The ambiguities of race resonate in ‘Passing’

I wanted to read a classic of African-American literature during February and the solution was found when the New York Times Style Magazine’s T Book Club chose Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen as its monthly selection. The slim novel — really more of a novella — is set in the 1920s and explores the practical and emotional ramifications when a pair of black women meet by chance after many years and one discovers that the other has been passing as white ever since she disappeared from the neighborhood where they grew up.

a17ba507f2637395967557178414345412f5945_v5For Irene, who narrates the story, her childhood friend Clare’s choice to pretend to be white raises complicated feelings within her. On the one hand, she herself has been known to occasionally present as white in situations where she would not be welcome as a black woman — certain restaurants or businesses, for example. On the other hand, she is proud to be black, and having married a black doctor and living a comfortable life in the Harlem Renaissance community in New York City, spends much of her time working to raise money to help disadvantaged fellow black Americans. She can’t help viewing Clare’s passing as a repudiation of the pride ‘Rene feels about being black.

Despite Irene’s disapproval of Clare’s life (and the fact that Clare’s husband is an unrepentant racist who has no idea his wife is not white) she can’t help feeling a begrudging admiration and liking for Clare. There are hints that there may even be some sexual tension between them, although this 1929 book does not explore the topic beyond slight hints and suggestions that may be my 21st century brain imposing current cultural norms on the past.

The briefness of the book was a source of some frustration to me. It felt that we never got to the real heart of how and why Clare chose to live her life the way she did. That feeling was compounded by the ambiguous and somewhat abrupt-seeming ending, which I am still unsure of even now. None of that should deter a reader who is interested in exploring the realities of race in 1920s America, though. Short as it is, Passing packs a punch and is well worth spending time with, however brief.

Classic ‘Mother Night’ resonates all these years later

Vonnegut could not have known how his homegrown Nazi theme would play out in the 21st century

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Howard W. Campbell Jr., the narrator of Vonnegut’s brilliant 1966 novel Mother Night, is pretending to be a Nazi — or as he puts it at the outset of his so-called confessions, “I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination.” In Campbell’s version of his life story, he became a writer and broadcaster of Nazi propaganda out of expediency — his father-in-law was the chief of police in Berlin; Campbell and his German wife wanted to remain in Germany even after the war began in 1939; joining the Nazi cause was the easiest way to do that. His broadcasts were notoriously vile, filled with hatred and venom toward Jewish people and anyone else who did not conform to the Aryan ideal.

And that for me was the most upsetting thing about this story — that someone could spew such hatred, knowing it would have the most terrible consequences for its targets, without actually feeling strongly one way or the other about the truth of what he said and wrote. The hateful propaganda was a writing exercise, a way for Campbell to keep his creative juices flowing for when the war would end and he could resume his playwriting career. To freely disperse such hate without believing in it — is that not more horrific than the mad ravings of the true believer?

I’ve seen a number of references to this book recently as a sort of foretelling of the current political situation in the United States. As I began reading I expected to find that Campbell represented the people who stormed the US Capitol and tried to overthrow the government, but after reading it I’ve changed my mind. Campbell is the spitting image of every politician, from the very top down to state and local levels, who cynically perpetuated lies and conspiracy theories that they knew to be false, in order to rile up that mob and incite the insurrection. In the end, which is worse?

That’s the question that’s going to keep me up nights.

I had hoped, as a (propaganda) broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate.

Read it before you see it

Long before it was a movie, ‘The Goldfinch’ cast a spell on its readers

With the recent release of a major motion picture based on Donna Tartt’s runaway bestseller, I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit my initial review of the book. This review was originally written in 2014.

Wow, what a sprawling, magnificent, compelling story Donna Tartt tells in The Goldfinch (2013, Little, Brown) that is about so much more than the painting referred to in the title. It’s about art, beauty, fear, abandonment, carelessness, remorse, redemption, sorrow and joy. It’s about the value of friendship, the pain of loss, the holes that life leaves in all of us and the ways we choose to fill them up.

