Lightning Rods

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The Inanity of American Plutocracy: On Paul Beatty’s ‘The Sellout’

1. Clarence Thomas speaks! Among the outrageous occurrences in Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, in which a black man finds himself before the Supreme Court for conducting a “six-month campaign of localized apartheid” in his native Los Angeles, Justice Thomas’s decision to utter something from the bench is the most unlikely. We first see the notoriously reticent justice as a specimen of cool detachment: There he is, Chamaeleo africanus tokens 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. But so heinous are the narrator’s crimes against racial unity that a furious Thomas, who has famously almost never spoken during oral arguments throughout his career, is roused to question the defendant’s sanity. And with good reason: In an effort to “bring people together,” the narrator has introduced segregation and slavery to the black and Latino community of Dickens, Calif., a neighborhood so bad that authorities have removed it from official city maps. Justice Thomas breaks his silence because, “like all people who believe in the system, he wants answers.” By contrast, satirists, unlike judges (and moralists, with whom satirists are sometimes confused), see any system, principle, or self-evident truth as vulnerable to attack. Beatty is a true satirist, and therefore his irreverence extends to the 13th and 14th Amendments. Like his narrator, he is a “social pyromaniac,” conducting a scorched-earth campaign against piety, whether pertaining to the hallowed Constitutional or the “proud history of [his] race.” There is no fixed moral stance from which the satirist operates, which makes him particularly well suited to take on the pervasive immorality, and inanity, of America’s “dysfunctional plutocracy." In this his fourth novel, Beatty returns to Los Angeles, the primary setting for his buoyant debut, The White Boy Shuffle, in which a young poet accidentally attains the status as “savior of the blacks.” Los Angeles is a “mind-numbingly racially segregated” city, from its neighborhoods to its comedy scene, “the epicenter of social apartheid.” Beatty’s previous novel, Slumberland, dealt with another segregation-haunted metropolis, Berlin, where the “inexorable ghost” of the Berlin Wall remained even after its collapse. In that novel, a so-called jukebox sommelier hunts down a reclusive avant-garde musician who, for years, had been producing legendary beats from within (pre-Fall) East Berlin, the “Wall inspir[ing] him like the Skinner box inspires the rat.” After the Wall falls, the two collaborate to create a performance piece-cum-concert to “celebrate the city’s resegregation” by sonically rebuilding the barrier: “The music was so real that anyone within earshot would feel as if they could reach out and touch it. They’d have to figure out for themselves if the wall of sound was confinement or protection.” Beatty restages this ambiguously divisive act in The Sellout, this time as a social rather than artistic experiment. After painting a line around Dickens’s borders, the narrator admires its “implication of solidarity and community” even as the narrator voices his ambivalence towards his own project by likening the enclosure to a quarantine. Anything is preferable to erasure, even a “ colony. 2. The narrator (we only learn his last name, Me) lives on The Farms, an area zoned for agriculture in the heart of a ghetto. Unlike the other inhabitants, he makes his living cultivating the land -- “forty acres and a fool” as he describes his occupation, one that hints at his future exploits. Farmers, he tells us, are “natural segregationists” who parcel up their land to allow space for every plant to grow. As Beatty relishes confronting stereotypes head-on, his narrator “chooses to specialize in the plant life that had the most cultural relevance to me -- watermelon and weed,” the latter sold under colorful names such as “Ataxia” and “Anglophobia.” Me was homeschooled by his father, a man as committed to his son’s education as Laurence Sterne’s Walter Shandy, but considerably more demented. A psychology professor, informal neighborhood crisis counselor, and “sole practitioner” of “Liberation Psychology,” which adapts famous behavioral experiments to his own specifically African-American concerns, he subjects his son to all manner of deranged trials. Some are meant to condition the narrator to the harsh realities of racial prejudice; others simply use him as a guinea pig to test current behavioral theories. In one experiment, he places toy police cars, Richard Nixon campaign buttons, and The Economist in his infant son’s crib, then fires off his gun into the ceiling while screaming racial slurs. In another, he publicly mugs him to test a hypothesis about the bystander effect, which holds that people are less likely to help a victim the more witnesses are around. It doesn’t go as expected. Later, Me's father is senselessly gunned down by the cops, a tragedy followed by Dickens being “exiled to the netherworld of invisible L.A. communities” by unaccountable bureaucrats: Dickens was me. And I was my father. Problem is, they both disappeared from my life, first my dad, and then my hometown, and suddenly I had no idea who I was, and no clue how to become myself. As the first step in his journey to become himself, the narrator attempts to reanimate the vanished city, beginning by replacing the “DICKENS -- NEXT EXIT” sign on the 110 Freeway that had been taken down. It’s too tempting for Beatty to resist contemplating future signs that mock some of the perceptions about the community from outsiders: “CAUTION -- BLACK ON BLACK CRIME AHEAD” and “WATCH OUT FOR FALLING HOME PRICES.” The narrator next sets out to bring back Jim Crow-era regulations, including priority seating for whites on buses and segregated businesses and education. The problem is that the high school is already essentially