Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Mental Landscapes: Teju Cole's "Open City"


Outside of the occasional blurb upon its 2011 publication, I haven't read any reviews of Teju Cole's Open City, and I know little about the author himself, except for a brief overview of his credentials (he's a writer, photographer, and historian, and based on that alone, he's probably an awesome person with whom to have a couple of beers and a conversation). Therefore, crafting an introduction is proving to be a challenge, since I normally open with an aside, an explanation of how I came to read a specific work, or an overview of my previous readings of a given author. With so little in mind, and therefore with so little knowledge or assumption of what I was getting into, I'm pleasantly amazed at how quickly Open City placed itself into conversations and awareness of contemporary literature. It has been embraced by the literary establishment (in whatever guise you assume that to be), and as a bookseller, I've seen the work picked up by a variety of readers and demographics. It has been on my list for a lot longer than I wanted (I had hoped to read it earlier this year), and upon reflection, it carries a wealth of positive contradictions: it's a debut novel that distances itself from standard notions of what composes a novel; it's original, yet evocative of past writers such as Italo Calvino; and it blends storytelling with a variety of fields, from philosophy to history to sociology.

Open City follows the travels, thoughts, and interactions of Julius, a Nigerian-German psychiatrist in New York City. We see his observations as he takes long, meandering walks around the city, interacts with friends and strangers, recalls his childhood in Africa, and travels to Europe. It doesn't take long to realize this isn't a novel in a conventional sense; it's an unfolding and layered exploration in a fictional setting. Within the first chapter, Julius has his plans disrupted by the New York City Marathon, pays an impromptu visit to an elderly Japanese professor, and shares a brief conversation with a neighbor in his apartment building. These scenarios and meetings jump from person to person, and within these jumps, there are moves between various thoughts and observations. Even when Julius isn't walking or interacting, his mind is constantly obsessing, analyzing, and dreaming. For example, he visits a grocery store, and the surrounding area leads to these diversions:

"At the grocery store, I bought bread, eggs, and beer, and next door, at the Jamaican place, I bought goat curry, yellow plantains, and rice and peas to take home. On the other side of the grocery store was a Blockbuster; though I had never rented anything from there, I was startled to see a sign announcing it, too, was going out of business. If Blockbuster couldn't make it in an area full of students and families, it meant that the business model had been fatally damaged, that the desperate efforts they had made recently, and which I now recalled, of lowering rental prices, launching an advertising blitz, and abolishing late fines, had all come too late. I thought of Tower Records--a connection I couldn't help making, given that both companies had for a long time dominated their respective industries. It wasn't that I felt sorry for these faceless national corporations; far from it. They had made their profits and their names by destroying smaller, earlier local businesses. But I was touched not only at the passage of these fixtures in my mental landscape, but also at the swiftness and dispassion with which the market swallowed even the most resilient enterprises (Cole 19)."

In addition to his narrative, Cole's major talent lies in making these seemingly abrupt transitions seamless. In Julius's solitude, like anyone else's, his thought process moves quickly through what he sees. However, there were times throughout the novel when I had trouble accepting the depth of the conversations he strikes up with random strangers. These discussions are not unlike his personal thoughts--they encompass the same variety of topics and hypotheses, all of which are educational, fascinating, and well-written. On a plane ride to Brussels, Julius sits next to an elderly woman who turns out to be a doctor. Their conversation starts off innocently and politely, but within the span of a few pages, they're discussing history, architecture, and travels. Perhaps Cole is deliberately elaborating casual small talk, which usually includes random topics like weather and jobs, instead of:

"If you ever get a chance to go [to Heliopolis], you should. It's a fantastical place, and Edouard Empain, or Baron Empain as they call him, was the engineer who designed and built it. That was in 1907. It was a real luxury capital, broad avenues, big gardens. There's a building there called Qasr Al-Baron, the Baron's Palace, that was modeled on Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and also on a Hindu temple, a specific one, but I don't recall the name. And you know, this is now the most important suburb of Cairo; in fact it's within the city boundaries now. The president of Egypt lives there today. But the Empains are in a tussle with the Egyptian government, because part of Heliopolis belongs to them, and they are trying to claim it, or at least get compensated for it (Cole 91)."

Julius also encounters a young Muslim clerk in an internet cafe, and ends up getting drinks with him and one of his friends. The conversation turns political and sometimes alienating, depending on one's position or religion. But Cole, framing these as conversation pieces, offers no judgement or leanings. Julius is shocked and naturally incredulous at the statements, but through these delicate, sensitive opinions, the reader is merely a spectator to discussions that happen all over, whether we want to admit this or not.

