Hilarious Discomfort: On Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout”

beatty

beatty sellout

The Sellout – Paul Beatty
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
March 2015
304 pages

Buy now

I sat down to read Paul Beatty’s new satirical novel The Sellout knowing I was going to write about it. In fact, I had committed to writing about it. I had pitched it; it was my idea. This knowledge, in conjunction with the book’s subject matter caused me anxiety throughout (though never impinged on my enjoyment of the book—is there a German word for extreme intellectual discomfort while also having a pretty good time?).

The book is about race in America. An outrageous satire, it shreds black culture, white culture, the intersection of the two, and a whole lot more. And my problem (though as problems go, this barely qualifies) is that I’m white. A white woman writing for the online arm of a literary outlet that was founded by a couple of white dudes in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1970s, and whose very name references our nation’s complicated and blood-spattered agrarian past. As I read, I kept thinking that Beatty would skewer that succinctly and hilariously. And he’d be right.Continue Reading

“A Ripple Effect that Turned into a Tidal Wave”: The Journey of a Discarded Book

13349681555_cf5b9466ac_o (1)

One day eighteen years ago, a senior colleague at the small South Carolina college where I taught found more than $300,000 worth of stripped Penguin paperbacks at a local thrift shop.

Other than the piece of each cover that had been sliced off, the books were in excellent condition, but the prison to which they had been donated couldn’t accept them and the store where they’d ended up couldn’t legally sell them.

They were being hauled to dumpsters, not to be pulped and recycled, but to be burned.

That is, until English professor Ann Moorefield stumbled upon them. She was horrified at the prospect of the destruction of perfectly good books. Within a few hours, she had administrators, maintenance staff, faculty members, and students filling their cars and delivering boxes of books to an old house used for hosting social events on campus.

There was a buzz of excited energy in the air as we rallied to save those books, unloading them haphazardly onto tables, mantels, windowsills, and countertops.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Cafe con Leche” by Joanna Lynne Ponce

BSS-Pshares-Header1

There are as many names for the sun as there are languages; it might be tempting to believe that each of those names, then, means the same thing. Joanna Lynne Ponce’s story “Café con Leche” (Clackamas Literary Review XIX) exposes how critical language can be in giving definition to an object, or a person.

The protagonist Emma, we learn, grew up in a household where language was controversial subject. Her grandmother didn’t want any of her relatives “speaking the language of the gabachos in her house” (English) while her mother refused to speak Spanish to Emma and her siblings all growing up.

As a result, Emma never became fluent in Spanish, but the names of objects in Spanish took on a more powerful meaning. When having breakfast at her grandmother’s house, they had café con leche, which was “really just a little coffee in a deep mug of hot foamy milk.” Just is the key word: for Emma, the descriptions of the drink in English can’t capture the reality the Spanish name evokes. Notice how Ponce reveals this in a description of Emma’s Spanish teacher.

“La Maestra came from Colombia, and the way she said Co-lom-bi-a, said it with those Spanish Os so round and perfect, well, you could get swallowed up in one of those gigantic Os, get swallowed up and be lost for good.”

Ponce has set it up so that when Emma, now a bank teller, is approached by her boss to learn Spanish in order to better serve the bank’s Spanish speaking clientele, we know that there’s much more at stake for her than just learning a language. Her boss is unwittingly asking Emma to reenter an entire world she’d left behind years ago, and for good reason. After taking the first Spanish class, that night she dreams about being Emma Castillo at age twelve.

“Only I was never Emma when I was twelve. I was Edward, named for a father who didn’t stay around long enough to know me…I was a target for all the Pachucos and Bloods up and down East Fourteenth Street. So, I learned how to run when I should have been learning to speak Spanish so that twenty years later I’d be able to hold onto my bank teller position.”

For Emma, the Spanish language—the words, the sound of it, feel of it— evokes not just a perspective, but a name and an identity she fled years ago. So the big question Ponce has built towards, as the story nears its close, is whether Emma will be able to reconcile her adult self with the childhood self she left behind. In the end, Ponce gives us a peek at what the future holds—through language. Emma calls her mother, something she hasn’t done in years, and her mother doesn’t refer to her as Edward, but Emma. Then watch how Ponce reveals the shift in Emma’s mother:

“What I hear is the very thin accent in her voice. Something she has let slip back in after all these years, now that she is older, maybe even too tired to care who might hear, an accent now over the phone as Mejicana as my dead Abuelita.”

