Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

A dense, award-winning book that relentlessly satires cultural identity, politics, philosophy, pop culture, etc. Paul Beatty goes all-out in a rapid-fire funny and tragic riff; an improvised verbal flood of words on race - at times incomprehensible to this white reader, and other times fascinating. I say, white reader, because much of the slang and cultural references went "Whoosh," over my head. Not that this matters. There is plenty for everyone to eat. Can't say I loved it or hated it. I did admire it. It is a weird mix of comedy, tragedy, and existential absurdity that reflects the current breakdown of gender and racial roles in society and the waffling identity of people trying to figure out their meaning in the world whether black, Muslim, female, transgender, etc.  Behind the laughter is a slashing anger that addresses loss, failure, and flawed institutions on all levels. The serious side is masked by riffs and an absurd, subjective plot. This novel doesn't use familiar literary structures or conventions so if you looking for an alternative read, I recommend it.

The story begins with an African-American nicknamed, Bonbon, being charged by the U.S. Supreme Court for owning a slave and implementing segregation in the community. Bonbon's father was shot by the Los Angeles police and Bonbon received a settlement of two million dollars. He used the money to start a farm mainly growing watermelons and weed. Hominy, a depressed and retired actor who worked on films portrayed in racist scenes on the defunct TV series, The Little Rascals,  has lost his cultural identity and attempts suicide. Bonbon takes him on as his slave and Hominy no longer has an identity crisis. He knows his place in the world once again. 

Meanwhile, Bonbon's town of Dickens has disappeared; eaten whole by the LA suburbs and erased from the maps. Bonbon resurrects the town by instituting segregation. It reminds people of the past and how far (or not) they have come in the world from slavery. Bonbon asks repeatedly, "Who am I? And how can I be that person?" and "Who am I? And how can I become myself?" Philosophers, theologians, psychologists, and sociologists  have been asking this question for a long time as it establishes a sense of identity. Karen Coates, in "Keywords for Children's Literature," explains how a modernist culture sees identification as a composite whole versus a postmodern culture that emphasizes not a continuous identity but one that continually changes. The characters represent this notion of identity in a vague and multilayered way with no direct answers. 

Beatty masks what side of the argument he stands for with humor. I found it difficult figuring out what his point was at times or if his point was to not have a point. In the last chapter, Bonbon is at a club listening to a black comedian who rips into a white couple sitting in the first row. Bonbon describes the white people as trying to understand the black comedy but obviously not getting it. When the comedian says, "'This shit ain't for you. Understand? Now get the fuck out! This is our thing!'" Bonbon responds by wishing he'd stood up to the man and asking, "'So what exactly is our thing?" At first, I thought maybe the author was making a point that he doesn't want assimilation between races, but this didn't follow the themes Beatty points to throughout the story. Instead, I think it ties in with the theme of identity and Bonbons constant "Who am I?" question. The scene shows how the white couple is not aware of their actions nor are they sensitive to the culture they've stepped into in the club. They choose the center row where they are most visible and they laugh at all the wrong jokes at the wrong times. Beatty cynically seems to be implying that things really don't change, a recurring theme that has a steady beat from beginning to end.

The slim plot piles ridiculous situations upon even more ridiculous situations reminding me of my University of Minnesota class on the Theater of the Absurd. Bonbon's existential look at an individual's place and meaning in the world are humorously approached in absurd scenes that make the reader laugh but belie the tragic seriousness of many explosive issues. I'm not sure if Beatty means to shock the audience into action or just become more self-aware of their identity regardless of race and color, but either way that is the effect it had on me. 

The characters are often dealing with losses and failures in life where they seem to have a moment of clarity only for it to disappear in a poof of inaction or incapability to articulate the battle. Bonbon takes offense at guest-speaker, Jon McJone's, nonsense about an African child in slavery being better off having two parents as opposed to today's one parent home. Bonbon thinks to himself that McJones doesn't talk about how people were forced to marry each other during slavery times, how divorce wasn't an option, and how kids were sold off at the whim of the masters. When he tells McJones he's full of crap, Colin Powell says "Like you wouldn't rather be born here than in Africa." Bonbon takes offense at this nativist view that unfairly makes light of the suffering the original slaves went through; however, King Cuz stands up and does the fighting for him. Bonbon, nicknamed "The Sellout", just walks away in the middle of the argument. Oftentimes when Bonbon speaks up it falls on deaf ears. He appears to fail and takes drastic measures to make a point. 

While Bonbon is compared to a cupcake, he is not soft and his actions usually go in the opposite direction of how another would approach these issues. He is questioning the identity of black people by reinstating the past. When Hominy asks to be his slave, Bonbon recognizes that Hominy needs his past identity to find stability in himself. It also reminds people of the need for freedom of choice. Bonbon raises segregation on a bus which reminds people of all they fought for in the Civil Rights Movement to get to the present. When he segregates education it is the white people that want to get into the black school, not the other way around. Loss of freedoms. Loss of identity. Loss of respect for each other. Ultimately Bonbon's losses and failure climax at the Supreme Court where he is charged with violated the 13th and 14th Amendments. He does act in the end and he does make a point and finding himself and meaning in the world. 

