Review Of Gayl Jones’s “The Healing”

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In brief, Gayl Jones’s The Healing is not a book of many faults. Rather, it’s a book of a few monstrous faults repeated ad nauseum on almost every page. I haven’t read Jones’s other novels such as the lauded Corregidora and Eva’s Man, so, to be fair, I won’t comment on her talent as a whole, but stick to the clichés, ill-wrought dialogue, bloated, pointless description, and intellectual dearth specific to the novel at hand.

At the very least, I know Gayl Jones’s other novels are very different stylistically, which means, if she does lack quality, she might still have some diversity across her work. Thus, it’s probably not so much that Jones is talentless as she is lazy. And perhaps that’s the worst misdeed writers commit. A lack of talent is nobody’s fault and making fun of well-meaning passion is a bit cruel, even if accurate. Pure laziness, however, disrespects both writer and reader – I don’t want, for example, an artist to think me stupid enough to assume there is a reason behind every little miscalculation, the demesne and crutch of bad writers who use bad philosophy to justify bad art. Consider, for instance, the specifics of the plot. Harlan Eagleton, a folk healer, manages a minor but respected rock star named Joan Savage, travels all over the world, has affairs, and offers small observations about pretty much everything imaginable. She is eventually stabbed for “betrayal” by her former rock star. In a way, then, its peculiarities of detail and structure are similar to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, but while that book often makes good use of dialogue, irony, humor, and juxtaposition to talk about a familiar subject, the holocaust, in a unique way, The Healing simply drowns in details neither deep nor evocative. I suppose, then, the philosophical justification for such pap is the postmodern obsession with “multiple perspectives,” as Jones, in a way, does just that. She discusses, sometimes for pages on end, every little thing a character says or comes across, but reveals nothing in the process, not in the substance, and not in the construction. In fact, it’s the most obvious fault of the book – its utter pointlessness not only from page to page, but how little it actually says as a whole.

A couple of examples will suffice. The first paragraph, a bit over a page, sets the tone:

I open a tin of Spirit of Scandinavia sardines, floating in mustard sauce. The woman on the bus beside me grunts and leans toward the aisle. She’s a smallish, youngish, short-haired woman, small Gypsy earrings in her ears, looks kinda familiar. I offer her some of them sardines, but she grunts and leans farther toward the aisle. I nibble the sardines with one of those small plastic forks and stare out the window. The sun hitting the window makes a rainbow across a field of straw pyramids. There’s a few horses and cows grazing in the meadow, a … Continue reading →

No More Ghettos: On The Death Of James Emanuel, Poet

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In Confucian philosophy, there is a passage called Ta Tung, or “The Great Harmony,” which describes the ideal relation between things: that the best leaders are elected, wealth is shared and not left idle, and every man, woman, and child belongs to each other — and to itself. On my way to work, I often stop by a large statue of Confucius off the Bowery, in which this passage is emblazoned. There, one finds a multitude of trees growing up from stone, and flowers in the spring and green all summer. Yet not once did I ever see a Chinese person stand beside me and gaze at the man, much less read the inscription, for to the Chinese, he has become a kind of furniture, and the Chinese (at least here) live in a ghetto of their own construct.

The poet James A. Emanuel died on September 28th, 2013. The last few days, I’ve stopped at this statue a bit more often than usual. I’ve read the inscription carefully; I’ve tried to feel what it means to not regard oneself as “merely” oneself — as the words seem to exhort — but as part of something extraneous to it, something unnecessary, unimportant. Perhaps this is because I’ve been having trouble at my job and needed to stabilize. Or perhaps it is because, with James Emanuel more and more on my mind, now, I’ve realized that the content of those words was actually the content of his own life’s work: to keep the world from getting stuck on itself — that is, in its own skin, its own ghetto — and to bring it out of the enclosure.