Through “Café con Leche,” Ponce explores how immensely powerful language is. It doesn’t just describe a reality, it evokes it, reveals it, and transforms it, from which language we use, to which words, all the way down to the smallest hint of accents. Language is the way in which we understand the world. It’s the way in which we understand ourselves.

 

This Spring’s Must-Reads

Spring Reviews

Spring is in the air, and good books are in our hearts! Read on for our picks for this spring’s best literary offerings.

 

QuadeNight At The Fiestas
Kirstin Valdez Quade
Norton, March 23
$26
Buy: bookebook

Kirstin Valdez Quade is one of the National Book Foundation’s 5-Under-35 honorees, and her debut story collection proves that she’s a writer of remarkable depth and precision. With stop-offs in Utah and California, much of the collection is set in Quade’s homeland of New Mexico. Beneath her pen, an almost impenetrable landscape reveals a violent history that still beats with a tender heart.

Each of the ten stories offers a lyrical aria of its own, but together they create the music of generations, of families, and of a people. In “Nemecia,” a young girl hopes to step out from behind her cousin’s shadow by leading the Corpus Christi parade. “Mojave Rats” demonstrates how a day spent in a frigid trailer between mother and daughter can turn into a prescient portrait of their shared inheritance. A man’s ambition to carry the cross and bear the pain of Jesus during Passion week in “The Five Wounds” becomes complicated when his pregnant daughter appears at his doorstep. There are boa constrictors, faux family reunions, blueberry fields, and enough hard-earned resilience to withstand a tough winter, the long absence of a loved one, and the struggle of caring for a new life while growing old.

This is a collection to be celebrated not just for its fine storytelling and subtle sentiment, but for its cultural exploration of those who inhabit the hardened and tortuous lands of the mythic Southwest.

Continue Reading

Goliath: Reading Kyle Dargan’s “Honest Engine” During the Baltimore Riots

cas-lit-dargan-150324

I read Kyle Dargan’s poem “Goliath” the night of the Baltimore riots. I was in Mexico City where the images of the riots made it to the Mexican presses before the story did—Freddie Gray, the police beatings, his snapped spinal cord. The details simply hadn’t been translated yet. But the beautiful thing about a riot, anywhere in the world, is that the literal image always translates. Every single time.

Even my barber who cares about nothing—not even his own kids, not even my hair—knew the real story was about dignity. We talked about that for a long while. And then we finally came to the semi-conclusion that the stakes of any riot is human dignity. Neither of us could articulate that thought further. So, I sat in silence.

I remember, thinking of something to fill the silence, that “Goliath” came to mind. But you quickly learn not to be that guy in the barber shop. You can talk about news or sports or sexy ladies but you can never talk about poetry. Nevermind that “Goliath,” like so much of Dargan’s newest collection, Honest Engine (University of Georgia Press), articulates the seemingly impossible, the incredibly nuanced.

Reading Honest Engine, you can’t help but feel haunted by Dargan’s poems. Haunted in your everyday life, in your personal moments—but also in the collective ones too—watching the news, shooting the breeze with your barber.

Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Day Trip” by Noelle Catharine Allen

BSS-Pshares-Header1

There’s a wonderful history of short stories where a character’s physical ills work as a metaphor representing larger problems, both personal and societal. For instance, in Julio Cortázar’s “Letter to a Lady in Paris,” the protagonist regularly vomits live rabbits, a reality we come to realize not only provides the reasons why an apartment has been destroyed, but an explanation for why the protagonist’s life has spiraled. In Noelle Catharine Allen’s “Day Trip” (Hunger Mountain 19), we meet a character who also regularly vomits live rabbits, but for reasons very different from the story to which it owes its literary conceit.

We begin when the protagonist Noelle and her son, Matthew, get stuck in a massive traffic jam outside of D.C. She takes stock of her belongings, among them a syringe. “I sent up a thank you prayer—to whatever deities I didn’t believe in—for the syringe…I always take a backup syringe in case something goes wrong with the injection.” It’s clear she’s ailing, but unlike Cortázar—who reveals the situation quickly—Allen chooses to keep the nature of her protagonist’s illness secret from the reader.