"And Hezbollah, I said, you support them, too? Yes, he said. Hezbollah, Hamas, same thing. It is resistance, simple. Every Israeli home has weapons. I looked at Faroq. He looked at me levelly and said, It's the same for me. It is resistance. And what about Al-Qaeda? I said. Khalil said, True, it was a terrible day, the twin towers. Terrible. What they did was very bad. But I understand why they did it. This man is an extremist, I said, you hear me, Farouq? Your friend is an extremist. But I was pretending to an outrage greater than I actually felt. In the game, if it was a game, I was meant to be the outraged American, though what I felt was more sorrow and less anger. Anger, and the semiserious use of a word like extremist, was easier to handle than sorrow. This is how Americans think Arabs think, I said to them both. It really saddens me. And you, what about you, Farouq? Do you support Al-Qaeda, too (Cole 120)."

Throughout these conversations, Cole is essentially mapping the world and emphasizing the connections between people. I hesitate to say this is done in an exaggerated manner, since that sounds like a petty criticism. It's just that the bulk of Open City is stunning realistic, and chance conversations that turn into compelling historical and political assessments occasionally gave me pause. These work much better when Julius describes his complex childhood in Nigeria. He recounts his time in a tough Nigerian military school, from the interactions with his classmates to the abuse he received from the teachers and officers. The reader is given his personal history along with historical details of Nigerian life, and between the lines, Julius explores his views of that time in two ways--from his point of view then and his adult hindsight. Cole's writing never stops digging, both historically and psychologically. I cannot think of a debut novel that contains this much complexity.

"After my father's burial, I was keen to return to school. I did not play the helpless orphan, had no time for it. A surprising number of my classmates had been through the same thing, losing parents to illness or accidents. One good friend has lost his dad in the executions that followed the failed military coup of 1976. He never spoke about it, but he wore it as a badge of honor. What I wanted for myself that year was some sense of belonging, and loss paradoxically helped enrich that sense. I threw myself into the military training, the classes, the physical workouts, the rhythms of prep and manual labor (cutting grass with cutlasses, doing duties on the school's maize farms). Not that I liked labor for its own sake--far from it--but I found something true in the work, found something of myself in it (Cole 81)."


My main critique of Open City comes from its ending. Without giving anything concrete away, the novel suddenly introduces revelations and climaxes that would be at home in a standard narrative, but become perplexing after pages of carefully crafted studies and interactions. The novel is told in the first person, and the outside revelations show that Julius is not a perfect, that he's made plenty of mistakes in his life. However, nowhere in the narrative does Julius suggest he's without faults or problems. He shares details of how his relationship ended and hints at how an abrupt vacation put strain on his co-workers. However, the emphasis throughout is not on him specifically; the entire novel uses him as a sort of camera, taking in elements of the world both big and small. The added-on revelations are a distraction. They aren't enough to completely bring down what is otherwise an amazing piece of writing, but they come awfully close. However, as the novel comes to its close, there are still many compelling passages that stand alone as their own studies. As a writer (both fictional and otherwise), Cole is almost bursting at the seams with knowledge, and as a reader, it's impossible not to get caught up in these elements.

"The practice of psychiatry is partly about seeing the world as a collection of tribes. Take a set of individuals who have brains that, with regard to how they map reality, are more or less equal: differences among brains in this set, this ostensibly normal group, this control group, which constitutes the majority of humanity, are small. Mental well-being is mysterious, but this group is fairly predictable, and what little science has discovered about brain function and chemical signaling applies broadly. The right hemisphere processes in parallel, the left processes serially, and messages are passed more or less efficiently between the two by the corpus callosum. The whole organ nestles inside the skull, steadily improving at a range of astonishingly complex tasks, while getting worse at a few others. This is our picture of normality (Cole 204-205)."

