Ain’t it the truth? Straight from the awesome Emily’s Cartoons.
If only I enjoyed all prize-winning books a fraction as much as this one by Paul Beatty. I laughed out loud reading this on the long plane journey home, and I needed some laughter for that journey back to a wintry reality far from my family. Now this is the LA I love — complex, mixed up, full of chickens and kitchen gardens and farms too, hell of segregated, violent, funny, and pretty damn woke.
LA always hurt like hell too.
All that, and then there’s the language, oh the language.
When I was ten, I spent a long night burrowed under my comforter, cuddled up with Funshine Bear, who, filled with a foamy enigmatic sense of language and Bloomian dogmatism, was the most literary of the Care Bears and my harshest critic. In the musty darkness of that rayon bat cave, his stubby, all-but-immobile yellow arms struggled to hold the flashlight steady as together we tried to save the black race in eight words or less. (11)
That might just be my favourite passage, though tinged with jealousy because I always wanted a Care Bear and never did get one.
So later on he’s smoking up some homegrown (those names for his gardening genius elicited a lot of laughter I can tell you) in the Superior Court, amazing, and hello Clarence Thomas:
All I know is that the sour-faced Justice with the post-racial chronometer won’t stop looking at me. His beady eyes fixed in this unblinking and unforgiving stare, he’s angry that I’ve fucked up his political expediency…
There he is, Chamaeleo africanus tokenus hidden way in the back among all the shrubbery, his slimy feet gripped tightly around the judicial branch in a cool torpor silently gnawing on the leaves of injustice. “Out of sight, out of mind” is the black working-man’s motto, but now the entire country can see this one, our collective noses pressed to glass in amazement that he’s been able to camouflage his Alabama jet-black ass against the red, white, and blue of the American flag for so long. (20)
Oh shit, that is beautiful. Beautiful, and yet it gets even better (though maybe just because I’m obsessed with these lines, with the geographies of life, belief, language, opportunity):
You can assimilate the man, but not the blood pressure, and the vein pulsating angrily down the middle of his forehead gives him away. he’s giving me that crazy, red-eyed penetrating look that back home we call the Willowbrook Avenue Stare, Willowbrook Avenue being the four-lane river Styx that in 1960s Dickens separated white neighborhoods from black, but now, post-white, post-anybody-with-two-nickels-to-rub-together-flight, hell lies on both sides of the street. The riverbanks are dangerous, and while standing at the crosswalk waiting for the light to change, your life can change. Some drive-by homie, representing some color, clique, or any one of the five stages of grief, can stick his gauge out the passenger-side window of a two-tone coupe, give you the Negro Supreme Court Justice glare and ask, “Where you from, fool?” (22)
Damn, ‘the Negro Supreme Court Justice glare’? And ain’t that something about how these dividing lines stay with us, long after they’ve been rendered invisible by the flight of wealth and resources.
I was talking with my friend Debbie Humphrey, doing an about how writing fiction compares with writing a thesis on racism and struggle. An interesting question I’m still thinking about, probably will always be thinking about, but in trying to describe what this novel means to me…well. It does things academic work could never do, plays with possibilities and with feelings. Plays with how you might recover a community’s pride and identity through just drawing a line — and how that might be a positive thing, not a violent turf thing. Interesting question in LA because turf…I fucking hate so much how LA is full of lines, dividing up identity and the drug trade, our youth defending territory to the death. And so many of them die. They die in this novel.
I loved that awkward shaky paint line and that fake freeway sign reclaiming Dickens after white planners had erased it from the city’s official landscape.
It plays with that idea (and who hasn’t heard this idea?) that everything was actually better back in the day, when segregation kept all classes living close together. When segregation meant that everyone knew damn well they were all in it together, and kept them fighting for the race as a whole. Plays with the idea that something was lost when some of segregation’s walls came down, and everyone with a nickel fled. What it might look like if some sleight of hand were to make it seem as though it were being recreated as it once was. A trick highlights segregation’s continued reality and shows that its existence requires clarity to inspire resistance. It asks hard questions (without actually asking questions, because, you know, this is fiction with a story to tell and a lot of satire along the way) about what so much struggle has actually won, and where we’re at now. Asks questions about the nature of change itself, what steps lead to liberation and what steps to a new form of old oppression.
