Ambivalent Histories

November Bookmarks
(Pxhere)

“Racism is one of those subjects that gives the feeling that there is no end to what you can find out once you start reading.” So writes the novelist and critic Darryl Pinckney in Blackballed: The Black Vote and US Democracy (New York Review Books, 112 pp., $14.95). With its graceful marshaling of historical scholarship and primary documents, Blackballed, originally published in 2014 and reissued with a new concluding essay, proves its own assertion. Pinckney’s two novels, High Cotton (1992) and Black Deutschland (2016), both feature bookish, deeply ambivalent Black narrators engaged in the task of self-fashioning. As the narrator of Black Deutschland puts it, “I’d lived my life camping out in other people’s stories, waiting for my own to begin, but unable to get out of the great head and into the actual.” Blackballed shows that to understand American electoral history you have to understand race, and that to understand race you have to read Ralph Ellison and Nella Larsen, W.E.B. Du Bois and Michelle Alexander. The great head (books; the life of the mind) doesn’t have to be a distraction from the actual (politics). In fact, it can be one route toward it.

Pinckney seems to have read everything, from Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, published in 1945, to 2008’s Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal, and this reading has shown him that the history of race and voting in America isn’t a simple tale of progress, despite what the Roberts Court proclaimed in its decision decimating the Voting Rights Act. (The “40-year-old-facts” on which the Act was based have “no logical relationship to the present day,” the court argued in the midst of widespread Republican efforts to disenfranchise voters of color.) “One thing about pessimism,” Pinckney writes, “is that it feels sane. Pessimists are those who can’t be taken in, people who can’t be fooled.” He wrote that after the 2012 reelection of Barack Obama. Four years later, with the election of a candidate whose main appeal lay in racial resentment, the pessimists felt even saner. Four years after that, with that same hate-spewing candidate receiving close to half of the national vote, it sure doesn’t seem like the arc of the moral universe is bending toward justice. As an American citizen, it’s hard not to be despairing, even depressed. As Pinckney puts it, “If a person cannot imagine a future, then we would say that that person is depressed. But if a country cannot envision a future, how do we describe its condition?”

Yet the history of race and voting in America isn’t a simple tale of suppression and despair, either. Pinckney tells us about Promised Land, South Carolina, a community of freedmen that, despite the efforts of domestic terrorists, kept voting after Reconstruction. (Pinckney’s great-great-grandfather was a member of this community.) This history, which Pinckney read about in Elizabeth Rauh Bethel’s Promiseland: A Century of Life in a Negro Community (again, there’s no end to what you can find out once you start reading), is worth remembering:

In one story about elections in the early 1880s, a white sheriff warned the Red Shirts, a white paramilitary group, that the blacks in Promised Land had a reputation for using their Winchesters and shotguns. Black men walked three miles to the polls at the post office in the next town. They went in groups, the better to protect themselves. There was one box for ballots cast by blacks, a separate box for those of whites.
It’s easy to tell a just-so story about the history of the Black vote: the radical democratic experiment of Reconstruction gives way to suppression gives way to the civil rights movement; Republicans move from being the party of Lincoln to being the party of Strom Thurmond. But just-so stories just aren’t true. The men of Promised Land continued voting; Trump rose to political prominence when our first Black president was winning reelection.

History doesn’t arc toward goodness; it doesn’t arc toward evil, either. It doesn’t arc at all. The book ends in the present, with an essay written this past July—a summer of pandemic and protests, with corporations desperately aligning themselves with Black Lives Matter and President Trump desperately aligning himself with white-supremacist vigilantes. As is his wont, Pinckney finds himself in a position of ambivalence. He’s freaked out by the fireworks: “It sounds like Tet,” his partner, the poet James Fenton, remarks. He’s moved and unsettled by the speed and force of the protests: “The world was taking a knee. The sheer scale and brutal directness of what was going on urged me to look inward at my own symptoms of the philistine terror of change.”

History doesn’t arc toward goodness; it doesn’t arc toward evil, either. It doesn’t arc at all.