There is no way, nor is there any need, to summarize what Open City is "about," since this includes so many potential views. Aside from the cited political conversation, this is truly a work that succeeds as a piece of post-9/11 art. Our worlds and beliefs can be so divided, and this is an attempt to show closeness and universal moments among wildly different people and places. However, it doesn't simplify anything. In another sort of paradox, Open City highlights the vastness of humanity by attempting to bridge the aforementioned gaps. From its diverse narrator to the diverse experiences and citizens he encounters, the novel manages to show how much is out there, both philosophically and physically. This is why I had trouble with the concrete revelations at the end of the book. Had Cole merely ended with Julius's observations and not a twist that shows his faults, it would have strongly maintained its atmosphere. But again, my critique is personal, and doesn't take away from the world that Cole has created. Open City is thought-provoking in the best of ways, doesn't offer any solutions, but forces the reader to realize how complex the world is. It's a creation that becomes even more amazing when the reader realizes that Cole still has more works to come. Because the world is so complex, there are more ideas and philosophies to explore, and I cannot wait to see what he imagines next.

Work Cited:
Cole, Teju. Open City. Copyright 2011 by Teju Cole.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Continental Divides: "The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet" by Reif Larsen


On the world of Facebook, I'm always seeing friends (or friends of friends) asking for book recommendations, and this generally leads to a dizzying, varied amount of titles thrown about, sometimes with little regard for the tastes of the person making said request. For example, just because I loved Infinite Jest doesn't mean that everyone I know will love it. I take book recommendations very seriously. If someone suggests a title to me, or if I'm loaned a book, I always take them to heart, even if my schedule forces me to put a given work on hiatus for awhile. More often than not, the people who suggest books to me know what I like, or have at least a basic notion of what would appeal to me. A couple of years ago, my friend Jamie enthusiastically recommended The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, a debut novel by writer Reif Larsen. Jamie and I had a long history of working together with books, and she's actually one of the better sources for potential material, since she and I either completely agree on books or completely disagree. This makes for great discussions, since we can either agree on something or have a tasteful debates. I finally got around to Larsen's work, and found myself with conflicting opinions about the novel's setup and execution.

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet tells the story of the title protagonist, a precocious, genius mapmaker living in Montana. He's twelve years old, the son of a reticent farmer father and a scientist mother, living with them and his sister, Gracie. His older brother Layton was killed in a shotgun mishap, leading to added stress and distance between the already conflicting personalities in the household. His own personality leads him to map and chart virtually every aspect of his life, from his father's physical whiskey-drinking tics to the amount of time it takes to shuck ears of corn. These maps, charts, and diagrams are presented on almost every page of the book (more on these later). His incredibly intellect leads to opportunities publishing maps and charts in a variety of academic publications, without any of them knowing how old he really is. His mentor, an entomologist named Dr. Yorn, has encouraged T.S. to submit his drawings to the publications, which leads to the young man being selected for a science award, presented by the Smithsonian. After weighing his options. T.S. decides to keep the news from his family, and hitches a ride on a freight train heading east, in order to get to Washington D.C. in time for the presentation.

This plot setup allows for Larsen to explore a multitude of themes--family, identity, and personal/physical journeys. T.S. is supremely gifted, possibly afflicted with a mild form of Asperger's syndrome (hinted at early in the book), but for the most part, a child, coming to terms with his intellect and still-developing social skills. Some of Larsen's passages hint to this, balancing T.S.'s observations with continual actions that show his age. For example:

"A year ago, Dr. Yorn had submitted my first illustration to the Smithsonian under the guise that I was a full colleague of his, and the bad feeling that I got from the lying part of this statement was outweighed by the secret hope that perhaps I was a full colleague of Dr. Yorn's, at least in spirit. And then when this first illustration--a bumblebee cannibalistically devouring another bumblebee--had been accepted, and published no less, Dr. Yorn and I had celebrated, somewhat surreptitiously, because my mother still did not know any of this had transpired. Dr. Yorn had driven down from Bozeman, crossed over the continental divide twice (once west to Butte and then again south to Divide), picked me up at the Coppertop, and taken me out for ice cream at O'Neil's in Historic Downtown Butte (Larsen 23)(latter italics mine)."

There are many enjoyable, even near-brilliant passages throughout the novel. The observations made by T.S. are carefully balanced between intelligent and childlike, revealing some curious philosophies and assessments of thought processes and the way we view the world. While packing for his journey, T.S. inexplicably steals one of his mother's notebooks, which turns out to contain a fictionalized biography of her husband's great-grandmother, who was a budding geologist in the nineteenth century. T.S. occasionally assumes that, because of his mother's position as a scientist, that the woman was from his mother's side, not his father's. His exploration of this mistake is a good example of how his narration juggles the two sides of his mentality.