Allen does drop subtle hints over the next few pages, as the traffic jam stretches out over multiple days. “I hadn’t missed an injection in almost a year, so it was possible I might be OK…but if the rabbits came, I’d rather they did during the night.” Rabbits? we wonder. Is that some kind of metaphor? Readers familiar with Cortázar might hazard guess at her illness, especially after the protagonist makes a brief reference another of Cortázar’s stories, “How to Wind a Watch.” But the setting of the stories couldn’t be more different—traffic jam vs. apartment—and the causes of the protagonist’s illness diverge as well.Continue Reading

The Poetry of Subtle Movement

blue-agateIn recent months, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has released two poetry collections that encapsulate much of what I love about poetry: James Lasdun’s Bluestone: New and Selected Poems and Devin Johnston’s Far-Fetched. Lasdun and Johnston are quite different in style and subject matter, but they are both masters of the subtle shift, the poem that starts in an unassuming place and leads you away from the old logical paths to a fresh perspective.

I first fell in love with Devin Johnston’s work while reading his 2011 poetry collection, Traveler, and his prose collection, Creaturely and Other Essays. There’s a Thoreauvian sense of wandering in all his prose and poetry—a wandering over the landscape, language, and history of the United States—coupled with a mastery of form uncommon in an American poet. In Far-Fetched the tone is usually serious (except when he’s skillfully imitating Scottish lyric or translating Catullus or bouncing through rhyming couplets) and there is a prevailing mood of quiet and contemplation.

Better to show than tell. Here’s “Orpingtons,” originally published in the July/August 2014 issue of Poetry magazine and included in Far-Fetched:

A pair of Orpingtons,
one blue, the other black,
with iridescent necks
and fine, ashen fluff
cackle through the dark,
their damp calls close enough
to chafe, a friction with no spark.

They settle down to roost,
two rests along a stave.
Each curls into itself,
comb tucked beneath a wing,
as the days grow long enough
to kindle in each a yolk,
the smallest flame of spring.

To me, the two most telling lines in this poem are, “They settled down to roost, / two rests along a stave.” In this musical metaphor, the Orpingtons become rests, the symbols for silence in a musical score. To the audience, the rest doesn’t exist (because a rest is precisely that which can’t be heard), but the rest exists for the musician because it is seen written on the page. It’s all about perspective. Through imagination (and we first see the imagination flare up in that synaesthetic phrase “damp calls”) the poem pierces the surface world of the observer and lets our perspective shift to the private knowledge of the observed.Continue Reading

No Real for You

FullSizeRender

I’m going to begin by asking your forgiveness for two things I usually don’t do. The first is speaking Spanish in my English. The second is using the prefix meta-.  But this is a family of meta-fictional twins, and come on, don’t you agree that “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote” sounds better than “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote?”

Here is what I mean by meta-fiction: all these books, stories, and bodies of work contain made-up books and bodies of work. Some are based on real books. Some are making fun of real books, a little bit, gently. Some are invented entirely. And one, you can go out and buy. Hint: it’s not Don Quixote.

In the short story “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote,” Jorge Luis Borges describes the work of an author who set out to write

the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.”

He succeeds, but what he creates is an invisible work: someone else’s novel.

Plenty of writers have tried to recreate J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I’m sure it has more twins out there, imitations or fictional versions, but I’m picking these two because I love the books where I found them. In James Magnuson’s Famous Writers I Have Known, a con man named Frankie Abandonato, finds himself impersonating V.S. Mohle, a writer who isn’t J.D. Salinger just as much as the Fiction Institute of Texas, where this impersonation takes place, isn’t the Michener Center at UT-Austin, where Magnuson teaches. Elinor Lipman describes Famous Writers I Have Known as “triumphantly preposterous,” but having been a creative writing student not too different from the ones Frankie teaches, I don’t find it too ridiculous. And I wouldn’t have minded a class with a con man, either—because (and Magnuson doesn’t put nearly this fine a point on it) fiction is its own kind of con.