segregated, the white families long since having fled. And so he must establish a Potemkin village of sorts: the wholly illusory and all-white Wheaton Academy, a “sleek, state-of-the-art plate-glass building that looked more like a death star than a place of learning.” In reality, the neighboring school is just an empty lot with a painting of the campus on the gate. Accompanying the quixotic narrator during his inner-city adventures is his own vassal, Hominy Jenkins, former child actor on The Little Rascals and “living national embarrassment” for being the butt of countless, unbelievably racist jokes on that show. (Beatty reaches Pynchonian levels of zaniness describing lost episodes screened at the L.A. Festival of Forbidden Cinema and Unabashedly Racist Animation.) Refusing to disown his television career, he instead revels in being the embodiment of “American primitivism,” an attitude the narrator, who has spent his life chafing under the “burden of being black and constantly having to decide when and if I gave a shit about it,” envies: “I’m jealous of Hominy’s obliviousness, because he, unlike American, has turned the page.” In an instance where Beatty needlessly oversteps the mark to highlight a cheap irony about the freedom to choose bondage, Hominy also demands that he be the narrator’s slave, reasoning that “Freedom can kiss [his] postbellum black ass.” Hominy’s desire for slavery and humiliation -- the narrator farms out the regular whipping to a dominatrix -- comes across as belabored and flattens a caricature even further. The more outrageous the narrator’s social experiments are, the more they succeed. The painted borders and road signs foster a sense of pride in the community and eventually puts Dickens back on the map; the passengers on the segregated buses become more courteous; and the public school’s scores improve (even if it prompts a panicked cover story from the “New-ish Republic” entitled “The New Jim Crow: Has Public Education Clipped the Wings of the White Child?”) The contrast between pre- and post-segregated Dickens is a tale of two cities. All of these beneficial effects are casually reported to the narrator by his bus-driver girlfriend or the high school principal, which identifies one of the major weaknesses of the novel. The satirical workings seem cursorily conceived compared to, say, how Helen DeWitt imagines the contraption for an anonymous office prostitution ring in Lightning Rods, or how in A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift provides detailed annual accounting figures and suggestions for what to do with the flayed baby skins (“admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen”). Rather, Beatty’s narrator performs some brazen action and backs off, only marginally interested in the results until someone gives him a brief progress report on the wondrous effect of his segregationist efforts or a district judge pops up to provide a rationale: In attempting to restore his community through reintroducing precept, namely segregation and slavery, that, given his cultural history, have come to define his community despite the supposed unconstitutionality and nonexistence of these concepts, he’s pointed out the fundamental flaw in how we as Americans claim we see equality. Perhaps, but this post-hoc, overly tidy account of a coherent social vision doesn’t jibe with the anarchic spirit of the novel, which in essence works better as a loose framework for Beatty to deploy his comic talent. Bit for bit, Beatty is among the funniest authors writing today, whether describing the Crips applying for NATO membership (reasoning that they could “kick the shit out of Estonia") or making wry comments on the lackluster D.C. tourist experience: “Not surprisingly, there’s nothing to do at the Pentagon except start a war.” Looking to find a sister city, Dickens is rejected by Juarez, Chernobyl, and Kinshasha (in the Democratic Republic of Congo) for being too violent, too polluted, and too black, respectively. The narrator makes his own list of candidates, cities that “disappeared under dubious circumstances,” including Thebes (the sand-covered Cecil B. DeMille movie set) and the Lost City of White Male Privilege, “a controversial municipality whose very existence is often denied by many (mostly privileged white males).” This being the same mischievous Beatty who included a presidential candidate speech from the Rev. Al Sharpton in his anthology of African-American humor, Hokum, satirical targets are lined up, easy or otherwise. Beatty mocks those “brass-bangled teacher-poets whose elegiac verse compares everything to jazz;” proposes “Whitey Week” as a “counterbalance to the onslaught of disingenuous pride and niche marketing that took place during Black History and Hispanic Heritage Months;” and skewers a group called the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, “star-struck, middle-class, black out-of-towners and academics” discussing the problems facing the “indigent black community” and the meaning of bimonthly. The group is led by Foy Cheshire: philosopher, social critic, entertainer, blowhard, strident opponent of the narrator’s efforts, and bowdlerizer of classic works of American literature, e.g., The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Your Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit for Mark Twain’s masterwork. Beatty’s voice is as appealing, erudite, and entertaining as any since Alexander Portnoy’s. (Philip Roth’s kvetcher, the Assistant Commissioner for the City of New York Commission of Human Opportunity, is trapped inside a Jewish joke, while Beatty’s, “City Planner in Charge of Restoration and Segregation” is caught in a case of “standard black inner-city absurdity.”) It is a lacerating, learned, witty, and vulgar voice -- definitely not pejorative-free -- brash and vulnerable and self-righteous in its jeremiad against self-righteousness of any kind. Clarence Thomas speaks, which is novel indeed, but I’d rather listen to Beatty.

