warm. They kept slashing away at one another like two rag dolls battling in buck dancing fury, spilling old clothes and last week’s newsprint instead of blood.

As well as race, poverty, brutality and violence, A Rage in Harlem is also full of almost slapstick humour. A car chase in which multiple squad cars pursue a fleeing hearse, which proceeds to careen through a central market scattering livestock, vegetables and meat in its wake and which en route loses its contents including the corpse of a freshly murdered man becomes a form of comic sequence, over the top, grim in that the driver is genuinely terrified but funny because it becomes ludicrous in the extremity of the description. Himes himself described his detective series as “absurd”, his Harlem becomes at times a grotesquerie, filled with freaks and morbid humour. Jones and Johnson are barely people, closer to caricatures of grim law enforcement, Jackson is astonishingly and continuingly gullible, Goldie so unredeemable he spends a fair time drugging Jackson so he can look for Imabelle without interference as Goldie has come to believe she has a wealth of gold on her person. Characters here are not subtly crafted portraits from life.

Well, except one character, Harlem itself. Harlem convinces, Harlem is really the main character of the novel, it is a novel about Harlem, its absurdities and cruelties. And it is in the descriptions of Harlem that some of the book’s best passages are to be found:

Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of a sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desparate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.
That is Harlem.
The farther east it goes, the blacker it gets.

I’m not sure where I’ll go next with Himes. My (perhaps incorrect) impression is that he wrote what he considered serious fiction, and separately his detective fiction. I enjoyed the detective fiction, perhaps despite and perhaps in part because of its grotesque elements, his serious fiction is doubtless enjoyable too and it would be interesting to see how it compares. Still, I would not wish to give the impression that the crime fiction is not worth reading, it is, and it is that for which he is most famous. There is real skill here, the occasional extremity of description is intentional, not inadvertent and Himes has things to say which are I think worth listening to.

I link here to an essay I found online on Himes work, I particularly liked the reference to him “coupling craft with a searing and sometimes brutal black-humored “fabulism,””, a line I wish I had come up with myself as it definitely captures something of this work.

A Rage in Harlem

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Filed under Crime, Hardboiled, Himes, Chester, New York, Noir