“I hope it goes beyond race. You’re trying to narrow it down to race. Yes, race is involved in it, but it’s not entirely about that. [As for the subject,] everyone’s an adult here. They know how to deal with it.”
– Steve McQueen on 12 Years A Slave
“Maybe it’s better to not inconveniently speak of certain things you know others will disagree with, for the sake of harmony. Perhaps we shouldn’t speak at all then, and leave it to silence to make the decision, which could be an ugly thing. Silence is ugly, for it meant a death of the hope to be understood…What would be left, then, to feel a motivation for, if everything is already how it is supposed to be: uncorrected? I did not know how to answer these questions, and it was these very questions that succeeded well in taking up my nights, void of sleep or dream, wondering if I was just destroying my own well-being for thinking any of this at all. Where were we to arrive? I couldn’t say, other than me wanting something to change, to end, or to begin. And it is with this thought and want that would enable me to someday begin.”
– Jessica Schneider, Quick With Flies
Last week, I was able to catch Steve McQueen’s latest film, 12 Years A Slave, but left the movie theater a bit “down.” It wasn’t because of the film, itself — at least, not really. It wasn’t a mood, or some vagary of weather. The fact is, I’ve always felt a little sad walking through a movie theater, and sadder, still, walking out. Inside, I’d hear all sorts of comments about the film, which missed the point or outright damned it to stereotype in that half-empty room. Outside, parents walked around with their kids, who yelled for the latest blockbuster as the parents smiled, perhaps remembering how they, too, once demanded the same exact thing, and knew no road, no exception, now, but to give the same to their own kids, as the way of the world. I was sad, I guess, because of the fatalism, that people could do so much more, if they’d only want to. Yet, watching what goes on in movie theaters, and — what’s often worse — coming home to read what others have written about these movies shows that they don’t, and that the word “want,” said so casually, so abstractly, above, is little more, I guess, than a reflection of my own desires.
Then, there’s Jessica Schneider’s early novel, Quick With Flies, published by Omniversica Press at Amazon.com. I wonder, sometimes, what it would be as a film. More often, however, I wonder what people will (and will not) say about it. For while 12 Years A Slave is precisely about alienation, loneliness, nature, and terror, it is these very things — and not merely slavery, itself — that get little to no attention by critics. What of Quick With Flies, then, with a narrative that keeps the same kind of black actors, yet transplants them into the American Dust Bowl? No, the plot’s specifics do not allow slavery as its vehicle, but perhaps that is the point: the vehicle will change, yet the nature of the discussion will not. There would still be alienation, terror, loneliness, and nature — all it levels — and such things would afflict Jessica Schneider’s film, too, as well as its misinterpretation.
Prior to going any further, I must confess my relationship to the author. I am a friend and fellow writer who has known her for several years, having read and critiqued the majority of her novels. We give each other feedback and encouragement, since we have similar visions of what art is and isn’t, what it can do, ought to do, and how it deepens all human experience. I say this, now, to lend some objectivity to my review, as — too often — opinions are bought, sold, or merely flattered out of a reader, and not earned by the quality of the writing, itself. In other words, I expect neither compliment nor remuneration, and never will. Yet this very same admission on Amazon.com got my review yanked until this little detail was “corrected.” Well, so what? I now think. It is a misconception that society values “truth,” much less a corporation, which is oiled by more tangible things. It will be up to you, then, to judge my fairness, or whether I’ve merely done yet another hack-job, tit for tat. Now, on to the book.
Quick With Flies is a mature novel, on a mature theme: a coming-of-age tale set in the Great Depression, told from the perspective of a young black man named Howard. Much of this revolves around Howard fantasizing, in a way, over his lost family — mother, father — and his brother’s whereabouts. Rootless, he wanders away from his Kansas farm, philosophizing about the dust and its meaning in a way reminiscent of Grapes Of Wrath:
“But I suppose for once color didn’t matter, for at the foot of our house there were so many layers filled with so many colors I could not tell what had blown from where…It spawned from the mere touch of human toes, from the hooves of hungry animals and from the inert bottoms of river basins. Even the weight of eyes seemed to rattle it out of place and drift it upwards…It felt strange to be everywhere in a land once fertile and full now dwindling to a desert and as barren as our chances.”