Modern Farce

There is an almost gravitational pull towards farce — perhaps explaining why we descend into it — that draws everything from Congressional budget negotiations to the badminton competition at the 2012 London Olympics into its field. And yet farce also depends on the careful orchestration of systematic collapse, whether it be a badminton player guiding her shot into the net or a writer steering her fictions towards anarchy in a most orderly and exquisitely timed fashion. This imaginative drive to bring farcical inevitability under control is both disciplined and, as G.K. Chesterston points out, romantic. In his defense of the “lighter and wilder forms of art,” Chesterton whimsically describes the “nameless anarchism” behind our desire for farce: To the quietest human being, seated in the quietest house, there will sometimes come a sudden and unmeaning hunger for the possibilities or impossibilities of things; he will abruptly wonder whether the teapot may not suddenly begin to pour out honey or sea-water, the clock to point to all hours of the day at once, the candle to burn green or crimson, the door to open upon a lake or a potato-field instead of a London street. The descent into farce is thus an ascent into a higher imaginative realm, the yearning for a chaos more magical than the one that governs our lives. Several recent farcical works have crafted this chaotic order to predictably entertaining effect. If you missed any of these the first time around, fear not. It is a minor readerly tragedy easily remedied. 1. Michael Frayn, Skios In Skios, Michael Frayn, the author of the beloved theatrical farce Noises Off, set out to capture the same bustling comic energy in a novel. The plot involves Oliver Fox, a charming roué who on a whim decides to impersonate the keynote speaker of a European cultural conference taking place on a sun-baked Greek island. Fox is welcomed by the lovely Nikki Hook, who shepherds the impostor through the weekend’s events even as some part of her knows the dashing figure is too good — and good-looking — to be true. By a causal chain of events too complicated to recount here, Dr. Norman Wilfred, the real keynote speaker, adopts Oliver Fox’s identity only to be hounded by the latter’s scorned lovers and the scorching Greek sun. In the novel’s first chapter, there is a description of the arriving plane carrying Oliver and Norman that aptly describes the farcical condition: “Too late now to alter what that was going to be. It was coming towards them all at 500 mph.” This inevitable force finds a particularly suitable target in the perfectly ordered and manicured grounds of the foundation’s retreat: Everything was so at ease with itself, so delicately balanced, like the works of a good watch, or nature itself...It was a complete world, a miniature model of the European civilization that it existed to promote… The very clockwork precision that makes this miniature world so balanced also makes it particularly primed for comic disruption. In one scene, Fox can’t remember the name of his cabin, all of which are named after Greeks. After shuttling among Xenocles, Theodectes, Menander, and Demosthenes, he convinces himself that Damocles is the right name. Oliver is wrong about the name but right in sense that Damocles is an apt figure for the farcical impostor who is always one false move, or unlucky circumstance, away from disastrous revelation. The least slip-up and the strings controlling the puppet show are severed, which is precisely what makes farce so exhilarating:“[Oliver] felt intensely alive, like a mayfly with only one day to enjoy it all.” 2. Penelope Lively, How It All Began Penelope Lively’s How It All Began, which itself begins with an epigraph on chaos theory, is also structured around a merciless and uncontrollable causal chain of events. While Lively’s novel is best described as a comedy of manners, it originates by drawing on the accidents and “swerves” of farcical theater. The plot involves how the mugging of an elderly woman systemically “derail[s]” the lives of seven people. As the consequences of the mugging ripple outward, a series of personal, professional, and familial humiliations are “capriciously triggered” and meticulously chronicled by Lively. How It All Began’s one true farcical character is a retired history professor, Henry, who is so quintessentially donnish that “you couldn’t invent him.” Some of the novel’s funniest scenes involve his doomed effort to host a TV program on Hogarth’s London for the BBC, whose executive is alternately fascinated and repulsed by the parodic don’s “awful appeal.” And yet his farcical status makes him an oddly moving figure of pathos as he muffs his lines and is mocked by youths hanging out on street corners. Among the seven people whose lives are disrupted by the mugging, one feels the most for Henry, whose harmless pedantry is exposed to the public’s — and the reader’s — enjoyment. 