If Beale Street Could Talk

51iwxnuoqil-_sy344_bo1204203200_Is there anything that makes a book heavier than the ideas, emotions, and notions we attach to them before we’ve even cracked the spine? Once again, my overly enthusiastic attitude has led me to a sharper pang of disappointment with James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk.

In it, Tish (inexplicably short for Clementine) and Fonny (really Alonzo) are young, black, and deeply in love in 1970s-era New York. But Tish and Fonny are also in deep, deep trouble. Fonny’s been accused of rape and thrown in jail with his chances of getting out growing slimmer by the hour. Their wedding dreams dashed, Tish is dealing with an unexpected pregnancy at the same time. Now as Fonny faces a lifetime away from the love of his life,  Tish faces raising a baby alone.

Learning about Tish and Fonny’s New York is to learn about a New York that gets too often forgotten. A crueler New York. So forget the Hotel Chelsea and Patti Smith and forget Manhattan and forget Love Story. That’s not the New York you’ll find here.

Tish’s hatred of the city comes from a different place entirely:

“I swear that New York must be the ugliest and the dirtiest city in the world. It must have the ugliest buildings and the nastiest people. It’s got to have the worst cops. If any place is worse, it’s got to be so close to hell that you can smell the people frying. And, come to think of it, that’s exactly the smell of New York in the summertime.”

As we watch the city and its laws pummel the young lovers, it’s hard to see it any other way. It’s not the 1940s, it’s the 70s and things are supposed to be better, but Baldwin wants us to see just how slow the change has come.

It was a refreshing (and sorely needed) perspective to get—a kind of necessary slap in the face.

But the novel isn’t some dour tome full of nothing but the most brutal and unflinching realities. Tish and Fonny’s love is intoxicating. Baldwin captures the feeling of young love completely. There are passages you can’t help but smile at as you read. It’s hard (if not impossible) not to be invested in their futures. You want them to be together; you want them to succeed, to overcome, to triumph.

Unfortunately, every now and then I’d stumble upon a note of sexism in a passage that would give me pause. So much so, that I had to do a little digging once I was done to see if I was alone in my concern (I wasn’t).

But each time this happened, I was surprised for some reason. I’d find myself thinking, “Excuse me, but what are you doing here? Who invited you?”

As the story progresses, it soon becomes abundantly clear who the real center of the story is. Stacia L. Brown said it best in her piece for Gawker, “It’s clear that Tish, despite being the sole narrator, is not Baldwin’s main objective. He cares far more for what Tish is willing to sacrifice or endure for Fonny.”

And she does, over and over and over again. All while the novel draws your attention to Fonny—will he be released? Can the charges be dropped? Will he see his baby born?

These questions just seem to matter more to Baldwin than what Tish will do, how she’ll survive, how she feels. They matter more than whether Tish can be anything except a mother and a lover.

She’s characterized as naive, and in desperate need of Fonny’s chauvanistic protection. It couldn’t help but leave a slightly sour taste in my mouth.

“Tish ain’t got no sense at all, man—she trusts everybody. She walk down the street, swinging that little behind of hers, and she’s surprised, man, when some cat tries to jump her. She don’t see what I see.”

To put it ineloquently: gross.

It was hard not to be disappointed. It didn’t stop my enjoyment, though. Baldwin was using this highly specific scenario to explore so much about family, African-American families in particular. To show a loving, caring relationship. The strength of the black community. To applaud it in light of white society’s attempts to snuff them out.

I wonder, though, if I would have enjoyed Beale Street more without the weight of my own expectations? I’m not sure how to get them under control, to be honest. Excitement over a book is so exhilarating and lovely. It’s just difficult when you’re eventually confronted with something that’s not in any way explicitly bad—just disappointing.

That said, I’m still looking forward to reading more of Baldwin, but I’ll know to temper my expectations. Not because Baldwin’s not capable of exceeding them, but because I’ll take a happy surprise over frustration any day.

Advertisements

The Sympathizer

nguyen-sympathizer-jacket-artViet Thanh Nguyen’s first novel The Sympathizer was one of the most surprising books I read last year. It’s told from the perspective of a Vietnamese communist sympathizer—a spy who has infiltrated the South Vietnamese army. The story begins with what should have been an ending: the fall of Saigon. The nameless spy follows his general to Los Angeles, all the while reporting back to the Viet Cong and struggling with his own feelings of guilt, loss, and loneliness.

Everything we see, we see through his eyes and his alone. Everything we know is only what he tells us. And there’s a thought rests at the back of your mind: how can we trust anything from the mouth of a double agent? This is his confession, but who is he confessing to and how can we know if he’s telling them the truth?

Reading The Sympathizer was a true roller coaster ride. From the start, I found the style of writing, and thus the narrator’s voice, somewhat cold. Distancing. I was enraptured with the descriptions of the last days of Saigon, then as the dust settled and I heard more from the narrator, I found myself frustrated with him. I found him unlikeable and irritating.

At times selfish and even sexist, I couldn’t help but pull away from him. His Communist leanings I could understand, his spying I could understand, instead it was his oftentimes shitty behavior that grated on me. But just when I thought I knew what I was in for, I would suddenly find myself sympathizing with him, rooting for him and against some other oppressive force.

For 367 pages, I teetered back and forth on this emotional seesaw. I wish I could say the ride was a joy, but it was so often frustrating for me. It was so difficult to be engrossed, and even harder to want to pick it up again every time I set it down. I was thankful with every page turned because I knew I was one step closer to the end.