Like many young writers, I’d first discovered James Emanuel’s poetry through Cosmoetica, and this essay, in particular. In reading his Whole Grain: Collected Poems, Emanuel — a black American poet and academic most recently living in Paris — immediately struck me as an artist of immense talent, even as his work (despite its strong identity) did not seem to “mark” him as a black writer, or as any “kind” of writer, at all, except one of talent and breadth that went beyond questions of race, and into deeper ideational concerns. Of course, he is not unique, here, for other black writers have routinely bemoaned their forced ghettoization into purely (and, even worse, stereotypically) black concerns: Charles Johnson, a Buddhist who wonders why blacks are so little concerned with “deeper” questions, even now; Claude McKay, who had his popularity stripped for his refusal to toe a political line; Ralph Ellison, who fictionalized these kind of subtly racist interactions; and James Baldwin, likely the richest of all black philosophical thinkers, and who — atheist, gay, and critical of everyone around him — did not ever comfortably fit into any school or methodology, save that of honesty and the striving for excellence, which have their own methods, separate and individuated for each human being, as opposed to merely having … Continue reading →

Review Of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Mary” (1926)

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Mary, a solid first novel, presages all that’s good and bad with Vladimir Nabokov’s career. At a bit over 100 pages, it’s a short book, and this really works to Nabokov’s advantage. After all, his books — I’m thinking of the autobiography, Pale Fire, and Lolita in particular — are awash in pointless details, overlong scenes, and the occasional cliché. Ironically, many readers praise Nabokov for all these faults, since Nabokov himself was in love with tedium and closed to new ideas, bragging that his ideal editor would only rework a misplaced semicolon, or apologetically suggest a nipped comma, and nothing else. As he says in a taped interview about Lolita, in response to queries about the novel’s “ideas” (which, by the way, turned him off, hence the intellectual dearth in much of his writing), “I don’t want to touch hearts; I don’t even want to touch minds. What I want to produce is really that little sob in the spine of the artist’s reader…”

As a kid, it was great to see such confidence, especially from a writer with talent, toying with ideas indefensible, pouting through bold non-sequiturs, and gritting his teeth at ‘philistines.’ I was surprised, then, to finally see the interview on-screen a few years back, and was shocked at how incredibly different Nabokov was in real life. Obviously, he spent so much time thinking about what his own smirk looked like, that he forgot to prep himself for a world of others — other people, other values, and yes, other, more imaginative ideas than his own. The body language, stuttering, and the fact that he refused to do an unscripted, face-to-face interview (he read from index cards) all point to a great personal insecurity, especially since it’s so hard for Nabokov — or anyone, really — to defend his exaggerated aesthetic positions, off the cuff. As he’s goaded off the chair and to the couch by some (unscripted?) questions, you’re left with that last image forcing through the air — a sob in the spine of the reader. It’s silly, awkward, and it, along with the interview itself, is a good summary of Nabokov’s art: always “reaching,” often in weird, contrived ways, but never quite grasping.

Thus, it’s interesting to look at his earlier fiction, which was, perhaps, from a time before his hatred towards themes, depth, or things of cultural import, for Mary lacks a few Nabokovian faults in its greater control over his unwieldy, hyperbolic flourishes — the very lack Vladimir Nabokov complains of in the foreword. And although Mary is not a great book, it has enough solid or even good material to recommend it to enthusiasts. As noted, its length forced Nabokov to concision, and focusing on the disconnect between Bolshevik and pre-revolutionary Russia invites depth and an interesting, surreal quality to many passages. The plot is also much more straightforward than in later novels, which, in Nabokov’s case, is a plus, since it’s not saturated with … Continue reading →

Review Of Octavia E. Butler’s “Kindred”

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a bunch of young adult literature. No, it’s not really art, but in most cases, that’s acceptable, as it has no pretense to anything higher than functional and didactic storytelling for kids. The plots are simple, the symbolism obvious, the moralizing heavy-handed, and the purpose, clear. Students learn something (although it has little to do with English) and, in the hands of a creative instructor, can be forced to think about it in radical ways, beyond the scope of the typically insipid ‘lessons’ such books offer. All of this makes me wonder about the intrinsic value of books like Kindred, which is essentially a kid’s book disguised as a serious work of art. In brief, it’s not a good novel, but it at least ensures good criticism, for it attempts many things and does them badly — a hallmark, I suspect, of teen books in general. Trash like Gayl Jones’s The Healing, for example, are so utterly devoid of art or idea, maundering around banal, plotless, and lazy, all-describing inner thought, that detailed criticism is gratuitous, while Kindred is, by comparison, a failure with some good ideas lost to poor execution. It’s more instructive to look at these well-intentioned failures as there’s something to learn here.