3. Dave Barry, Insane City If you like your farce manic, pure, and pathos-free, then Dave Barry’s Insane City is perfect. The novel is set during the wedding weekend of a mismatched pair — the moneyed bride is a high-powered lawyer while the groom is a marketer who tweets about feminine hygiene products. The plot involves a lost wedding ring, Haitian refugees, and a stoned billionaire’s inventive, extravagant method of procuring late-night take-out. A sample sentence captures the spirit of the novel: “Any man fleeing from the police with three women, two children, and an orangutan is a friend of mine.” And that’s not even mentioning the flamingo suit and pirate ship. 4. Lucy Ellmann, Mimi In the same manic vein is Lucy Ellman’s Mimi, a novel that stays true to farce’s etymologic roots — from farcire, to stuff — by packing in a romantic comedy, family tragedy, lists, music scores, a manifesto, and even a deli menu. The plot involves a neurotic Manhattan plastic surgeon who takes up with an free-spirited public speaking guru, Mimi, who in turn inspires him to start a feminist revolution. Ellmann’s is a frenetic, energetic style that attempts to will comedy into existence through sheer determination by deploying an army of exclamation marks, legions of italics, swarms of puns. Farcical in style if not in content, the novel feels somehow off, like a sentence with a dangling modifier. Unlike the concentrated zaniness of Barry’s south Florida or the delicate balance of Frayn’s circumscribed Skios, Mimi’s sprawl disperses Ellmann’s anarchic energy until it is too diffuse to provide a charge. 5. Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods There is not a trace of Ellmann’s exuberance to be found in Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, a daring attempt to translate the bedroom farce into the boardroom. Her novel follows an entrepreneur who translates his particular sexual fantasy into a farfetched solution to combat sexual harassment in the workplace. For a fee, he supplies a company’s top earning workers with a perk that must break every OSHA regulation: anonymous sexual encounters with female employees specifically hired for the task. We learn all about the initial resistance to the idea, the hiring and implementation process and the ingenious contraption devised to back the undercover “lightning rods” into the bathroom’s handicap stall. With such a setup, the opportunity for farce abounds, but DeWitt seems more interested in pursuing her outrageous conceit with an equally outrageous affectlessness. The prose, by design, is as passionate as the sex, which is to say not very. Logic rather than Eros reigns. The real triumph is not in the satire of alpha-male behavior and female exploitation but in the novel-length commitment to so flat and eerie a comic vision. 6. Nathan Englander, “Camp Sundown” Farces originated as brief comic interludes stuffed between longer, more serious fare. It is therefore fitting to conclude with two short stories, one from Nathan Englander’s collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, and the other from Sam Lipsyte’s more recent The Fun Parts. Englander’s “Camp Sundown” establishes a perfect farcical scenario — a geriatric camp in the Berkshires that “revives certain adolescent elements of human nature.” But the septuagenarians’ hijinks take a darker turn when several campers become convinced that there is a Nazi war criminal in their midst and resolve to bring him to justice. As the beleaguered camp director, Josh, puts it: “An old Nazi hiding in the Berkshires under the guise of a blue-toed low-sodium bridge-playing Jew. It is madness. It is too much to take.” Within the space of two-dozen pages, Englander pivots from the initial comic setup — and its pitch-perfect Jewish humor — to an unsettling and lyrical exploration of guilt, responsibility, and memory. The story ends gorgeously as the focus shifts from the old kvetches to the even older inhabitants of Camp Sundown, creatures who are immune from all human history and farce: “They watch those turtles on their slow march and behold those ancient creatures, shell-backed and the color of time, as they lower themselves, turtle upon turtle, disappearing into the stillness of the lake.” 7. Sam Lipsyte, “The Republic of Empathy” Sam Lipsyte’s “The Republic of Empathy” is a kaleidoscopic story narrated by different voices, including that of a drone. The first narrator, William, witnesses a shocking accident on a Manhattan rooftop. Two janitors are rehearsing a fight scene for their action movie when one falls to his death. The scene rattles William but teaches him a valuable lesson we too often forget: “It just reminds you of the fragility of everything...Especially the fragility of brawling on the roof of a very tall building.” Later, William falls victim to an equally senseless act of violence, inexplicably targeted by a roving Reaper 5, or as the central command puts it, “a truly mouthwatering piece of drone ass.” If there is a moral in this slippery tale, it is that the dearth of empathy leads to terrifying farce; to viewing people as nameless, impersonal falling objects; to an absurd state of affairs in which a “slightly chubby man in his pajamas standing on his lawn in the middle of the night” is a valid target for a hyper-sexualized drone with a “death-bringing ass and titties” and a “sweet armored bod.”