Do I need to point to the utter lack of cliches, the wonderful imagery (“it spawned from the mere touch,” “the weight of eyes seemed to rattle it out of place and drift it upwards”), and the fact that the writing stops exactly where it needs to, instead of blathering on? This is more than good writing, on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. It is also good characterization, for it sets Howard up as a thinker, and what that means, exactly, in this sort of world. Do his thoughts have weight, here? Clarity? Perhaps, he might argue, but what is a word without effects but trill and warble?
Like many of that era, Howard eventually finds his way to the rails. There, he comes across two bumbling, white criminals who are involved in bank robberies with the amoral Winky, a one-eyed child neither man fully trusts. The expected arc, of course, is that the four of them bond in their neediness, or that Winky un-learns some kind of deep-seated racism in the purity of childhood. Jessica Schneider’s artistic choices, however, are far more realistic, and far less condescending. Instead, Winky and Howard merely “talk,” sniping at one another in the process, bullshitting, and sizing up reactions. One never truly knows whether Winky steals from Howard; by the same token, one can’t tell what the other is truly thinking, either. Both come from poverty, and it is natural to assume that this sort of “social dance” — instead of coming to terms with big questions — is what will define them for a while. Winky has never had time for racism, not even for the casual kind, for he is rootless, too, un-whole. By contrast, the two bank robbers are merely opportunists in the sense that, had they been born of slightly earlier times, they would have been just at home as none-too-bright slave-owners, not out of any personal, innate evil, on their part, but simply because therein lay the reward of that particular instant. Now, relations have changed, however slightly, and they’re merely condemned to circuit some periphery that they resent. In short, they simply do not “fit.”
The two become less friends than people tied by circumstances, and although Winky’s character is left behind less than a third of the way into the book, his presence still involves, and so does his symbolism. In Virginia, this acquaintance is sublimated into another, deeper one, as Howard finds work and tries to adapt to a new home with new friends: Clarence, Raymond, and Raymond’s wife, Daisy, while Howard works at a general store. In fact, Raymond and Howard become best friends, and slowly — by no effort of their own — axe Clarence from the deepest of their interactions, given the two new friends’ shared intelligence, and thus, a kind of feud emerges. Yet what is so realistic, here, is that these characters (all black) are given a complex, “manly” life outside of the white world, even as, in other ways, it is utterly forged by it.
By the end of the novel, a series of carelessness, mis-understandings, betrayals, and plain bad luck lead to tragedy, but not before the real thrust of the book takes over: that of the Clarence-Howard-Raymond triangle. Howard is an intelligent creature, and thinks of the world beyond his “own” world — the black world — and wonders why others, like Clarence, simply do not give a damn about their station, much less deeper, more transcendental questions. There are, I suppose, events that force the three to drift apart, such as Raymond’s and Howard’s friendliness towards white people, despite Clarence’s hatred for them, but these are all excuses, really. The actual reason is what’s in Howard’s own head, and the fact that Clarence — had he the ability — would not be able to articulate his thoughts, would not, in fact, even want to. Howard and Raymond share books, thoughts, and “moments” that are beyond their other friends’ experiences, and thus grow closer. At one point, they even receive tickets to see a “Voodoo” interpretation of Macbeth in Harlem, gifted by a white woman, no less, in one of the many humorous touches in the book. They spend the night drinking, dancing, and making revelations to one another, fantasizing over living, here, in sharp contrast to their time in Virginia, for as soon as they get back home, they’re ordered by Raymond’s wife to take a shower, and fix a hole. They are good men, for the most part, and have no choice in the matter. Yet it is this pining for “another life” — not of money or even opportunity, but possibility, in the abstract — that affixes them to one another, even as Howard eventually leaves him, too, wandering, as he does, from town to town in hopes of settling.