"Why do we make these illogical associations in our mind? No one ever said, 'Emma Osterville is Dr. Clair's [his mother] great-grandmother,' but I had come to vaguely believe it, simply through frequent association. I suppose children are particularly susceptible to such irrational connections: with so much unknown, they are less concerned with the sticky details than with trying to create a working map of the world (Larsen 143)."

T.S.'s journey on the train is the most memorable part of the work, and its elements of realism and fantasy blend quite well, whereas the actions and events following the train ride are much too forced and unbelievable. The freight car he chooses in Montana happens to contain an open Winnebago, giving him cover for some near-discoveries and highlighting two examples of Great American Travel. From his small town in Montana to the end of the line in Chicago to the final destination of Washington, D.C., T.S. finds himself in three different representations of the American experience. Being able to sleep in the Winnebago allows T.S. to make quite a few hypotheses about perception, physics, and movements in various forms:

"My body had grown so used to traveling in reverse that whenever we stopped, I found that my whole field of vision swam at me. I had first noticed this when I was hiding in the bathroom of the Cowboy Condo during one of our numerous station stops. I had become increasingly convinced that the railroad knew my exact location and it was only a matter of time before they sent one of their bulls to come and kill me. As I sat on the toilet in the confines of the tiny bathroom, I suddenly was overcome with the sensation of running into the wall in front of me. It was nauseating to find that your reflection in the bathroom mirror was moving toward you when you were in fact standing still, as thought it had managed to break free from the normal laws of refraction and optics. Gradually, through the steady influence of backward motion vectors, my confidence was taking a beating.

And so where did I find solace from this herky-jerky quagmire of momentum?

I knew there was a reason I had packed my studies of Sir. Isaac Newton. I searched through my suitcase and grasped the notebook as one grasped an old childhood teddy bear in times of distress (Larsen 172-173)."

T.S. ends up forming a new relationship with himself, so to speak, hence the long, lonely journey. His interactions and relationships with others are both fascinating and illogical. There are touching moments when he tries to bond with his father, a man who no doubt loves him but has trouble expressing his feelings, especially since the death of his older son, with whom he felt closer and shared more common interests. T.S.'s sister, Gracie, is a typical teenager, prone to outbursts, drama, and loud music. He loves her, but views her as a specimen, as if he's doing field studies of the American Teenager. His chance encounters, however, are sometimes ludicrous. He has a run-in with a wild eyed preacher in Chicago, which I took to be a sly commentary on the battle between reason and religion. Upon arriving in D.C. (his getting there involves yet another chance encounter), his contact at the Smithsonian, after being taken aback by his age, sees T.S. as marketing gold, since media outlets would jump on the idea of a young award winning mapmaker, therefore increasing exposure and income for the museum. T.S. is initiated into a secret society, a group mindful of his life in Montana and supposed secrets. These happenings seem to come very, very rapidly, a far cry from the deliberately careful pacing of the previous two-thirds of the novel. Larsen had obviously outlined his work very carefully, but decides to throw far too many wild events at the reader once T.S. arrives in Chicago. The idea of a young child stowing away on a cross-country trip by himself was set up perfectly, allowing the reader to escape into this fantasy world with no questions. But as quickly as Larsen gains trust, he loses it by adding far too many diversions at the end.



The maps, images, and notes that accompany T.S.'s narration work well as interactive footnotes. He's a compulsive note-taker, and Larsen illustrates these with stunning detail, making the novel a marvel to consume, both textually and visually. But much like the novel's ending, T.S.'s compulsion becomes, well, tiresome. I genuinely feel bad for this critique, since I'm not at all complaining about the beauty of the illustrations. A late illustration of the Smithsonian is essential, especially combined with T.S.'s first impression of the building:


But there are constant illustrations of random thoughts, as evidenced below. Humorous, yes, but for as painstaking as the work is, constantly taking in picture after picture of T.S.'s observations and hypotheses becomes tiresome. Yes, the young narrator's mentality is far different than yours or mine, with notebooks full of these works and jottings. I just feel Larsen could have achieved the same visual and atmospheric effect with more carefully selected images. Humorous, yes, but being constantly bombarded detracts from what is otherwise a strong story.