Democracy is messy, and it’s messy because it’s contingent, dependent upon individual voters and the myriad things that motivate them. “Our complex and unfinished history can be an impediment to the task of building solidarity and coalitions across racial lines,” Pinckney writes, “when simplistically approached.” Blackballed is a great argument for the complexities of history and politics—a welcome argument after four years of Trumpist rhetoric, brute and brutalizing in its simplicity.

 

Reading can, as Pinckney argues, be a route to political discovery. It can also, if we’re being honest, serve as a useful distraction from politics. In the days before the 2020 election I tempered my obsessive doomscrolling of the New York Times and doom-refreshing of FiveThirtyEight with three recent books of fiction.

First, the most pleasant distraction: Shirley Hazzard’s Collected Stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 368 pp., $28), edited by Brigitta Olubas and published this month. Hazzard’s best novel, and one of the best of the second half of the twentieth century, is The Transit of Venus (1980). The Transit of Venus is what we mean when we call a novel “sweeping.” It moves across continents and decades; it delights in coincidence and melodrama; its sentences hit every note, from the most wickedly sharp (of a coldly put-together woman: “Nothing about her appeared to have been humanly touched”) to the most deliciously romantic (of a small man briefly and rapturously in love: “Christian was removed from pettiness, as one is only by immeasurable happiness or grief”). It’s a novel about love that makes the largest imaginable claims—psychological, moral, spiritual—for it. Hazzard’s other best-known novel, The Great Fire (2003), also swings big in style and plot, so I was interested to see how she worked on the smaller canvas of the short story.

Very well, it turns out. The stories, many published in the New Yorker, cover much of the same terrain as Hazzard’s novels. There are romantic flings with in-laws; there are unrequited, ennobling crushes; there is intelligent banter about poetry and art and traveling. Hazzard knows how to skewer a literary dinner party: “‘Take Sordello,’ the bony man was insisting. The woman in purple gazed at him with rapt inattention.” And she knows how to take the measure of a bureaucrat: “Glendenning often spoke of these greater responsibilities of his past, oddly emphasizing his reduced authority.” (Hazzard worked as a secretary at the United Nations and wrote two books critical of the institution.) But the most consistent note she strikes is, again, the transfigurations of love. Hazzard is a romantic—or, rather, a Romantic, one who believes that beauty is truth, truth beauty. In “A Place in the Country,” one character observes that love “does not correspond to the descriptions” we’ve read in novels and poems. “It isn’t commonplace. More like a concentration of one’s energies.” That’s Hazzard’s credo, and what a relief it is from the bile-filled news.

A less pleasant distraction, though still an excellent novel, was Megha Majumdar’s dark, driving A Burning (Knopf, 304 pp., $25.95). First, though, a digression. I’ve been reading and loving the essays of critic James Wood for years. One of the pleasures of spending so much time with a critic is coming to know their tastes—and, often, coming to recognize their blind spots. There’s a typical move Wood makes when he finds himself in a particular kind of literary pickle. He admires a book: say, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, the second in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. But that book exists within a genre he doesn’t admire: in the case of Mantel, historical fiction. So what does Wood do? He simply asserts that the book isn’t really within that genre: “Mantel seems to have written a very good modern novel, then changed all her fictional names to English historical figures of the fifteen-twenties and thirties.” (Reader, she didn’t.)

Wood pulls this move again with A Burning. The novel begins with a social-media message: after a terrorist attack in Kolkata, India, a young Muslim woman posts to Facebook, “If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?” In a country dominated by Hindu nationalism, the effects of this post are catastrophic. Majumdar shifts between three different narrative perspectives, allowing this story to take on political and social dimensions. One of the narrators, Lovely, is a hijra—a third gender recognized in India. She’s also possessed of the novel’s most interesting voice, her phrasing tilted just enough to make it come alive: “On the road, my slippers are going flip flap, and I am praying, please slippers please not to tear today.”