Paradoxically, I tend to avoid many of these topical novels with an obvious social bent, for while they are “meant to” engender discussion of real things, they do anything but, and they are certainly not mature. It is not mature to simply tell the world how “evil” racism is, prop up villains, or entertain uncontroversial truths. There is too much buffoonery here — whether it’s obvious, feel-good films like The Help, or kids’ trash, like Wonder, that skew reality and gets so much attention from adults, it is a shame that deeper parts of human existence are ignored.
Perhaps this is why the book so utterly defies capsule. It is not really “what happens,” as it is what characters feel, do, and think, and how such abstractions play within the world at large that matters in this sort of universe. In fact, if art is more or less a funnel, sharpening, concentrating on its side that which merely cones ever-outward on the other side, then it stands to reason that the best art is the best distillation, rather than some mundane slog through details and events with little narrative or coherence. This hearkens back to older books, classic books, as shown in the following rumination from Howard, which accesses the kinds of thoughts people often do have, but cannot articulate:
“The stars – there were so many of them, resting there content in their slumber, indifferent to a few wild creatures. Had we become a graveyard for ourselves? One small animal lives here or there, birds make nest out of wire, dwell in an environment that arises and begins with the sun each day, and leads only to an alienation, ever fruitless and forgotten. Can any lingering, unfulfilled creature find roots and flourish amid such separation? Such degradation? Where shall we walk, and would our steps endure in this bleak place? Sovereign in our own right, it was our autonomy that battled the earth. Only we are the earth, and the earth is we.”
This is not good/evil, light/dark, or anything so crude or dichatomous: it is pure philosophy, set to motion by immediately apprehendable tools such as good, memorable phrasing, unique imagery, dearth of cliches, and a clear point and the reaching of it. Moreover, although the book utterly inhabits “the black experience,” even here, it is — like in McQueen’s film — merely a take-off point for deeper questions of alienation and belonging, rather than one slice of experience, from the confines of one group of people. The group, in a sense, melts away, for the lessons of the group are extrapolated upward.
Yes, the book certainly addresses racism — it would be dishonest if it weren’t at the core of at least some problems, here — but, just as Steve McQueen uses slavery as a means to probe more deeply into the human condition, Jessica Schneider shows the same loneliness and terror in a different field. Yet, as defining as such realities are, there are other things, as well, which she does well to cover: brotherhood, camaraderie, dream, image, and symbol, and what they mean (and do not mean) for each character. At times, one even gets a classic sense of adventure, a la Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, such as the train-hopping early on in the book, as a handful of young people idle about some milieu that never truly was, except as it is pulled through and out of the imagination. There is, for instance, Howard’s lost family; there is his cousin’s farm, supposedly in Maryland; Winky. All of this is ripe with fantasy and wonder and bereavement. Yet how much of this is true, or even real? Does the farm exist, out there, or is it mere hope, idealization? Do Howard’s perceptions — filtered, as they are, through an articulate and intelligent brain — reflect a “true” slice of Americana? Or is the memory of such realer than the thing, itself? Perhaps, as he once muses, memory is denser, somehow, for it is what falls way down into the earth and suckles it and keeps it going, either through some collective memory, or through books and fictionalized accounts of such that, while not “true” in the basest sense of the word, are nonetheless as real as an idea is real, or the thought of war is real, or whatever it is that gets interred with dead friends:
“I craved some of the happy times to return – like how on those hot summer days, Ray, Daisy, Clarence, Ruth and me would some nights when it got so hot, some nights we would go walk down for a dip in the cool stream. The water would wash over us, and we would joke about how each time we went in, it was like bein’ baptized again. We felt the most holy while swimming in that water, but then when we got out – it would be so hot that the water would evaporate so fast, that we’d be dry by the time we reached our home. Daisy liked to say that that was the Devil’s work on us – taking away all the grace we earned while swimming in the stream, and pulling it away with every drop that dried from our skin. Our grace was gone and lifted into the air.”