It plays with the power of making a ubiquitous and politically correct racism visible again, naming it, showing it for what it is by insisting on a (faked and slightly half-assed) return to older, harsher forms whose clarity made it easy to know what you were fighting and have inspiration to fight. Slavery. Official white-only schools. Hominy (that name!) demanding he be considered a slave, demanding regular whipping — it embodies so many of the costs of racism, and shit, the Little Rascals? So vile and yet, this is where fame and money and work as an actor were to be found… The opposite side from the Nicholas Brothers of the damage done to artists through Jim Crow. Damage that continues in carefully colorblind language and tokenisation.
Yet the solution to this need to be whipped? Hilarious, and gives me some faith things are a bit better. Because, you know, there are places you can go for that, and no one will judge.
It plays with urban farming and self-reliance. With the trials of being raised by a political father. With the good and bad of philosophy, activism, struggle. It manages a lot of pain and knowledge, reflections on life and our heritage and our responsibility.
That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book–that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you. (115)
Amazing to manage all of that, and still…be full of laughter. There’s more I should say, so much more here, will be so much more waiting for me when I re-read it, but now I got some rewrites to do. One more blog and that will be me for a while.
A year ago we traveled to Hamburg, and in looking for what to read to learn more about the town I stumbled across the extraordinary book by E.T.A. Hoffman (1766-1822): The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr. Hoffman was a splendid author of books filled with horror and fantasy you see, and he created a character, a musician, called Kreisler who was a favourite of both Schumann and Brahms (who did grow up in Hamburg). I wrote more about the romantic ideals of genius and music here, based on the chapters about the enigmatic Kreisler found within The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr. The tomcat, however — whose autobiography sits ensconced within the Kreisler manuscript given the cat recycled the papers for his own purposes — Murr himself I saved for later. Because at almost the same time I started reading Hoffman, I received as a gift Sōseki’s I am a Cat, a rather wonderful coincidence. It did take me a year to get through the second — a novel read just before going bed and put aside during my many travels and travails of 2016. But having some overlap between the two was rather wonderful, as they share similar views of just what a cat might say when it is granted the ability to write and use them in similar ways to satirise human society. From Murr’s own introduction to his work:
With the confidence and peace of mind native to true genius, I lay my life story before the world, so that the reader may learn how to educate himself to be a great tomcat, may recognize the full extent of my excellence, may love, value, honour and admire me — and worship me a little.
— Berlin, May 18–
Above all I loved the playfulness of the language, the mockery of the romantic sublime:
My new friendship had made a deep impression on me, so that as I sat in sun or shade, on the roof or under the stove, I thought of nothing, reflected on nothing, dreamed of nothing, was aware of nothing but poodle, poodle, poodle! I thereby gained great insight into the innermost essence of poodlishness which dawned upon me in brilliant colours, and the profound work mentioned above, to wit, Thought and Intuition, or Cat and Dog, was born of this perception.
He’s quite an author, Murr, reflecting on the purpose of life, the limitations of friendship, and of course, love:
‘I have made inquiries,’ continued Kitty, ‘into your circumstances, and learnt that you were called Murr and that as you lived with a very kindly man, you enjoyed not only an extremely handsome competence but every other comfort of life, comforts you could well share with a pretty wife. Oh yes, I love you very much, dear Murr!’
Poor Murr, she would, of course, betray him. It is a brilliant counterpoint, however, to the grand tragedy of the figure of Kreisler and the aristocrats surrounding him.
Sōseki Natsume (1867-1916) wrote a different sort of book, more focused on the banal philosophies of an eccentric band of friends centered around the middle-aged figure of teacher of English literature (just like Sōseki). It, too, mocks the characters and the mores and fashions of the times fairly remorselessly as they are related through a feline indifference.