And for all of my critiques, I'm genuinely interested in Larsen's future projects. For a debut novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is audacious in very good ways. The themes are varied, giving the reader a wealth of material to consider and imagine while for the most part being rooted in writing that feels classic and original at the same time. It just goes on far too many unbelievable paths and leaves far too many questions unanswered for me to praise it fully. With some careful editing, this could have been a masterpiece and one of the best debut novels of the early part of this century. As Larsen grows as an artist and storyteller, I have a great feeling he'll have marvelous creative advancements. Finding a balance between realism and strains of fantasy is difficult, and I was sad to see the work unfurl so rapidly. I can only imagine the time and energy that Larsen put into this book, and again, it's staggering to realize it's his debut. But in that fascination, we can see early struggles. Had the novel maintained a consistent tone and a consistent grounding in the created reality, I feel it would still be receiving positive attention in these years following its publication. I came out of this with full admiration for Larsen's skills, and I'm hoping his future works can capture or even outdo this first ambition. There were so many directions he could have taken for the better, and I'm left feeling very divided, wondering how much better this journey could have been.

Work Cited:
Larsen, Reif. The Selected Works Of T.S. Spivet. Copyright 2009 by Reif Larsen.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Early Cartography: David Mitchell's "Ghostwritten"


Due to time constraints and an ever-growing, ever-fluctuating reading schedule, I had to set aside my goal of re-reading David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas before seeing the film version at the end of October. However, as much as I want/need to return to that work (and as much as I want to do second takes on multiple titles), I realized I'm getting closer to finishing Mitchell's complete bibliography. I recently used a window of time to read Ghostwritten, his 1999 debut, therefore leaving Number9Dream as my only unread novel by one of my favorite living writers. By doing this inadvertent, non-chronological reading, I've had a unique view of Mitchell's development over the years. Of course, I would likely have the same opinions had I started with Ghostwritten and explored his works in a chronological fashion. But by recalling the diversity of his novels, I'm also recalling the diversity of my growth as a reader, especially in hindsight. Cloud Atlas will always be one of my top five favorite novels; The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet might very well be underrated, despite its acclaim upon release; and while Black Swan Green is an enjoyable, smaller work, I may have over-praised it upon my first reading, since I was still feeling the afterglow of Cloud Atlas. Ghostwritten, however, proves to be an impressive debut, and while it is more reminiscent of his masterpiece than his other works, it's an excellent piece of writing as well as an example of a talented artist getting a feel for how to explore a vast collection of themes, eras, and atmospheres.

My working title for this essay was "Pocket Atlas," but I was worried that would be misleading, since it could potentially insinuate Ghostwritten as a lesser version of Cloud Atlas, when, for all of the craft similarities, it should stand alone (even though Timothy Cavendish and Luisa Rey make cameos of sorts). In his debut, Mitchell explores the lives and problems of different people from different places, connected by happenstance, brief interactions, and mysterious entities. The characters include a member of a dangerous Japanese cult; a Japanese record store employee; a woman running a mountainside tea shack in China; a British adulterer/money-launderer working in Hong Kong; a wayward London drummer; a Russian art thief; an Irish physicist; a late-night New York DJ; and a spirit-like organism that transfers itself among living hosts. Their stories and lives are singular, yet the connections reveal themselves over the course of the book. However, for a first major novel, these revelations are not presented with any gimmicks or "ah ha!" moments; Mitchell lets the reader see how these lives are linked, but places the emphasis on the individual stories. Throughout, there's an equal mix of mystery, humor, and an international scope. Giving fuller synopses of the plot might be beneficial, but my recap above is enough for a general description. Therefore, it's better to explore the various aspects of craft employed by Mitchell. His opening chapter is wise--he sets the reader up to expect a standard (yet well-written) thriller. The story of a dangerous cult member shows how today's influx of mass market mysteries could be elevated with more emphasis on good writing instead of cheap thrills:

"The subway train in Tokyo was as crammed as a cattle wagon. Crammed with organs, wrapped in meat, wrapped in clothes. Silent and sweaty. I was half-afraid some fool would crush the phials prematurely. Our minister of science had explained to me exactly how the package worked. When I ripped open the seal and pressed the three buttons simultaneously, I would have one minute to get clear before the solenoids shattered the phials, and the great cleansing of the world would begin.
I put the package on the baggage rack and waited for the appointed minute. I focused my alpha telepathy, and sent messages of encouragement to my co-cleansers in various metro stations throughout Tokyo.
I studied the people around me. The honored unclean, the first to be cleansed. Dumb. Sorry. Tired. Mind-rotted. Mules, in a never-ending whirlpool of lies, pain, and ignorance. I was a few inches away from a baby, in a woolly cap, strapped to its mother's back. It was asleep and dribbling and smelt of toddlers' marshiness. A girl, I guessed from the pink Minnie Mouse sewn onto the cap. Pensioners who had nothing to look forward to but senility and wheelchairs in lonely magnolia 'homes.' Young salarymen, supposedly in their prime, their minds conditioned for greed and bullying (Mitchell 15-16)."