Now, stop and think, for a moment. This is a memory. Pure; concentrate. Then, look back on your own childhood. Being privileged, special, or merely human, you likely have dozens of memories similar to Howard’s, dozens of conflations of family and friends, sounds, colors, or events. They may be there, sloshing about your brain like so much water, with only the faintest outline of a glass to cover them, give them body. No doubt you’ve tried to articulate them once or twice. Yet ask yourself this: was it ever so well-picked, or clarion as with this passage? Did it start with invocation, then swing, fully-formed, through poesy, vernacular, and harp on a mundane detail — water-drops — that is given its own natural symbol? Did it have narrative?
And that, I suspect, is the difference between an artist and the rest. Your experience is your own, belonging, as it does, to your brain, where it’s probably locked away for good. An artist’s is merely extrapolated further. Yes, I suppose we all have stories, but we don’t all have the means to articulate them. This is a crucial difference. Howard’s memory, above, is richer than when it first happened; is richer, in fact, than if it would have happened in the “real world.” And the reading of it allows me to parse its body and enumerate the shape.
That said, Quick With Flies is not Jessica Schneider’s best work. As an early novel, it has its shortcomings, and one can tell the author is on the precipice of greatness here, to be replicated, and bettered, in her later books. For example, it is fair to say that some passages are a little long, and ideas repeat themselves. The “dust,” although beautifully described and both thematically and symbolically important, makes for a number of circuits that would have been better hammered once or twice. There are fewer intuitive leaps than in her other books, where one can see something great in a passage that is hard to quantify. The narrator’s voice can shift a bit over-much from poesy to vernacular, and while not exactly a fault — some of Werner Herzog’s best films, for instance, can do the same — it’s also true that later works are more consistent, and construct universes that are more whole. Yes, excellence subsists, here, but it is an excellence of quanta, at times a number-crunch, while Jessica’s later books can be beyond observation, for there is no mechanic, no “skeleton” visible in her work — I mean this in the best sense — only its organic movement.
Yet, even now, I can only think of a few works of the last couple of decades that deal with race and its spiraling-off into deeper questions as effectively. They are, perhaps, Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, Oxherding Tale, and now, 12 Years A Slave. I have done my best, here, to show you why this is so. I have woven argument, posted generous quotations that reveal Jessica Schneider’s writing, and used textual evidence — not mere assertion — to back up my words. Near the end, I even offer critique, tempering my positive words with negative, for that is what’s fair, and honesty will do much more for the art world than well-meaning shielding or manipulation ever could. Yet Amazon forced me to censor some of these admissions for the sake of…what? And why? Because there are policies against such revelations, even as it tolerates the wheezing ad-machines of bad, wealthy self-publishers who pay for thousands of positive reviews, as well as the occlusion of identity, firm in the knowledge that their work cannot stand on its own. Then, there are the thousands, of not millions, of no-name writers, whose brothers, sisters, mothers, and lovers go out of their way to hide such relationships, yet a critic that does the right thing by being honest, and provides evidence, to boot, is punished? Oh well. They have their priorities — Amazon, too — just as I’ve given you mine, and will continue to do so.
This weekend, I spent a good deal of time watching interviews of Steve McQueen, who has especially gained some popularity with the latest film. I was shocked by the inanity of the questions posed, and marveled, still, at both McQueen’s patience, at times, and his skill at utterly dispatching others’ assumptions and poorly thought-out views. Now, he’s made it, I smiled; Steve McQueen is a great artist who has already had, thank God, so many chances to be misinterpreted by asses. Yet who will film Jessica’s book, and be the first to hee-haw and misinterpret her?
[A version of this article first appeared on BlogCritics, on Nov. 20, 2013.]