I wanted off this ride.

The thing carrying me through as I read this book was the sense that I was getting something out of it. I was learning something, and not just anything, but something I needed to know. The Vietnam War is another area in our history where my knowledge is woefully lacking. (I’m pretty sure watching the first half of Full Metal Jacket doesn’t exactly count as an in-depth study.) It’s fiction to be sure, but there was something that felt sort of . . . important about reeducated myself through the perspective of the Vietnamese.

I might have hated the way it felt to have my emotions yanked back and forth, but there was never a doubt in my mind that it was being done with purpose. Nguyen hammers it home just how hard it is to understand where you loyalty truly lies as he toys with your own.

I think it was only in learning about the war this way that I could have stumbled upon the single, obvious truth that was so perfect, I was shocked at not having encountered it sooner.

Simply, that history is written by the victor . . . except when it comes to Vietnam.

Vietnam’s history was written by the losers.
It was written by us.

It’s in contemplating Hollywood that our narrator realizes,

“I naively believed that I could divert the Hollywood organism from its goal, the simultaneous lobotomization and pickpocketing of the world’s audiences. The ancillary benefit was strip-mining history, leaving the real history in the tunnels along with the dead, doling out tiny sparkling diamonds for audiences to gasp over.”

This was of course, one of those moments where I was on the uptick of my teeter-totter. Disgusted with Hollywood and even with myself for letting Hollywood educate me on this war, I was rooting for our narrator. “Fuck Hollywood,” I heard myself say—turning on one of my own passions without even realizing it.

I of course came crashing down again with his next repulsive move.

Finally—thankfully—I reached the conclusion, the culmination of all my emotional work, and I could hardly believe what I found. It was almost like a different book entirely.

The last few chapters were such a whirlwind of emotion for me. I was compelled and repulsed and overwhelmed all at once.

My god. The ending of this book pushed it from three stars to four. It made the nightmarish roller coaster and all the dragging of my feet to finish this thing worth it. In The Sympathizer, Nguyen proves he’s one of those voices truly worth hearing—just don’t expect him to do the work for you.

The Looming Tower

On September 11, 2001 I was 14 years old and largely disinterested in politics. Aside from the quick rundown of the headlines on the morning news, I didn’t pay much attention to the world at large. I was intensely self-absorbed, as most teens are at that age. My own life felt so overwhelming that I didn’t have time to worry about the rest of the country.

Then came the a.m. announcement that the towers had fallen, that we were under attack, and that people were dead. Something was changing, but I didn’t know what and I couldn’t know how much.

Today, I’m happy to say I’ve become a moderately well-informed adult, even if I’m still far from as knowledgeable as I want to be or, perhaps, as I should be. Yet when I look back on the War on Terror, I once again find myself realizing that I don’t know why we’re here, and that I don’t really know how any of it happened. But this is the central question that Lawrence Wright’s 2006 book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 attempts to answer.

In order to get to the bottom of it all, we start at the beginning:

“This is the man, then—decent, proud, tormented, self-righteous—whose lonely genius would unsettle Islam, threaten regimes across the Muslim world, and beckon to a generation of rootless young Arabs who were looking for meaning and purpose in their lives and would find it in jihad.”

A perfect description of bin Laden, no? Except Wright isn’t talking about bin Laden. He’s talking about Sayyid Qutb, a man who I’d never heard of until I picked up this book. A 1950s Islamist radicalist, Qutb is Wright’s patient zero, so to speak. Angry, conservative, and anti-modernism in almost all its forms, Qutb’s writings seem to be the domino that start a horrifying chain reaction.

In just the first chapter, we can already see that the road leading to 2,977 dead Americans and our longest war is longer than I ever expected. Wright’s book was beginning to answer questions I didn’t even know I had.

When we look at Looming Tower through the lens of a post-Arab Spring world, a world Wright couldn’t have begun to imagine yet, it tells us so much more. It explains (although briefly) the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, how radicalism spread from Egypt to Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan, and the trail of assassinations and regime changes leading up to those that would be overthrown in 2010.

When I finished it, I would describe the book to friends as “the most balanced a book about 9/11 written by an American could be.” What I mean is that it’s obvious that the author was affected by the tragedy in 2001. It’s obvious that he believes violence against innocent civilians is unjustifiable, that radical Islam is misguided, and that al-Qaeda was wrong. Common thoughts, but also largely secular, Western thoughts. At the same time, Wright isn’t shy about pointing the finger where it’s due.

He shines a light on bureaucratic bumbling by the CIA and FBI, our failure to recognize an obvious threat, and the irreparable mistakes of the US Military and the Clinton administration in the Middle East. There were even moments when key anti-American players are assassinated, but the bloodshed is so terrible that I couldn’t help but feel empathy, not elation. And that’s something I deeply appreciated about the book. It’s not blindly pro-American just because we happened to be the victim of this one particular tragedy.

By the time I reached the end of the book, my understanding of bin Laden, the attacks, and the war had increased tenfold. So many questions were answered, but at the same time there was still so much more I wanted to know beyond the falling of the towers. 2006 feels so long ago at this point—so much more has happened. It’s easy to imagine a sequel, another few hundred pages explaining how we got from there to here, filling in the rest of the picture. But for that, we’ll just have to wait.

[This was re-edited from a review originally posted on November 13, 2013.]