And then there’s & Sons, a much more serious book, though perhaps more preposterous in its ultimate plot twist. David Gilbert probes through the male relationships in two mirroring families, one of which has at its helm the novelist A.N. Dyer, author of Ampersand, which, to be fair, sounds like The Catcher in the Rye rolled together with Tobias Wolff’s Old School and a bit of The Lord of the Flies. V.S. Mohle’s Eat Your Wheaties, on the other hand—that’s straight Salinger.Continue Reading

Remembering Forward: History Reclaimed through Poetry

7644922912_4f036d267d_h

As sure as our perceptions of history are inherited, they are also incomplete. “History throws its shadow over the beginning,” wrote the poet Richard Siken. “History is a little man in a brown suit / trying to define a room he is outside of. / I know history. There are many names in history / but none of them are ours.”

Along with historical fiction and critical nonfiction, poetry plays a vital role in giving testimony to trivialized perspectives. The tradition of documentary poetics in particular juxtaposes lyric meditation alongside photographs, court records, and other source material to report from the margins, such as in Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead (1938), or Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary (2009). Yet I am also interested in poets who apply this expository aim to the past, working not so much to chronicle a moment as to correct the distorted record.

To offer a brief sampling, here are three poets who use their words like a lock-pick, opening historical archives to previously dismissed or largely unspoken perspectives. Their poems confront time, turn it backward, and discard the reductionist pretense that we know what we don’t know. In this, they insist that reconsidering our heritage is necessary to improving the future. “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,” wrote Lewis Carroll. To which these poems might say: Let us remember forward.

1. Parsley (1983), by Rita Dove

“Parsley” is a foremost example of how poetry can perform witness to the past. In this now well-known work, Dove recounts Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo’s 1937 order to execute 20,000 Haitians, many of whom worked in Trujillo’s sugarcane plantations. The genocide was later recognized as the Parsley Massacre, for it was by this word—perejil in Spanish—that Trujillo’s troops distinguished the Haitians: as Creole speakers of French, they were unfamiliar with rolling the letter “r,” pronouncing it instead as “l.”

The first section of the poem, “The Cane Fields,” presents the massacre from the Haitian’s point of view, evoking their testimony in the tight form of the villanelle. The second section, “The Palace,” uses free verse to expose the perverse logic behind Trujillo’s actions—a contrast that further emphasizes the absurd power divide between one dictator and a vulnerable community. The arbitrary nature of El General’s cruelty (“Who can I kill today””) was in part what compelled Dove to write “Parsley.” In a 1986 interview, she explained how records of the genocide were unbearably void of explanation: “No mention of the French Creole spoken by the Haitians…no description of the kind of execution, what instruments were used and how quickly the terror proceeded, no clue to the General’s state of mind at the time. Just the bald facts: 20,000 dead over a word.”

Of course, one poem cannot contain the gravity of genocide. It cannot give voice to those killed for their ethnicity and manner of speech, or stand in for the harrowing absence of information. Yet by writing “Parsley”—and later reading the poem at the White House as U.S. Poet Laureate—Dove brought the massacre to public consciousness, making present the names that time forgot.

2. Blue Front (2006), by Martha Collins

While Dove’s “Parsley” fictionalizes history to more accurately bear truth, Collins’ book-length poem Blue Front reconstructs her father’s lived experience, as a five-year-old, of witnessing a double lynching in the town of Cairo, Illinois. She traces the horrific event using a collage of sources, including biological profiles, postcards, and newspaper reports. In their own way, these overlapping and contradictory accounts remark on the crucial distinction between fact and truth: the difference between what we tell ourselves happened, and what actually occurred.

At times, Blue Front openly engages in acts of redefinition, as when Collins meditates on the varied meanings of verbs such as “hang,” “drag,” “cut,” “burn” and “shoot.” In these instances, the poem becomes a primer for confronting the past, suggesting that reclaimed history might well begin with questioning the language used to take down a given record. Who are we hearing? Collins seems to ask. And beneath this: With whose words are they speaking?

Because Collins can only offer a secondhand account, Blue Front is occupied with what can never be known. Her own uncertainty, apparent in unfinished clauses and repetitions of phrases, replicates the bewilderment of her father’s young mind. Yet Blue Front extends far beyond family narrative. By approaching historiography through poetry, Collins is able to discuss the Civil War in parallel to the present, or weave excerpts from a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. with contemporary reflections, thus portraying the persistence of racism. In this way, the crucial relationship between past and personal is made apparent: by remaking cultural memory, we might also remake our own minds. Writes Collins: “what he had seen / is also what I was / I had to know.”

