Wednesday, February 18, 2015

WHATCHA READIN'? Americanah (2013); Winter Journal (2012)

Recent reading has included two books read in digital format on my new, as of this year, Kindle Fire from amazon. The reason for this acquisition is that this summer, even more than last summer, I’m going to be in transit quite a bit. For over a week I’m going to be on a cruise ship and I do not want to lug printed matter with me. Already the ease of carting around all my students' papers on this little device makes it worthwhile, but I wanted to see if I could actually get into reading full-length books on it. Seems I can and that it may even be preferable for certain kinds of works.

What kind? Easy to read books. So far I’ve read only recent, 21st-century, publications, though I do have quite a few “public domain” classics loaded on for ease of reference, particularly a lot of Henry James. And a few others that I paid a nominal price to have permanently loaded on the device—the complete plays of Shakespeare, Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The problem with “kindle editions” is that the translation one might prefer may not be available, and even English language classics may be available in lesser editions. Clearly, amazon wants you to buy new releases and the digital version of those are as good—or what term one likes—as the printed versions. So, the two I read.

The first was Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a book that was “in the cloud” because I got it for my wife, who had a Kindle earlier than I. I thought it might interest her because it’s written by a Nigerian and one of my wife’s friends/colleagues is Nigerian, and it makes mention, in passing, of places we’ve lived in: Princeton, Philadelphia, New Haven. What I didn’t know (or if I did, I forgot) is that the main character in the book, Ifemelu, begins her career as a writer by writing a blog about race, recording, particularly, her observations of U.S. racism from an expatriate African’s perspective. Indeed, the portions included as blog entries are some of the best parts of the book since it’s there that some telling observations are made, and—isn’t that always true of blogs?—it’s there that the honesty or directness of life as lived becomes most evident. I say that as a criticism of some of the rest of the book—its fictive events—which eventually come to seem like plot-stretchers or helpers, the narrative equivalent of stuff you add to hamburger to make it feed more with less cost. Some of what does happen comes off as deliberately courting the “chic-lit” genre, so that Ifemelu’s trials and errors on the way to true romance, and success, and self-acceptance are what keeps the pages turning. Along the way, there’s maybe one character—an aunt who was for a time a mistress of a big political figure in Nigeria—who stands out as memorable.

And yet I kept reading. In part because it’s all very readable and kindle-able. The best parts are what you might expect: seeing our times and culture (including life, for her sometime boyfriend, as an undocumented worker in London) from the view of an opinionated someone from somewhere else, and, even better, seeing how she renders her native land. The fact that much of what is happening wherever she is doesn’t please Adichie very much becomes part of the point, which is to say, that she casts a cold eye, for the most part, on the way things are. And that I enjoyed. The fact that, as a woman, the central character was quite willing to show herself as flawed and, sometimes, frustrated with herself, went a long way to make the character “sympathetic” even if annoying at times.

“Plot,” Henry James says, “is for the revelation of character,” and there are some “character-building” plot turns, particularly as Ifemelu has to bottom-out in America before she can ride to success—with a Princeton fellowship, though we don’t necessarily grasp what makes her so worthy of her eventual good fortune. She snipes at the kind of rhetoric one finds in the semiotics-inspired classroom of the time and, from the point of view of such study, her writing seems rather lightweight, populist even. In terms of the challenges of contemporary writing, it’s poised to be easily digested, Oprah-style. Still, the point of view of the novel is very smart, and seemingly candid. I say “seemingly” because elements of the story are wholly contrived and that makes me question the validity of the whole.

My other Kindle reading, to date, was Paul Auster’s Winter Journal because it’s an assigned text for Daily Themes this semester (Auster will be addressing the class in the spring), the first time there’s ever been such a thing. As a choice it’s OK, though I’d hoped for more reflection about writing, about how one goes about inhabiting the page or thinking in prose or turning oneself into writing, or even the kind of breaks that make for a successful career. Auster, clearly, is someone who mastered all that long ago: Invention of Solitude (1982), a memoir provoked by the death of Auster’s father, was the start of it all. Well, sort of. Auster began as a poet but his breakthrough, so far as literature is concerned, came when he started writing prose. I’ve only read his fiction, till now.

There’s always a slightly disembodied aspect to Auster’s narrators and that’s true here too, even when describing his own life and things like panic attacks and health crises, or the loss of his mother, in 2002. Auster employs the second person so that even his own experiences seem to be taking place in a kind of dream state (“you” is always effective for describing the actor in a dream), especially a description of an automobile accident that occurs with Auster at the wheel. It feels a bit like watching a car go out of control—as they sometimes do—in a dream.

The best stuff is the reminiscences of things like the different neighborhoods he’s lived in, or his mother, as a Scout master when Auster was a boy, playing ball with the boys, or the way in which he is able to delineate a lot of family history in a short space. One feels that Auster, in his sixties now, sees how much of his life has been lucky. Avoiding things that could have been fatal—like a fishbone that was able to be dislodged from his throat in Paris—and experiences—like his wife—that have added immeasurably to his life. But as a “journal,” the book doesn’t really work. Though there is a certain feel of the quotidian to it, of the kind of glimpsing of life as its lived that we find in real journals, Auster is not interested in revealing anything. He seems to think that being candid about a masturbatory youth or the fact that his right hand does many things he’d not want to be caught doing amounts to “telling it like it is.” I don’t doubt that Auster is happily married. But I know something about married life, and I don’t believe in his description of it. It sounds very much like the sort of thing you write and publish when you know your wife and her friends and relations, and your children, may read it. So, not a “journal” in that sense at all. Rather a reserved and retiring performance. Not Auster’s final bow, I’m sure, but perhaps his final bow in memoir mode.

But even with my cavils, I enjoyed reading it, if only because it’s interesting to “hear” someone who is able to reflect in such measured tones about his life. Who can describe great pleasures and howls of distress with the same level of diction and inflection. It’s also a book that—and for this it may be good for students, even those not very interested in what someone their grandparents’ age has to say about life—shows how precarious is the writer’s life, and how much it is, primarily, a matter of writing, whatever else it is. This isn’t a book about how one builds a career; it’s a book about some of what goes on behind the scenes during the writing of books. The odd state of even a successful writer’s life is probably best captured in a moment when Auster, in a fit of anger and frustration, flings his bag, containing 70 pages of his new novel and a copy of Le Monde that includes a feature about him, at a cab the driver of which has refused to convey Auster, his wife, their infant daughter, and their many bags, to their destination: things can be going well, and you may be finally getting your due, but you still can’t get a Parisian cabbie to treat you with respect.

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