Friday, March 9, 2018

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

"Long Way Down" is a powerful story about the downward spiral of violence in society and while Jason Reynolds relates it specifically to an African American urban community, it can apply to violence within any society or trauma any individual is dealing with in life. This novel in verse is a quick read with the narrative interwoven into poetic words that uses figurative language that is symbolic, metaphorical, repetitive, fragmented, and rich in imagery that pulls the reader and the senses in with a bang: "Sadness split his face like a cold breeze on chapped lip after attempting to smile." The protagonist's older brother has been shot to death and he takes a 60-second ride down an elevator with thoughts of revenge against the murderer as he carries his brother's pistol in his back pocket. Will is visited by ghosts of the past who have been victims or chosen violence to deal with trauma. The rickety metal elevator symbolizes a jail or cage or coffin that traps a person; it moans and makes a "piercing sound" when it stops. The wobbly metal gives the character vertigo like a person who has experienced post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and the "L" on the button stands for loser, loss, lobby, or lit. Reynolds doesn't waste any words and there is much for discussion in this novel.

The author uses poetry to provoke an emotion in the reader with repetition, fragmented sentences, and single words to mimic Will's tortured thoughts and trauma over his brother's death. Will is in grief but also can't quite connect with what is going on inside himself, "How do you hug what's haunting you?" he says. The ghosts that visit Will talk about the cycle of violence that goes through generations. Uncle Mark puts it best, "It's never the end. Never." The anxiety is a collective condition that Will cannot escape and is reflected in the fragmented poetry and hazy atmosphere filled with cigarette smoke. This surreal setup suggests a character with PTSD or one that is just mourning or one that is dead already. Collectively, it suggests a society that needs to address violence.

The rules of the neighborhood are to not cry, not snitch, and seek revenge. They are not questioned and should be and Reynolds mirrors this idea by breaking conventions in his poetry through repetition and other devices.  The cadence is terrific and keeps the pace moving at a fast clip - I'd like to hear the audiobook. Will's neighborhood with its gangs, drugs, and violence is created with minimal words and fragmented sentences adding to the emotional impact of the trauma Will is dealing with. His brother was killed going to the store buying his mom some eczema creme and the verse below refers to that and the individual, as well as society, bleeding from a violent community.

Is it Possible
for a hug
to peel back skin
of time,
the toughened
and raw bits,
the irritated
and irritating,
dry spots
the parts that bleed?

This individual and collective voice makes the reader duplicitous in the actions and suggests that collectively society needs to do something to change this destructive path.

Francisco Collado-Rodriguez wrote an interesting journal article, "Trauma and Storytelling in Cormac McCarthy," applying traumatic theory to literature and storytelling to explore the roots of human violence. The storyteller can make a conscious attempt to remember the event and give meaning to it to work through the pain or the storyteller can reflect the manifestation of PTSD where the victim is melancholic and has "...uncontrollable repetitions or tags, nightmares, insomnia, the manifestation of ghostly presences, or states of panic" (47) When trauma cannot be assimilated consciously with PTSD it is oftentimes portrayed in characters that can't express themselves through language and have illogical actions. He also describes personal and collective traumas. Cormac McCarthy's characters show both in "The Road" where violence has led to a future where the world is destroyed and humans are becoming extinct. Jason Reynolds book is similar in reflecting personal and collective trauma of violence in communities that are cyclical. Rules have no meaning and are blindly followed by generations that result in violence over and over. The ambiguous last line of the novel, "Are you coming?" means either Will is going to take revenge or he isn't or he's already dead. I think the story reflects mourning and grief more than PTSD but I'd need to study the words closer. The story is also a collective question for the reader to decide if he or she is going to end the violence and trauma in society or turn a blind eye. This moves the story from being one where the focus is on the victims to one that focuses on the social issue making its message provocative and powerful.

5 Smileys

No comments:

Post a Comment