A Year in Reading: Alexander Chee

My reading year was spent moving between old favorites — Brideshead Revisited, The Great Gatsby, Madame Bovary, The Kill — and then for new novels alone, it felt like it was a storm of almost impossible dimensions, like all I had to do was open a window in Hell’s Kitchen and a new book would fly in. I’ll be reading from 2012 well into 2013 and perhaps beyond, I think, and you will be too. Still on my TBR, for example, are new books from Junot Diaz, A. M. Homes, Zadie Smith, Jami Attenberg, Benjamin Anastas, Antoine Wilson, Emily St. John Mandel, Victor LaValle and Carol Rifka Brunt. I’m currently reading Emma Straub’s delicious Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures and the new Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth. But my memory of what I read last year collects mostly around the summer, when I had the most time to read, as I waited for edits on my novel. I began with a novel to blurb, Shani Boianjiu’s The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, which I will never forget. Then came Don Lee’s The Collective, a strange mirror to another amazing book, Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians. August was spent with Lauren Groff’s Arcadia and Patrick Somerville’s This Bright River, both of which I loved, and both of which are really brilliant, as well as getting caught up in my Emily Books book club reading — the profound and profane Maidenhead, by Tamara Faith Berger, a sly Muriel Spark novel, Loitering with Intent, and Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, which I loved so much, it led me to read her masterpiece, The Last Samurai. And this last was the one that probably rules the year for me. Every now and then, you find a book that feels like it was keyed to your DNA. This was like that for me. I’d heard about it for a long time. As I am a member at the Center for Fiction, and they have generous summer checkout times, I went looking for it there and found it (sorry to the person who tried to call it back midsummer). For me, reading The Last Samurai felt like holding a slowly exploding bomb in my hands, but say, if a bomb could make something more than a hole after it exploded — something incredible, that you’d never seen before. Even writing about it now makes me feel the urge to go back in. It’s about a woman from a family of failed prodigies, who one day has a one night stand with a brilliant, hateful man that she cannot respect. This description of that night is when I knew I loved the book. Oh, yes, she gives him the codename ‘Liberace’: No sooner were Liberace and I in his bed without our clothes than I realized how stupid I had been. At this distance I can naturally not remember every little detail, but if there is one musical form that I hate more than any other, it is the medley. One minute the musician, or more likely aged band, is playing an overorchestrated version of The Impossible Dream; all of a sudden, mid-verse, for no reason, there’s a stomach-turning swerve into another key and you’re in the middle of Over the Rainbow; swerve, Climb Every Mountain, swerve, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, swerve, swerve, swerve. Well then, you have only to imagine Liberace, hands, mouth, penis now here, now there, no sooner here than there, no sooner there than here again, starting something only to stop and start something else instead, and you will have a pretty accurate picture of the Drunken Medley. The Medley at last came to an end and Liberace fell into a deep sleep. She sneaks away while he’s asleep, becomes pregnant from this episode, and soon is raising her child prodigy son on her own, who eventually wants to find his father, and she initially declines to reveal his identity; she has done everything she can to hide him from her son, at least until her son has the critical faculties to understand why his father is not intellectually respectable. To ensure this, she sets a challenge for him to meet as the condition of knowing who he is. The narration moves between them, and even incorporates the way a child interrupts a mother into the forward motion of the novel. What I loved about it, aside from the hilarity, the language, the tone and the structure was that it felt so incredibly free. And reading it, so did I. You won’t go wrong with any of these books. For best results, read them all. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
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