3. The Toll of the Sea (2015), by Sally Wen Mao

Mao’s “The Toll of the Sea” demonstrates a third approach to historical retellings through poetry—rather than a specific event, the poem confronts the traditionally devalued or sentimentally idealized roles assigned to Asian women by Western society. It takes its title from the 1922 film The Toll of the Sea, the first successful Technicolor feature in Hollywood. The plot follows a young Chinese girl named Lotus Flower, who helps rescue an American man named Carver when she finds him floating unconscious in the ocean. The two fall in love, and though Carver promises to take Lotus Flower to America, he eventually abandons her. When Carver returns years later to claim Lotus Flower’s son, she commits suicide.

The Toll of the Sea was considered lost to fire damage until 1985, when it was restored from original negatives. Yet to Mao, the film’s clichéd, colonialist narrative—itself drawn from the 1898 opera Madame Butterfly—remained incomplete, numbed by prevailing stereotypes and restrictive tropes: “WHITE the color of the master narrative /…WHITE the color of erasure.”

Simultaneously expansive and distilled, Mao’s “The Toll of the Sea” pressurizes Technicolor hues to reach beyond these restrictive outlines. With the sharpness of salt, the poem suggests how preserving lost perspectives can help sound the depths of human experience: “In every story, there is a chance to restore the color / If we recover the flotsam, can we rewrite the script?” “The Toll of the Sea” reminds us that the past, subjected to scrutiny, might yet become fluid, creating space to assert our own narratives—at last, and on our own terms.

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Miniature Lives of Saints” by Anthony Wallace

BSS-Pshares-Header1

Physical beauty is like an innate talent or gift in that it can provide wonderful opportunities to its possessor that aren’t as easily available to others, if at all. But every blessing can also be a curse. In “The Miniature Lives of Saints” by Anthony Wallace (Missouri Review 38:1) we meet a protagonist struggling with a beauty that has come to both define her and hold her captive.

Wallace reveals his protagonist’s struggle with identity early on. Though her given name was Kathleen, “Everybody knew her as Gretchen…That was just what her brother Tommy called her—had called her one time when they were teenagers—and it had stuck.”

Her whole life she’s taken what she’s been given and hasn’t sought out more…and those who are physically attractive are offered a lot. In the present, though she knows her looks could easily help her find her better work, she remains behind the counter of a CVS, and lives in an apartment above her mother’s restaurant. Meanwhile, her husband is in jail, and her brother’s friends hit on her incessantly—while Tommy just laughs.

“Yeah Tommy, that’s real funny, your sister is truly a remarkable piece of ass, the one thing in this world she still had…she was a strikingly beautiful woman. Only men smart enough and brave enough to become convicted felons were good enough for this raven-haired beauty!”

Notice what fuels the self-loathing of the last line: the perceived irony of her beauty. She’s not comfortable with her looks, but at the same time goes to great lengths to preserve them. Wallace tells us that she wears expensive, stylish boots even though they are painful to wear and she feels stupid in them. Like her looks, “The boots were perfect in every way, except they just didn’t fit.”

At an AA meeting she regularly attends, Gretchen deftly judges the other attendees based on her own preoccupation: appearance. But compared to their stories, hers is lacking when it comes to a sense of purpose. Notice a few of the phrases she uses to describe her life when it’s her turn to share: “That’s where we always ended up.”; “I just fell into life with him.”; “I didn’t really want to do that, but I ended up doing it anyway. I just drifted into it.” The verbs are almost all passive, outlining her resignation to the will of others.

Prodigies, whether in music, sports, spelling—or auctioneering—notoriously struggle with identity later in life. Who am I outside of my gifts and talents? Wallace presents physical beauty as justly capable of causing those problems.

So what does Gretchen do? After the AA meeting. she visits a local pizza parlor, and while there, adopts a prayer of Saint Brigid—a beauty herself—and begins destroying the boots.

“`Make me ugly,’ she said, and she began stepping on her boots, kicking and gouging at them, one with the other. `Make me ugly,’ she said a second time under her breath. She dug the heel of her right boot into the top of her left until she felt the leather begin to tear. `It’s all I’m asking.’”

We live in a culture that either associates being physically attractive with happiness and fulfillment, or dismisses it as shallow, meaningless, and only skin deep. Wallace gives us another narrative. Physical beauty is something whose power must be reckoned with. To be content and beautiful is far more difficult than it might appear.