Nor does it fail to highlight the self-esteem and self-centredness of cats:
However, by virtue of felinity, I can, better than all such bookmen, make myself invisible. To do what no one else can do is, of course, delightful. That I alone should know the inner workings of the Goldfield household is better than if nobody should know. Though I cannot pass my knowledge on, it is still cause for delight that I may make the Goldfields conscious that someone knows their secrets. In the light of this succession of delights, I boldly dare to believe my brain is delightful as well. (103)
every evening he makes a point of going to bed with a book which he does not read. Sometimes he makes a positive beast of himself and shuffles in with three or four boos tucked under his arms. For several days until a little while ago, it was his nightly practice to tote in Webster’s whacking great dictionary. I suppose this behavior reflects some kind of psychological ailment. (154)
And who should it be but our old friend Beauchamp Blowlamp. With his arrival the entire cast of the eccentrics who haunt my master’s house was gathered on stage. Lest that should sound ungracious, perhaps I could better emphasize that sufficient eccentrics are gathered to keep a cat amused… (213)
But still, I know that what I love most is the absurd voice of the cat. This, I confess, made me laugh out loud:
Postponing my sea bathing to some later date, I have anyway decided to make a start on some sort of exercise. In this enlightened twentieth century, any failure to take exercise is likely to be interpreted as a sign of pauperdom. … [a long list of absurd cat activities] … Perhaps my most interesting exercise is jumping suddenly from behind onto the children’s backs. However, unless I am extremely careful about the method and timing of such exploits, the penalties involved can be uncommonly painful. Indeed, I derive so very little pleasure from having my head stuffed deep in a paperbag that I only risk this splendid exercise three times, at most, in a month. … Yet another form of exercise is clawing the covers of books. (225-6)
Stuffing a cat’s head into a paper bag! Rare punishment indeed. In these pages there is a mockery of fashion, nudity, masculinity, marriage, neighbour rivalries, love, wealth, ambition, the exploits of school children at the neighboring school and more. Through it all the cat remains above looking down, supercilious:
If we don’t watch out, even cats may find their individualities developing along the lethal crushing pattern forecast for these two-legged loons. It’s an appalling prospect. Depression weighs upon me. Perhaps a sip of Sampei’s beer would cheer me up. (467)
There is even a delightful tribute to Hoffman:
I have always thought myself unique in my knowledge of mankind, but I was recently much surprised to meet another cat, some German mog called Kater Murr, who suddenly turned up and started sounding off in a very high-falutin’ manner on my own special subject. … If such a feline culture-hero was already demonstrating superior cat skills so long as a century ago, perhaps a good-for-nothing specimen like me has already outlived its purpose and should no more delay its retirement into nothingness. (467)
But this foreshadows the — in retrospect the only possible and maybe rather funny — ending, which I found so horrifying to read I do wish I had not read it at all, only read about it. Which is why this sort-of spoiler is here, in case you are thinking of reading it yourself. It’s not a book of dramatic arc so this hardly ruins any of it.
Anyway, two amazing books by cats. Seems that cats offer a good mirror through which to observe ourselves.
And the comics in the paper, apparently, are a good place to go for a good bitter-sweet laugh on all that is wrong with the world. I don’t know when they made the move from Kathy to stuff like this, but it makes me happy, and so I’ve started actually reading this strip instead of single-mindedly focusing on the crossword…
Sorry it is crooked! But this one made me laugh. I’m not sure if you boil the geo-politics, structural poverty and greed of war all down to their essence that this is what you would get, but it is an essential point. And the mouse is hilarious. Far too much like me I think. So I am now part of the throng that thinks Stephan Pastis is brilliant. Pearls Before Swine.
The scene? My favourite dive bar in Echo Park. The people? A tall hipster (HIP) wearing something exceedingly tweedy that went down to his mid thigh, and a beard. I don’t understand the fashion for beards, but since I don’t kiss hipsters, I really don’t mind. The girl he was with (G) was cute, and I believe he was aiming pretty high, though you never know with girls. Sometimes I’m sad when I think that if all girls boycotted hipsters, we wouldn’t have any more of them…
HIP: I’m going to go get a beer.
G: Oh. Hey! Here’s money for a shot.
HIP: Oh no no no, thanks, but REALLY I shouldn’t…
(G stares at HIP)
HIP: Oh, you mean for YOU! Sure.