After this set up, the following segments feel radically different, but there's a consistent emphasis on both positive humanity and our species' more negative, deplorable traits. Again, for a debut novel, these divergent notions are generally well handled, but occasionally, Mitchell feels the need to explicitly inform the reader about what he's doing, especially when the non-human organism narrates its own chapter:

"I have no story of a blinding conversion to humanism. It just didn't happen that way. During the Cultural Revolution, and when I transmigrated into hosts in Tibet, in Vietnam, in Korea, in El Salvador, I experienced humans fighting, usually from the safety of the general's office. In the Falkland Islands I watched them fight over rocks. 'Two bald men fighting over a comb,,' an ex-host commented. In Rio I saw a tourist killed for a watch. Humans live in a pit of cheating, exploiting, hurting, incarcerating. Every time, the species wastes some part of what it could be. This waste is poisonous. That is why I no longer harm my hosts. There's already too much of this poison (Mitchell 163)."

There are several scenes of assault and violence in Ghostwritten, and all are handled with intense but understated detail. There's nothing gratuitous about the more tense scenes, but when Mitchell wants to explore the shameful sides of humanity, he does so with much precision, and therefore renders statements (like the one above) redundant and obvious. This isn't meant to be picky, but for someone as talented as Mitchell, these are examples of someone still finding his way around thematic nuances. At the same time, he still doesn't get credit for his comedic side. In every one of his novels (with the more obvious example being Black Swan Green), there are sometimes hilarious asides and scenarios. For example, Marco (the London drummer) awakes from a one-night stand. His partner is another character from elsewhere in the novel, but the emphasis here is on Mitchell's humor:

"'Hi.' I grimaced as pleasantly as I could, peering through the sheets of pain. Not a face I could imagine smiling easily. I hoped this wasn't going to be one of those GuiltLine wake-ups when she tells you about her boyfriend and her dead brother and her run-over-last-month dog Michael and you end up wondering how many people are in this bed (Mitchell 257)."



Mitchell mixes history and carefully detailed explorations of the various lands, which, along with the character descriptions, creates some very compelling asides. Nothing in Ghostwritten is unnecessary, since even the slightest detours become mini-stories in their own right. In the passage below, a character describes the various lines of the London train system:

"The Northern Line is black on the maps. It's the deepest. It has the most suicides, you're more likely to get mugged on it, and its art students are most likely to be future Bond Girls. There's something doom-laden about the Northern Line. Its station names: Morden, Brent Cross, Goodge Street, Archway, Elephant and Castle, the resurrected Mornington Crescent. It was closed for years: I remember imagining I was on a probe peering into the Titanic as the train passed through. Yep, the Northern Line is the psycho of the family. Those bare-walled stations south of the Thames that can't attract advertisers (Mitchell 268-269)."

Again, I haven't even come close to hinting at the various plots, let alone their true connections. This isn't laziness or an oversight--the beauty of Ghostwritten is its minutiae. It's not a novel that can be fully reviewed or explored through its various recaps. Again, my brief overview above tells everything and nothing. By sharing various passages and writings, I'm getting into Mitchell's eye for detail, but the bigger picture has to be felt through an actual reading. Said details remind the reader of where a given scene is taking place, yet the narration turns up small, consistent details. Whether a part of the book is taking place in Europe, Asia, or America, there's a constant battle between old and new, with history and contemporary details sometimes being at odds with each other. Sometimes this is more apparent in specific chapters. The shared humanity is also a shared view of an increasingly small world. "Petersburg," for example, yields this assessment:

"In the winter, I take the metro. Otherwise, I prefer to walk. If the weather's fine I walk up the Troisky Bridge, and then cross the Mars Field, where the women wait. But if it's raining I walk down Nevsky Prospect, a street of ghosts if there ever was one. Jerome says that every city has its street of ghosts. Past the Stroganov Palace and the Kazan Cathedral. Past the Aeroflot offices, and the scrubby Armenian Cafe. Past the flat where I made love to my Politburo member. It's been turned into an American Express office now. All these new shops, Benetton, the Haagen-Dazs shops, Nike, Burger King, a shop that sells nothing but camera film and key-rings, another that sells Swatches and Rolexes. High streets are becoming the same all over the world, I supposed (Mitchell 210-211)."