A very obvious problem is the treatment of ideas. Butler handles her themes so didactically and without nuance that Kindred simply can’t be real literature, only functional, moralizing prose. All it says of slavery, relationships, and racism is not only unoriginal, but banal and expected, as if it’s a text designed to socialize the reader into mainstream thinking on these topics. Again, think kids’ lit. A novel of sci-fi aspirations, it really isn’t, since the mechanism of nor reason for its only sci-fi element, time travel, isn’t explained, nor serves any real logical purpose, except, perhaps, as an excuse for the story. It’s a minor flaw, one that even great works could have, but given all the other problems here, it’s difficult to overlook. The plot revolves around a black woman free of personality named Dana, her obliviously white writer-husband Kevin, and Rufus, a stupid, one-dimensional white boy from the antebellum South whom Dana repeatedly saves from death. Dana, a struggling writer in the 1970s, disappears into the South for hours, days, or months every time Rufus is in danger, while her body, in this world, is unconscious for no more than several minutes at a time. She returns to her apartment precisely when her own life is threatened. Sometimes, she’s able to take Kevin with her by holding on to him once the dizziness sets in. She is disappointed every time, however, as Rufus, with whom she develops a motherly (but mostly unexplored) relationship, didactically grows into a violent, insensitive product of his era. Note the rich potential in these ideas and how a talented writer can shape them into profound art. Butler is not that writer, at least not here, although, … Continue reading →

Review Of Charles Johnson’s “Middle Passage”

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Although Middle Passage is one of the greatest novels ever written, it really wasn’t supposed to be, as Charles Johnson has the perfect set-up for dull PC bathos. The plot, the characters, and many of its ideas all imply cliché and utter failure in imitation of other failures. Just consider the synopsis and you’ll see what I mean. Rutherford Calhoun, a black New Orleans rascal and ex-slave, spends his days gambling, drinking, and accumulating debt. To avoid trouble and cut ties with his fat, religious, and pristine girlfriend, Isadora, he becomes a stowaway on what turns out to be a slave ship, the Republic. He has a transformative experience along the Middle Passage, returns home a changed man, defeats his enemies, and marries his now-slim and beautiful lover. It sounds disastrous, but it’s precisely how Johnson subverts these clichés and expectations that makes the novel so great. All details are calculated, the dialogue is rich and philosophical, and descriptions are full of humor, wit, and evocation appropriate to the scene and overall text. Nothing is forced or out of place. That Johnson veers so close to platitude and avoids it shows he’s conscious of what makes good writing. And that this is not Johnson’s first but second great novel (the first being Oxherding Tale) means he’s simply one of the best writers you’ll ever read.

The only ‘truly’ (i.e., prototypically) dense and complex character in Middle Passage is Rutherford. And this is not criticism. I use the word ‘truly’ with hesitation because there’s more than one way to create compelling characters, much less compelling books which may or may not have prototypical characterization. Other characters, however, do not necessarily grow, at least not in Rutherford’s varied and ambiguous directions. Again, this is not criticism, for at the very least, other characters are great archetypes, as in Shakespeare’s tragedies, who are stand-ins for unique ideas and serve clever counterpoints to Rutherford, who is prototypical, in that he’s unique, interesting, likable, has complex motives and behavior, and grows. He’s extraordinarily observant and educated, his own ideas playing off of the archetypes’, all of which is far beyond what’s expected of a former slave. As he experiences his terrifying ordeal, he changes, subtly criticizing himself via juxtapositions of scene and dialogue even he isn’t aware of. For example, although he complains of Jackson’s (his brother) “betrayal,” it’s eventually revealed this was nothing more than convincing their ex-Master, Chandler, to share all property equally with the slaves, rather than giving it to the brothers, for Jackson, in a beautiful, philosophical, and quotable speech on property and ownership, argues they are educated, healthy, and thus need less:

I know Rutherford has thought about this too. But it don’t seem right to ask for myself. I could ask for land, but how could any man, even you, sir, own something like those trees outside? Or take that pitcher there. It’s a fine thing, sure it is now, but it kinda favors the … Continue reading →