Novels don’t succeed insofar as they escape the accretions of genre; they succeed insofar as they borrow from, and make new, the accretions of genre.

A Burning is, in short, a politically sophisticated, stylistically accomplished thriller. Wood admits as much: “The book has some of the elements of a thriller or a police procedural,” he writes, “but one shouldn’t mistake its extraordinary directness and openness to life with the formulaic accelerations of genre.” Majumdar does use many of the conventions perfected by thriller writers—short chapters; a roving point of view; present-tense narration—all to good effect. Novels don’t succeed insofar as they escape the accretions of genre; they succeed insofar as they borrow from, and make new, the accretions of genre. A Burning is a literary thriller, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

My least satisfying distraction came in the form of Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind (Ecco, 256 pp., $27.99). The novel has a great setup. (Before publication, it was already under development by Netflix.) A family of four takes a vacation at a beautiful house on Long Island. The husband, Clay, is a professor of English and media studies: “Films. Literacy. The internet. The truth, that kind of thing.” The wife, Amanda, works in publicity. She’s the kind of person who lustily checks her email after a few hours unplugged: “She tapped the glass, spelling it out, random as Ouija or the rosary, then the thing took and the emails arrived, piling the one atop the other. Forty-one! She felt so necessary, so missed, so loved.” The son and daughter, Archie and Rose, are teens, complete with the drama and fug of changing bodies (Alam is big on bodily pungency), though both parents can’t help but think of them as young and vulnerable.

The family has settled into vacation—drinks, expensive cheese and crackers—when, late at night, they hear a knock at the door. It’s the owners of the house, who have fled the city after an unexplained blackout. Phones stop working; there is an excruciatingly loud noise from the skies; animals begin to act strangely. Maybe it’s a hurricane; maybe it’s a terrorist attack. Maybe power will be restored soon; maybe it’s the end of the world.

In horror-novel fashion, Alam slowly creates a feeling of encroaching dread—a dread that seems particular to the twenty-first century. How do you get to the grocery store if your GPS isn’t working? How do you know if the apocalypse has come when you can’t see what people are saying on Twitter? Like A Burning, Leave the World Behind uses this genre setup to explore broader social issues: masculinity—what kind of a man can’t protect his children, Clay worries—as well as race: the home owners, who are Black, have the last name Washington. Amanda observes, “You know, you look a little like Denzel Washington.” (Believe it or not, Denzel is slated to play the part in the adaptation.)

Alam, a strong critic who regularly publishes in Bookforum, the New Republic, and elsewhere, writes a clean, rhythmic sentence, and the novel is filled with aperçus about consumerism and academia, technology and parenthood. In fact, this critical intelligence becomes a novelistic weakness at times. Too often, you get the sense that Alam isn’t shaping his thoughts to the novel but shaping the novel to his thoughts. Take when the Washingtons show up unexpectedly. Amanda asks if Clay has a bat.

“A bat?” Clay pictured the flying mammal. “A bat?” He understood, then, but where would he get a bat? When had he last held a bat? Did they even have a baseball bat at home, and if they did, had they brought it on vacation? No, but when had they decided to forsake that American diversion? In their foyer on Baltic Street they had a clutch of umbrellas of varying degrees of broken, an extra windshield scraper, Archie’s lacrosse stick, some of those circulars, never asked for, a sheaf of coupons in rainproof plastic that would never biodegrade. Well, lacrosse was from the Indian, maybe that was more all-American.

This is writing that sounds polished but is actually undisciplined. The fetishization of the exact detail—those circulars, that windshield scraper—might work in a scene of domestic realism but serves little purpose here. Clay, concerned with protecting his family, fears an intruder and…inwardly debates whether baseball or lacrosse is more all-American?

Alam has written two very good earlier novels, and there are strong moments in this one, too. But then you get to sentences that seem just a little too pleased with themselves: “The heat was clarifying in the way of orgasm, akin to blowing your nose.” At some point, all parents have to let their children go. The same goes for writers and their sentences.

Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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