With this emphasis on cultural experiences becoming increasingly corporate, Mitchell's use of ghosts and other-worldly unification takes on an essential meaning. It doesn't make Ghostwritten a religious or new-age novel--it uses these mystical ideas to link the characters (and, by extension, humanity as a whole) by more noble facets. Despite the stress, violence, and problems faced by the characters, there's a common theme of all of us being in this world together, and basic hopes and dreams being universal. Again, there's a philosophical paradox that makes Ghostwritten successful--world citizens are more alike than we realize, but at the same time, we're becoming most distant and distracted. We're all touched by human experiences, for better and for worse. This may reek of a touchy-feely new age plot, but Ghostwritten, especially as someone's debut novel, uses grandly postmodern settings to evoke classic themes.

And while I hoped to distance it from Cloud Atlas, I stumbled upon an early review that is almost creepy in its prediction of a better effort by Mitchell to connect time and place. Writing for Salon in 2000, writer Laura Miller offered this statement in her closing paragraph:

"'Ghostwritten' injects pop attitude into what were once frustratingly cryptic or dauntingly cerebral postmodern experiments. But, unlike [Mark] Danielewski, who grafted Borgesian ontological puzzles onto a Stephen King plot, Mitchell doesn’t yet seem to have invented a cocktail that really packs a wallop — though perhaps someday he will."

Work Cited:
Mitchell, David. Ghostwritten. Copyright 1999 by David Mitchell.

Friday, October 5, 2012

A Cool, Non-Dry Place: Roxane Gay's "Ayiti"


Sadly, I was like many people in 2010: when the earthquake devastated Haiti, I found myself giving more thoughts than I ever had before to the country and the people. Of course Haiti existed long before it was hit by a natural disaster, which made its plight that much more visible. In the wake of news coverage, calls for donations, and the newly placed attention on its citizens, good things came to my attention. My friend Ben was beyond horrified at the devastation and wanted to do more than most people. Instead of being satisfied by a ten dollar donation, he volunteered with an organization called All Hands, spending several months helping rebuild sections of Leogane, west of Port-au-Prince. The earthquake also led to renewed attention on Haitian art and culture, with the 2011 publication of Haiti Noir being one of the more referenced and reviewed examples. Last year, Artistically Declined Press published Ayiti, a collection of stories and sketches by Roxane Gay. I've been familiar with Gay's work for quite some time, as she's one of the more vibrant, talented short story artists working today. Her pieces (both inside and outside of Ayiti) are unique looks at people from their odd (and oddly sexual) standpoints. This book wasn't what I expected, but as I found out upon completion, my expectations of standard, fictional looks at Haitian culture, people, and philosophies were all wrong. By exploring these themes in quick, sometimes minimalist chapters, Gay manages to do what most the most successful "place" fiction should accomplish--it uses fictional characters to create a better understanding of an area's mindset.

Gay is undoubtedly familiar with stereotypes, and these are debunked right away in hilarious fashion:

"When my college roommate learns I am Haitian, she is convinced I practice voodoo, thanks to the Internet in the hands of the feeble-minded. I do nothing to dissuade her fears even though I was raised Catholic and have gained my inadequate understanding of the religion from the Lisa Bonet movie that made Bill Cosby mad at her.

In the middle of the night, I chant mysteriously, light candles. By day, I wear read and white, paint my face, dance possessed. I leave a doll on my desk. It looks just like my roommate. The doll is covered with placed strategically pins. I like fucking with her. She gives me the bigger room with the better dresser. She offers to take my tray to the dish room in the dining hall (Gay 21)."

"[Things Americans do not know about zombis:]

They are not dead. They are near death. There's a difference.
They are not imaginary.
They do not eat human flesh.
They cannot eat salt.
They do not walk around with their arms and legs locked stiffly.
They can be saved.

[How you pronounce zombi:]

Zaahhhhnnnnnn-Beee. You have to feel it in the roof of your mouth, let it vibrate. Say it fast (Gay 25)."

It's tempting to call Ayiti a short story collection; I've even tagged it as such in this post. However, while the pieces are seemingly unconnected (at least by characters), the book as a whole works as a look at everyday lives of people in (or associated with) the country--their actions, beliefs, hopes, and dreams are common, yet tinted with the way life is lived in that area. Gay's looks at people emigrating to America is a touching look at "the American Dream," and shows how illegal immigrants are not limited to Mexico, and do so with the shared hope of creating a better life in the face of serious obstacles.