Having read "Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates and "The Sellout", I find that they both have this underlying anger toward institutionalized racism, except Beatty's book moves beyond the black issue and picks up what it means to be human. The question regarding the meaning of life gives the theme of identity a universalness that applies to more than just the black race; plus, Beatty's emphasis on self-awareness is one that suggests people can move forward. Coates does not offer any hope in his book. At least I felt more like an outsider looking at the back experience versus Beatty's look at racism in general. If you don't give a dickens to whether or not the characters are underdeveloped and the plot is ghostly, but want political incorrectness, laughter, and a mix of intellectual and vulgar street talk then give this a go. It is definitely an original.

5 Smileys

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Hammer of Thor (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard #2) by Rick Riordan

Norsk myth is not as vast as Greek or Roman myth when it comes to the gods. The fragmented Skaldic poetry is difficult to decipher with its kennings and the narrative framework is skeletal at times. However, they are rich in meaning showing pre-Christian beliefs and practices in a dramatic narrative. A good storyteller retells the myths in new versions that are their own but also represent the originals. Rick Riordan does just that crafting heroes, gods, goddesses, and giants from myths that are a twist on the original tales with contemporary conflicts and pop culture adding humor and unique characters. Take Heimdall, the god that guards the Rainbow Bridge; he loves to take selfies on his phablet and checks out the world only through those selfies. He's bored and no longer doing his job particularly well which is to listen to threats in the world. The heroes of the story have to coax him back into doing his job.

Riordan layers his characters with themes presenting them as entertaining stock characters or contemporary ones giving depth to the story. Thor is presented as an egocentric dork that loves to stream movies and take the credit for everything along with his wife, Sif, who is vain; yet, both come through when needed by the heroes. Thor was the most popular god for the average person in ancient times. In the Icelandic Sagas by Snorri Sturluson, the adventure he tells of Thor and Loki where Thor poses as a woman marrying Utgard-Loki is full of humor and loss of face for Thor. Riordan weaves this story brilliantly into his plot so that the humans have to face the similar issues, but with the help of the gods are able to outwit the giants.

Riordan also peppers his stories with strong females. The Utgard-Loki marriage shows the female giant is the brains of the operation. The children of Loki are gender fluid characters, Alex and Sam. They are complex, strong, and vulnerable as they search for their identities. Alex can't control her gender changes and has suffered prejudice from others her whole life. It makes her or him aloof and temperamental, but Alex embraces his or her identity and is more confident than Sam, her sister. Sam is gender fluid as well but has never changed into a boy. She is a devote Muslim that works for the gods and while her religious identity is solid her personal identity is shaken as Loki can control her.  Alex says it is because she has not embraced her gender fluid side. Her character arc is not finished and it will be interesting to see what happens in the sequels.

The Viking myths, according to Kevin Crossley-Holland in "Norse Myths," relied on the family unit as they were stronger as one versus individually. They were fiercely loyal to friends and family and they strongly believed in Fate; however, Fate didn't give them a negative outlook - instead they admired those who laughed or endured a noble death. Riordan captures this in his books. The overarching message is that the protagonist, Magnus, values family whether they are blood relatives or not. His adventures carry the strong theme of courage, loyalty to friends, and embracing diversity in each other.

Skaldic poems contain myths, eulogies, and elegies that celebrate people or gods during the 9th to 13th century. They are difficult to understand because of their metaphorical references to contemporary people. The word, "gold," might mean "Freya's tears," and a modern-day reader would have to know the story of Loki tricking Freya by cutting off her hair and replacing it with gold to understand the poetic line. Riordan pokes fun at kennings making up his own or using some originals. My favorite made-up line is directed at Thor, who is referred to as, "Bright Crack" and Alex making a wisecrack about a "Plumber's Crack". Actually, Thor's hall is called, "Lightning Crack" or "Bright Crack" or "Bilskirnir".  Other metaphors difficult  to interpret are: "Bane of wood", that means, "fire"; or "bloodworm", that means "sword." Riordan adds much humor using irony and play-on-words.

The story of the cursed ring  is cleverly worked into the plot (I guess if I had to make up a kenning I'd call it, "Andvari's tears"). It takes the original Norsk tale and places it in a realistic portrayal of a deaf elf whose father has rejected him and blamed him for the deaths of his son and mother - a universal theme that readers can relate to today as much as in ancient times. The ring corrupts the bearer in both the original and here, and the reader will have to wait for the sequel to see what happens to the elf's father. Between Sam's unfinished business and the deaf elf, I'll be picking up book three.

4 Smileys