My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It is a poor period indeed which must assess its men of letters in terms of their opposition to their society. Opposition to life’s essential conditions perhaps, or to death’s implacable tyranny, is something else again, and universal; but novels, no matter how clever, which attempt to change statutes or moral attitudes are, though useful at the moment, not literature at all.
—Gore Vidal, “Novelists and Critics of the 1940s”
Being so behind the big publishers’ schedules that I am finally getting to the book of 2015 at the end of 2017 should leave me feeling terribly belated and off-trend, but, alas, the back-and-forth over Ta-Nehisi Coates is still a hot and increasingly toxic topic. Not to inject my own poison into the cultural bloodstream, but I have a question: is it #toosoon or are we far enough away from it now to be able to judge Coates a victim of the cynically voguish state/corporate “progressive” racket that attempted to capitalize upon the cultural changes perhaps prematurely portended by the Obama era? Imagine a Coates born ten years earlier—or perhaps even ten years later. He might be on his fourth or fifth novel by now, universally esteemed as a writer and loved and loathed by none as an oracle. Cornel West’s notorious verdict that Coates exhibits a “narrowly aesthetic…personal commitment to writing with no connection to collective action” could be construed as the compliment that any non-puritanical society with a decent literary culture would take it as.
Everything good in the celebrated memoir-tract Between the World and Me is novelistic. Coates can do that semi-indefinable thing (I am sure some French structuralist has defined it, sure as I am that I don’t care) all the best novelists can do, which is to somehow convey in prose, in countable words and diagrammable sentences, the stop-and-start, the expansion and contraction, of subjective time, since, as the physicists tell us, time is internal to the world:
Here is how it started: I woke up one morning with a minor headache. With each hour the headache grew. I was walking to my job when I saw this girl on her way to class. I looked awful, ands he gave me some Advil and kept going. By mid-afternoon I could barely stand. I called my supervisor. When he arrived I lay down in the stockroom, because I had no idea what else to do. I was afraid. I did not understand what was happening. I did not know whom to call. I was lying there simmering, half-awake, hoping to recover. My supervisor knocked on the door. Someone had come to see me. It was her.The girl with the long dreads helped me out and onto the street. She flagged down a cab. Halfway through the ride, I opened the door, with the cab in motion, and vomited in the street. But I remember her holding me there to make sure I didn’t fall out and then holding me close when I was done. She took me to that house of humans, which was filled with all manner of love, put me in the bed, put Exodus on the CD player, and turned the volume down to a whisper. She left a bucket by the bed. She left a jug of water. She had to go to class. I slept. When she returned I was back in form. We ate. The girl with the long dreads who slept with whomever she chose, that being her own declaration of control over her body, was there.
Everything bad in Between the World and Me is the result of a willfully oversimplified political analysis. Coates tells us in the opening pages that he will take seriously America’s claim to exceptionalism, though why anyone would want to do that I cannot imagine. With an overweening moralism that is supposed to target suburban whites but that eventually lands on any- and everyone in the world who would rather live in comfort than squalor—including the black bourgeoisie he indirectly (even circumlocutiously) indicts for the police killing of his friend, Prince Jones, who is the book’s chief exemplar of the “destruction of the black body”—Coates denounces all organized civilization as an evil “Dream” based on oppression.
But squint at even these awkward sections of the book with the aesthete’s wicked eye and they become good fiction, the dramatization of a complex personality at odds with itself, an artistic rather than a political opting for paranoid solemnity perhaps akin to that of a Sebald or Teju Cole. While the “black body” phrase is overused in the book, Coates’s stringent atheism and straightforward nihilism is a welcome tonic to a sentimental literary landscape and is the one element of the book that did cut against the grain of liberalism’s premature right-side-of-history smugness of 2008-2016.
As with Rankine’s Citizen, though, I don’t see how the materialist reductionism supports the progressive politics otherwise advertised, as these politics seem to depend—and usually have depended—upon a transcendental subject of history, i.e., an intelligent agent, whether individual or collective, that is more like a soul than a body. Coates, who ends this book anticipating the apocalypse (“Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind”), does seem to understand this ultimately, even if his readership does not. Understand, that is, the dead end of politics per se, at least for a sensibility like his. I hope he writes a novel.
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