Theo Decker is 13 years old when a tragedy leaves him without parents. He is taken in by the family of a school friend, and just when it seems his life has begun to stabilize he is uprooted and set on a path that leads him from New York City to Las Vegas to Amsterdam and back again. He bounces around between various sets of parents, surrogate and otherwise, some of whom are loving but all of whom seem incapable of giving him the sort of focused attention that could help anchor him in the world around him. Instead, he is forced to use an inanimate object — that painting pictured on the cover — to be his touchstone. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t enough to keep him safe in a world filled with so many easy ways to flirt with danger.

The story that Theo tells is long, involved, intricate, densely layered with events that seem loaded with meaning beyond what they or he can bear. The further into the story I ventured, the stronger was my feeling of constant low-level anxiety for what would become of Theo. It seemed impossible from the very beginning that he would live happily ever after — that anyone in his world would — and every page I turned ratcheted up the tension.

I didn’t always like Theo. Often I disapproved of the choices he made and the things he did, but that didn’t stop me from desperately wanting him to find the sanctuary that he seemed to spend his whole life looking for. I didn’t always like the people he surrounded himself with. Or perhaps more accurately, I didn’t always like the things he did with and to the people who surrounded him, and I didn’t always like how even the most sympathetic of them still failed utterly at providing a safe harbor for a lost soul. And yet I still hoped, right up until the end, that each of them would be redeemed, that everything would work out, that everyone would — finally! — do the right thing for themselves and for Theo.

The Goldfinch isn’t a perfect book. It’s long, almost unbearably long, made bearable for me only by the fact of its being an ebook and thus not an intimidating physical chunk to remind me of just how much story was left to tell. There are sections that go on and on and don’t seem to do much to advance either the plot or the characters’ development. There are a few too many supporting characters who are sketchily drawn and serve mainly as a placeholder for a group stereotype. But always, there was some redeeming action or insight waiting on the other side, rewarding me for pushing on.

I finished reading The Goldfinch yesterday, and even as I’ve moved on to my next book I find myself thinking about Theo at random times during the day, as if he were someone I know. I recall particular passages or scenes and think about how often Tartt chooses to work against the expected tropes. The chilly upper-class woman whose family takes young Theo in turns out to genuinely like him and treat him as part of the family even long after he’s grown up. None of the most important characters are purely saints or sinners; just as in real life people turn out to be more complicated than that. Just as this book is more complicated than a story about a painting.

The Irish Book of Job

John Boyne puts his hero through some heavy trials in ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’

So many friends on LibraryThing have recommended John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies (Hogarth, 2017) to me, and one went so far as to send me a copy of the trade paperback (thanks, Amber!) It took me entirely too long to get around to it, but once I did I understood entirely the enthusiasm.

The focus of the story is on Cyril Avery (who is not, his adoptive parents are quick to tell anyone who asks, a real Avery). Cyril’s teenage single mother was literally thrown out of church and her home village in 1945 when the priest learned she was pregnant; she ends up in Dublin, where she sets up an unconventional household with two gay men. Once she gives Cyril up, she loses touch with Cyril for many years, although their lives have a way of crossing at intervals, with neither of them any the wiser about who the other is. This aspect of the narrative was amusing but strained credulity quite a bit for me.

The narrative follows Cyril and his adventures — or more accurately his misadventures — as he grows up and tries to find his place in a world that doesn’t value him. The story leaps forward in seven-year intervals into the 21st century. At times it seemed like a retelling of the Book of Job with an Irish brogue. Just about any calamity that can befall a young, introverted gay man and his acquaintances lands on poor Cyril and friends. But the conceit allows us to view momentous events in the history of Ireland and of gay rights worldwide through one sensitive young man’s eyes, so perhaps Boyne can be forgiven for ladling on the pathos so thickly.

In many ways, The Heart’s Invisible Furies reminded me very much of the best of John Irving’s work, in particular The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Both novelists have a knack for creating quirky characters and putting crisp, eloquent words in their mouths. I’ll certainly seek out other novels by Boyne to see if the comparison holds up or is merely coincidental to this work.