Saturday, April 03, 2010

James Baldwin--Another Country (1962) Part 1

I began a long and tortured introduction to this post, but decided to toss it out and just confess that I think this is a pretty bad novel. James Baldwin's life having provided him with enough material, it seems, to get through three books--Go Tell It On the Mountain, which I like, and Notes of a Native Son, which I read with interest, being primarily about being about James Baldwin's experience as a young black man in the 1930s and 40s, and Giovanni's Room, which I haven't read, but which it is my impression is about James Baldwin's experience as a young gay (and black) man in postwar Europe--Another Country, it looks like, was to be about James Baldwin's experiences among bohemians of various races and sexual orientations in 1950s New York. His imaginative powers noticeably hit a wall on this subject however. There is a lot of slang and listing first of all, which weaken the writing--indeed, the book's defining characteristic is how weakly written it is. The speech of the characters and the sex they have comprise most of what passes for action in the book, but even these parts are not tightly written, excessive speech and words that do not move the story, if indeed there even is an identifiable story in this at all. The sex scenes are bad, and don't give us anything we don't know--even me, for Christ's sake! So much of the writing has the effect of filling space--it is clear to me that he had no idea what he wanted to do with this book, but he was James Baldwin and he had to produce a novel, not that there isn't often some virtue in pushing through a period when things aren't working for one, as some of his later books, The Fire Next Time and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone especially, still have some reputation (though so apparently does this one). The ending is wincingly, embarrassingly bad.
I determined about two thirds of the way through that "Another Country" may be supposed to be referring to Love. Though I am not sure.
In spite of the badness of the book, there will still probably be several posts worth of various passages from it with my commentaries on them. It is still New York in the 50s, there is sex, there are lots of great song references which 20 years ago I would have had no idea what was being referred to but which the power of the internet now allows me to fire up on the spot, so I will doubtless play a couple of those numbers too.

Book I, Chapter I: "And he took her arm, deliberately allowing the back of his hand to touch one of her breasts..." Life of the artist, man. What studs some people are.

One woman is described as "a big-assed Joan of Arc".

"...the slackness of their bodies making vivid the history of their degradation."

"He tried to force his mind back through all the beds he had been in..." And this guy is a pathetic nobody. How many girls do most people have?

"She held a drink and a cigarette in one hand and looked at once like the rather weary matron she actually was and the mischievous girl she once had been". I wouldn't mind knowing some people like this. I can think of one person I have met in the last five years who might even have tendencies in this direction.

"Small flames flared incessantly here and there and they moved through shifting layers of smoke...Two boys, one Spanish-looking in a red shirt, one Danish-looking in brown, stood at the juke box, talking about Frank Sinatra." lol. At least I have some memory of what such times were like.

"Head" as a word for toilet I have not encountered before.

"The train rushed into the blackness with a phallic abandon..." There is too much of this kind of stuff.

One of the characters commits suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after addressing the city in the tone of a spurned lover with troubling woman issues. I've walked across this same bridge in not much sounder of a state, and while I had no intention of jumping off, when one is standing out there in the middle of the river looking on the glittering city that probably is never going to give you the love you crave, there is definitely that thought in the back of your head that I'll have to keep this in mind.

On another note I was reading an article a few years ago about all the people who commit suicide jumping off of the Golden Gate Bridge, and there was one guy who had actually survived his attempt. He had slipped his body over the railing and let his hands go off it. He said that about half a second after letting go, his thought was "why did I do that?"
Hey, and there's the bridge. On another note I'm not usually one to talk sales but if this book really sold 2 1/2 million copies that's impressive for a nominally literary novel (albeit one with a decent amount of sex), isn't it? I remember reading that some pretty big names, your Philip Roths and Martin Amises, sometimes can't even get to 50,000 sales (on the other hand The Catcher in the Rye is over 65 million worldwide)

Book I, Chapter 2: "Sorrow became him. He was reduced to his beauty and elegance--as bones, after a long illness, come forward through the flesh." It was beside this sentence on page 109 that I finally wrote "I think this book is kind of bad."

One thing I will say, the New York depicted in this book does feel more like what I think of as the real, normal New York than pretty much anything I read about it now. Even though I know when I go there or listen to a radio call in show when driving around in the area that the place is still full of the kind of people it has been for the last 150 years the Manhattan as a playground for millionaires theme and to a somewhat lesser extent the Brooklyn as destination for the environmentally conscious latte and microbrew-loving sets motif have kind of taken over the media presentation of the city over the last 15 years or so.

"The great question that faced him this morning was whether or not he had ever, really, been present at his life." When I do my own novel-writing, I really do try to stick to the parts of my life where I was present, even though that places severe limits on the kind of material available to be. The wisdom of that approach is reinforced by reading this book however.

"'She used to be a nice girl. Some cat turned her on, and then he split.' He spat on the sidewalk. 'Man, what a scene.'" This is just so much like my own life that I had to include it.

"They had just come up from the subway and it was perhaps this ascent from darkness to day which made the streets so dazzling." Yeah, everybody notices this, but it's still true, and still has the power to give me a thrill when it happens even at age 40, so I like it, and I'm putting it up here.

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