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.

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The Good Girl

Where do I even begin with Mary Kubica’s debut novel, The Good Girl? Touted in its back-cover copy as written “in the tradition of Gillian Flynn and Tana French,” The Good Girl does bear some similarities to Gone Girl and The Likeness in that it is certainly a book and it certainly is filled with pages.

But that’s about it.

I don’t mean to be glib, though, so let me give you the gist.

The Good Girl is a thriller set in Chicago and centered on the kidnapping of twentysomething school teacher (and daughter of a prominent judge), Mia Dennett. Detective Gabe Hoffman along with Mia’s mother Eve enter into a desperate search to find her. The story is told from alternating points of view, flashing forward and backward in time from chapter to chapter. It attempts to be a type of “whydunnit” in the style of The Secret History, but with the pop-culture feel of Gone Girl.

None of this on its face is a necessarily bad idea. The unique storytelling provides some freshness in what could be a potentially stale or straightforward concept, and the general plot could easily make for an entertaining beach read. But when The Good Girl starts going off the rails, it jumps off the tracks at full speed.

Kubica’s descriptions of Chicago read as if told from a complete outsider’s perspective. I found some of the description tedious, and in one or two cases, just plain incorrect. This would become a kind of running theme with the novel. There are even several excruciating scenes meant to depict a modicum of detective work, but which actually just define basic terms and ideas (i.e. a page-long definition of the word “hypnosis”) at length. More than just uninventive and dull to read, I actually found some of these passages a little insulting to my intelligence. But still, I plugged along.

Unfortunately, The Good Girl became more than just a mediocre story–it morphed into a sludge-like cocktail of sexism and racism. It got to the point that I hated every second I was reading it. I dreaded picking up the book, knowing I would enjoy nothing.

To be clear, I don’t mean to say that the characters in the story were sexist or racist (though that is certainly the case as well). That’s never an inherent problem. A few years ago I read Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee, which is from the perspective a completely vile human being. But that character is used to explore the complex realities of post-apartheid South Africa. The novel knows that the racism and violence it depicts is deplorable, and we, as readers, feel this too.

That story, despite being much more graphic, was much easier to stomach than The Good Girl, which is subtly complicit. South Side Chicago neighborhoods and later, the nearby town of Gary, Indiana are consistently disparaged, their large black populations negatively highlighted (as if the mark of a shitty neighborhood were merely the fact that black people lived there), all without any understanding or empathy. And while those areas do indeed suffer from higher rates of poverty and crime and do have a mainly African American population, Kubica treats the issue as if it’s a given that such places would be the only refuge of criminal activity. As if all crime stems from there, and there alone. We never see these neighborhoods from the eyes of their inhabitants, only through the negative judgments of our protagonists.

Worse yet, The Good Girl has only a single non-white character: Dalmar. Dalmar is an African immigrant whose skin is described as “black, like the blackest of black bears, like the blubbery skin of a killer whale, an alpha predator with no predators of their own”–not exactly a flattering portrait. On top of that, he is, of course, also a suspected rapist, a murderer, and the leader of a dangerous crime syndicate. He is given no other qualities.

Again, it isn’t the fact that Dalmar is a villain that’s troublesome. It’s the way the writing ties his blackness to his villainy, and it’s the complete lack of any other non-white character to act as any kind of comparison point that makes this more than just unfortunate, but genuinely upsetting.

In fact, when black people appear in the background of Kubica’s novel, their blackness seems to be the only thing she points out, and it’s pointed out repeatedly. If their skin color is all that matters, how can they even begin to feel like real people? How can they be anything but set decoration for an order-less and violent world? It’s utterly appalling.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead!

Her treatment of women fares no better.

Every woman (with a substantial role) in the book is a mother. The only women that get empathy are mothers. The only woman consistently described as bitchy is also constantly compared to her father and is childless. Women’s beauty is emphasized and prioritized. In an off-hand comment, Detective Hoffman makes light of the potential abuse of teens by their teacher–regarding it as “complaints by numerous teenyboppers,” which is disgustingly glib.

A chapter-long tirade against abortion even makes its way into the book, which would merely be frustrating to read if it were simply a character’s opinion, but everything in the novel reinforces this belief. The construction of the plot means that we never hear Mia’s point of view until the very end, which means most of this discussion happens without knowing or considering what she wants. I find this extremely problematic, regardless of whether I support a pro-choice agenda or not. What does Mia think and why? Shouldn’t that matter at all? As is, the bulk of the justification for the anti-abortion agenda comes from Mia’s mother, with Mia just sitting along for the ride.

Her kidnapping is also infuriatingly romanticized. At the end, the book takes great pains to insist that she suffered from no stockholm syndrome and that her kidnapper who constantly threatens to murder her and who strikes her repeatedly is “misunderstood,” which ends up making violence against women look like some kind of sick foreplay.

END OF SPOILERS

By the time the mystery is resolved, I couldn’t have cared less. I was fed up with the book and with the sloppy, careless writing.

I don’t demand that a novel reach epic heights of literary greatness to be enjoyable, but I do ask that it contain a basic sense of human decency, that any offensive ideas be written with a purpose. What I cannot tolerate, perhaps even more than thinking that she believes these things, is the thought that the author was merely far too lazy to consider the power of her words.

What a complete waste.

The Good Girl is published by Harlequin and goes on sale July 29.