I HATE TO agree with Katie Roiphe, but let's just say I was Push-ed. Roiphe, having made a name for herself by dismissing date rape as feminist hysteria, has recently trained her sights on incest lit, asserting that popular representations of sexual abuse in American fiction tend to reduce complexities of human suffering to a riddle with incest as the answer. In general, her arguments are facile and self-serving, but in the case of the poet Sapphire's first novel, Push, they apply.
Push, which earned its author a half-million-dollar, two-book contract on the basis of its first 100 pages, is the first-person account of Claireece Precious Jones, a black, Harlem-born-and-raised, teenage welfare mom. After being raped by both parents, Precious gives birth at age 12 to a Downs Syndrome infant and at 16 to a son (both sired by her father), only to find herself homeless. Then, just when things are looking up, she finds she's HIV positive. If this sounds like a catalog of contemporary social ills, then so be it: It also reads like one.
Less a character than a poster child for urban blight, Precious is a composite portrait meant to teach readers about the troubled underside of urban life. Akin in its didacticism to medieval church paintings, Push is similarly 2-D. Instead of giving depth to people too often dismissed with simple slogans, Sapphire compounds their obscurity. Characters become little more than stand-ins for polemic: I big, I talk, I eats, I cooks, I laugh, watch TV, do what my muver say. But I can see...I don't exist. Don't nobody want me. Don't nobody need me. I know who I am. I know who they say I am--vampire sucking the system's blood. Ugly black grease to be wipe away, punish, kilt, changed, finded job for.
Even when the novel achieves poignancy, as it does when Precious enters an alternative school and begins to gain literacy and independence, the sentiment feels manipulated. The slim volume is divided into two sections: Precious's first-person account of her effort to gain an education and independence runs only 144 pages; to this are appended 36 pages titled "LIFE STORIES: Our Class Book," which ostensibly comprise the writings of the students from Precious's school.
Although gimmicky, "LIFE STORIES" contains some of the book's best writing, as well as its rare humor. One of Precious's classmates writes, "I get me a room...from old light-skinned dude...tell me...his mother...rent room to Marcus Garvey. My question is, did Marcus Garvey get heat?" In what seems an ironic commentary on Push itself, another classmate writes, "Foster care, rape, drugs, prostitution, HIV, jail, rehab. Everybody like to hear that story. Tell us more more MORE about being a dope addict and a whore!"
Mid-book, Precious spends the night in a house Langston Hughes once inhabited, and it's an apt metaphor for what Sapphire is doing with Push. There's a long tradition of literature humanizing people the culture denies and denigrates: Zora Neale Hurston did it; so did James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Virginia Woolf. But Sapphire, a lesbian poet admired for her collection American Dreams, is merely sleeping in a place where others made a home. (Ellen Levy)
Jackie Under My Skin
DO YOU LIKE garage sales as much as I do? Even if I could've, I wouldn't have wanted to attend the mother of all sales: Jackie O's estate auction in New York last spring. It ruined the mystique of our first thoroughly modern First Lady; it made her too real. I mean, who wants her common ashtrays when we can visit Andy Warhol's iconic portrait at the Walker for a fraction of the cost?
On the other hand, Jackie Under My Skin is actually a fun de(con)struction of this icon, blandly academic as it sounds. Wayne Koestenbaum micro-dissects objects and events both common (hairdos, sunglasses) and momentous (JFK's assassination, marriage to Aristotle Onassis), giving them an equal, if irreverent weight. Should one take Koestenbaum's quote, "I was born into the world of Jackie: I did not create it" as cutting social critique or a message from the higher realms of camp? Perhaps both.
Jackie plants Jackie at the center of a world in which she becomes martyr for a nation, ultimate glam housewife, shop-till-you-drop jet-setter, and shameful, gold-digging hussy. Throughout all this, the author comes off as not so much a serious scholar as a Jackie-obsessive, which he is. Imagine the frightening number of Jackie-facts notebooks this man has! But then look at the genre we're dealing with: Pop-icon analysis always has its share of dime-store psychology and frivolous wishful-thinking daydreams. But Koestenbaum hits the mark more often than not, making Jackie engaging and biting where it needs to be. Jackie, to the author, eventually becomes nothing and everything. Her name is so overused it transforms from a proper noun into a plain one--albeit a golden one with a multitude of meanings. (Matt Keppel)
TRY ADDING FOUR cans of water to a can of Campbell's tomato soup sometime and you'll have an idea of just how attenuated the Beat "vision" is in Don Bajema's Reach. A more apropos title I certainly can't imagine. Of course, one would think that the dedication "To my friend Henry Rollins, who worked many hours editing this book" would be all the red flag that any reasonable person would need, but no, apparently not; there are those of us who find this sort of foaming-at-the-mouth coffeehouse afflatus (from the Latin: 'to blow'), um, entertaining.
I'm not sure what exactly Reach is--an exorcise book, I guess; Bajema is a troubled man--but it has much in common with the bulk of the 2.13.61 catalog in that it's intense, amplified, and frighteningly earnest. You get the feeling that these people (attitude czar Rollins, Bajema, etc.) are not simply insincere, but that they completely lack a sincerity gene.
Slouching along in Bajema's overreaching burnout staccato, Reach is full of read-out-loud highlights:
Eddie's mind has become a prisoner. The battle for his soul was lost before his age had two digits. The remainder of his life becomes an anguished search. In the dark. In strange terrain.
It is understandable that he would eventually lock himself up, hiding from these cities filled with cannibals, like vultures, up to their necks in the chest cavities of the fallen dead, their spasms twitching to music they try to call their own.