"When Lucien arrives in the United States by way of a trip to Canada, an illegal border crossing, and hitching rides down to Miami, his cousin Christophe, who made his own way to Miami years earlier hands him a 50 dollar bill and tells Lucien to eat Hot Pockets until he gets a job because they are cheap, filling and taste good. Lucien sleeps on the floor in an apartment he shares with five other men like him, all of them pretending this is better than what which came before. There is a small kitchen with an electric stove that has two burners and a microwave that is rarely cleaned. Christophe tells Lucien that Hot Pockets are easy to prepare.

Lucien is in the United States because he loves Miami Vice. He loves the shiny suits Tubbs and Crockett wear. He loves their swagger. He loves the idea of Miami as a perfect place where problems are always solved and there are beautiful women as far as a man can see (Gay 51)."


Gay also includes fictional details of Haiti's unsavory history. A character's grandmother survived the Parsley Massacre, a killing ordered by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. The narration combines stunning details and factual details about the massacre, creating a small slice of historical fiction about a genocide that seems to be lesser known than some of history's other mass killings. For all of Gay's variety in styles throughout the book, she uses the narrative to create a detailed, saddening chapter (both in the book sense and the historical sense). Nothing is over-hyped or exaggerated; the account is presented honestly, with the memories of the massacre itself providing its own intense flourishes.

"It was General Rafael Trujillo who ordered all the Haitians out of his country, who had his soldiers interrogate anyone whose skin was too dark, who looked like they belonged on the other side of the border. It was the general who took a page from the Book of Judges to exact his genocide and bring German industry to his island.

Soldiers came to the plantation where my grandmother worked. They had guns. They were cruel, spoke in loud, angry voices, took liberties. One of the women with whom my grandmother shared her shanty betrayed my grandmother's hiding place. We never speak of what happened after that. The ugly details are trapped between the fragments of our family history. We are secrets ourselves.

My grandmother ended up in the river. She tried to hold her breath while she hid from the marauding soldiers on both of the muddy shores straddling the river. There was a moment when she laid on her back, and submerged herself until her entire body was covered by water, until her pores were suffused with it. She didn't come up for air until the ringing in her ears became unbearable. The moon was high and the night was cold. She smelled blood in the water (Gay 59-60)."

In much the same way as it's not entirely correct to call Ayiti a short story collection, it's not correct to attempt to pinpoint an exact meaning or theme from its pages. Of course, the Haitian experience is the linking force, but there's (not sound needlessly saccharine) an overall atmosphere of shared humanity. The lives, loves, and setbacks encountered by the Haitian people in Ayiti can be applied to scores of other people and nationalities. What makes the Haitian experience so unique is the aforementioned, renewed attention and the dominance of stereotypes. What Gay successfully communicates is the fact that Haitian people have a lot of problems, and Western views can cloud that with needless, false assumptions. This is conveyed by a look at the actions of American tourists in the land:

"The Americans, the men, they like us and want us. They think we too are for sale as part of the Hispaniola experience. They offer us their American dollars and expect us to be impressed by the likeness of Andrew Jackson. We prefer the countenance of Benjamin Franklin. The Americans grab our asses and whisper in our ears, leaving their hot, boozy breath on our skin. The less original among them say things like, 'Voulez vous couchez avec moi?' in heavy, awkward French, over enunciating each word. Some of us are indeed for sale or want to know what it would be like to be with a man with such pale skin or we are bored or we just don't care. We tell The Americans to follow us. We walk down the hot sandy beach slowly, shaking our hips and they ogle us and they say vulgar things we pretend not to hear (Gay 82-83)."

Roxane Gay has a wide following in the literary community, and this publication might not have the visibility or promotion to present her works to wider audiences. However, given her stature among other writers, Ayiti has been favorably reviewed and mentioned in the last few months. This isn't a work for anyone expecting a tidy, glossy celebration of Haiti, but rather it's a book that manages to illuminate an intangible sociology. The characters and the land are equally flawed and troubled, and Ayiti shows this without judgement, hypothesizing, or exaggeration. You'll know more about the country than you did going in, but not in the ways you anticipated; personally, I was grateful for this, and these stories are going to stay with me for quite some time.

Work Cited:
Gay, Roxane. Ayiti. Copyright 2011 by Roxane Gay.