Irresistible as classic K-Tel, Reach is further evidence that 2.13.61 is well on its way to becoming the City Lights of the Beavis and Butthead set. (Brad Zellar)
Polaroids from the Dead
I KNOW I should hate Douglas Coupland but I can't get my heart into it. If the entrails-readers of zeitgeist are to be believed, Coupland's books are irony-drenched, shallow, and self-pitying. And while I'll readily concede the last point, I'd contend most detractors are still envious that Coupland invented the term Generation X--or, rather, first conceived to lift it from Billy Idol's eponymous band. Polaroids from the Dead, Coupland's new collection of articles, essays, observations, and semi-fictions, is another deft act of recontextualization, appropriating the methodology of new journalism for a recon mission into post-postmodernism.
But where Tom Wolfe's writings were strictly a search-and-destroy affair, Coupland has moved in successive books from Life After God to Life After Irony, the idea here being that the simple identification of idiocy is no longer a meaningful act. These Polaroids--scenes from a dying Grateful Dead culture and psycho-geographies of Washington, D.C., Palo Alto, Brentwood, and the new Berlin--represent real attempts to describe the civic life of a culture that no longer values things civic (or, for that matter, things living). There are two starting points for this inquiry: solipsism and modern design. Coupland's erudition, however, does not end at the tip of his nose or the doors of the Guggenheim. He is sincere--maybe a little too sincere. (He signs his introduction "My finest regards... Doug.") And pithy too. So. Many. Short. Sentences. But as Coupland would say--rather, as Coupland does say, in its own paragraph on page 104:
Yet this writer has a unique ability to translate pop culture into metaphor. Consider this paragraph, where Coupland recalls constructing Life-magazine montages as a child, in imitation of pop artist James Rosenquist: "From... 1948 to 1962 the imagery was at its most generic--its Sears Roebuck-iest--when guns and butter were roaring ahead full blast. In 1955 it was not an issue for Hormel or Van de Kamp's to spend X-thousand dollars to show a full-page photo of ham." Twenty years later, Coupland is still wielding safety scissors and paste, putting that ham on the page. (Michael Tortorello)
The Sibling Society
Reading Robert Bly's latest effort out loud to a friend elicited the following response: "Is the person who wrote this book retarded?" No, Robert Bly is not "retarded" (please forgive the insensitive use of the word); Mr. Bly has won the National Book Award after all, and his book Iron John, a pat on his fellow MAN man's back, was number-one on The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for more than a year. We must therefore, unfortunately, take him seriously.
Bly starts out "It's the worst of times; it's the best of times," which, although quite unoriginal, is perhaps the best sentence in the book. He goes on to complain that people are becoming more and more adolescent in their morals, their needs, and their desires, thus relating to one another as siblings instead of as elders and children. Bly comes off sounding like the generic old crank who has fallen out of touch with contemporary culture and therefore resents it. Case in point: He discusses the resentment young black men feel toward American society, which he says shows itself through rap. Says Bly, "Their despair is beginning to resonate through the entire culture; that is why suburban children want rap music." Such pat explanations are, alas, par for the course. Maybe if he had had a younger person to talk to, he would have learned that all rap is not despairing, and perhaps suburban kids listen to it because (as with the spread of all musical styles--jazz, punk, or techno) it's fresh and exciting; they can dance and sing to it, and their parents can't.
But you know the preacher's in trouble when he starts taking examples from Mrs. Doubtfire to substantiate his arguments. Then he goes on to tell us that he "first encountered the sibling culture of ingratitude when I was a student in college in 1947.... Teachers damaged my self-esteem by reminding me, quite accurately, that I knew nothing. But on the other hand I was glad to hear that, as a modern, I was superior to all my ancestors (and yours)." Yeah, whatever; methinks that the indifference Bly complains about in The Sibling Society is more a result of the culture's reaction to him than it is a cultural epidemic. (Amanda Ferguson)
Kathryn and Ross Petras
World Access: The Handbook
for Citizens of the Earth
Simon and Shuster
SIX THOUSAND YEARS ago, the Kurgan people began using what is known as the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language--the basis of English, Hindi, Russian, and the Romance languages. In other words, if you think global interconnectivity began with the Internet, think again. You might also want to check out the World Access handbook, which addresses the failure of Americans, Net-surfers or not, to recognize our connections to the art, politics, and culture of the rest of the world.
Whether you're traveling via the Net, or novels, or even CNN, World Access is there to give you a little background on the history and culture of the world beyond U.S. borders. It's best to think of this book as a compass (rather than an encyclopedia) in that it provides guide-points for travels around the Global Village. For instance, European art movements from the Renaissance to surrealism get one paragraph each, enough to help you follow a conversation at a party, but not to make you an expert.
The book is as comprehensive as one could reasonably expect, covering 10 topics including art, literature, politics, religion, language, and history; it's fairly solid on Ancient Greece, China, India, and the Middle East, though (not surprisingly) weaker on Africa and Latin America. But the main strength of World Access is how it shows the connections between Western and non-Western worlds, between different periods of history, and among art, politics, and religion. For example, the section on medieval Arab philosopher Ibn Rushd, in addition to explaining his influence on contemporary Islamic practice, also mentions his connections to Aristotle and Buddhism.
The authors' take on politics and history is multicultural but far from critical. Like high school textbooks of old, they soft peddle imperialism and blame the Cold War solely on Stalin. Moreover, the book gives no space to those who question the telos of our modern multinational culture: Environmentally, economically, and religiously, the world is simply, if slowly, getting better.
This isn't a book to be read for what it says, but it is an excellent resource for getting a grip on the information that floods our media-saturated lives. Rather than contributing to info-overload, World Access helps the reader get a handle on the Global Village, past and present. (Harry Williams)