Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis

Imperial Bedrooms, Bret Easton Ellis’s seventh novel and a sequel to his debut Less Than Zero, is pure L.A. noir. It has the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles lurking just beneath the glitter and glamor; it has the requisite femme fatale, appropriately blonde and mysterious. It has the doomed and corrupt narrator who is taken for a ride and is constantly one step behind everyone else. It has the fast clip dialogue in which no one says what they really mean and are always full of vague warnings of danger.

Ellis offers an early clue as to his literary intentions with an epigraph from Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodnight: “There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.” You can’t get any more noirish than that. The title Imperial Bedrooms is also taken from an Elvis Costello album (Less Than Zero is title of a Costello song), and that offers yet another clue that Ellis is still writing about pop culture, its influence on modern life, and the superficial way it defines the L.A. denizens of his novels.

The characters in Imperial Bedrooms, namely Clay, Blair, Julian Wells, Rip Millar, and the others are all back, only now 25 years older and still emotionally dead. The story revolves around a mystery when L.A. screenwriter, Clay, gets involved with a young actress named Rain Turner, who turns out to be a prostitute who is in love with Clay’s old drug buddy, Julian, and is and was involved with Rip and a now very dead Kelly Montrose. How Kelly wound up dead is the mystery, but the real mystery is how these people ever managed to survive this long with all the drugs, booze, and cheap sex they engage in. Actually, several other murders and tortures take place before the novel ends, so that addresses the issue of survival. Still you have to wonder how they managed to make it out of their twenties alive. These are characters who live on the precipice of time and any one move should have sent them over the edge a long time ago.

They're zombies basically, living one day at a time with no sense of the world outside their rarefied enclave of Hollywood release parties and audition calls. Spoiled, pathological, and sociopathic, they use people for their own purposes or pleasures without any fear of reaping the consequences. In this way, Ellis is able to paint a world that turns the conservative mythology of wealth going to the deserving straight on its head. It certainly explains why Less Than Zero was considered so mind-blowing in the Reagan era. Still, Imperial Bedrooms would be just as shocking, except that much of pop culture from films to television to pop music, approaches the same material. What TV series or movie doesn’t have at its foundation flawed characters who are just this side of pathological? And isn’t Lyndsay Lohan simply an Ellis character writ large?  

I imagine even Ellis understood the world he was sending this book out into, which might explain why he felt the need to ratchet up the shock factor. Granted, from what I have read (admittedly I’ve never read any of Ellis’s work before), and what Ellis alludes to himself in Imperial Bedrooms, this is merely a continuation of the things his characters did in the novel’s prequel, but still it has a gratuitous smell to it, like Ellis is being shocking for the sake of it.

There isn’t a likable character in the bunch, but they do make for a compelling read if only to find out what happens to them once the mystery (something to do with an unpaid debt, prostitution, and snuff films) is solved. Ellis’s writing style, hailing from the minimalist movement (Ellis was a protegee of Raymond Carver’s editor Gordon Lish), perfectly captures the ennui of his characters. He does a good job of creating the seediness of L.A. glamor, its superficiality masking a far uglier reality below. Ellis makes no bones about how pathological his characters are, so Imperial Bedrooms is truly a novel about morality. Unfortunately, it tracks well-worn territory. After all, this is the story of Amy Winehouse, Paris Hilton, Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, the Kardashian sisters, the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and all the other wanna-bes and has-beens who are eking out their sad existences in Hollywood. You can read all about that and more on Popeater.     

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed

Black Mamba Boy is the debut novel from Nadifa Mohamed, a Somalian born writer who resides in London. If there is one book you should seek out this year, then this is it.

Black Mamba Boy tells the story of Nama Mohamed, a young Muslim boy who in 1935 Yemen tries to scratch out a meager existence on the streets while his mother, Ambaro, works in the local factory. Nama dreams of the day when his father, Guure, a musician who left home to make money for his family, will return. After his mother dies, Nama decides to go to Somaliland where Guure is supposedly a driver working for the Italians. Nama’s trip sets him off on a journey that expands not only northern Africa, but the high seas and Britain too.

Black Mamba Boy is essentially a road novel, but unlike the more popular road novels in America, this journey deals with a road that is fraught with war, corruption, brutality, and death. It is a coming-of-age tale in which Jama is forced to grow up in an environment that pulls him in all directions emotionally and psychologically. Though the story is told from a boy’s perspective, it is essentially a novel that feminizes that experience. The female characters in Black Mamba Boy provide a stable backdrop in which Jama can truly find the keys to his growing manhood. His relationship with his mother is loving, but strained, offering him an emotional if not physical bulwark against the poverty and exploitation they experience. After Nama learns his father is dead and joins the Fascists Italian Red Army during WWII, he sees the brutality of war and the viciousness of the fascists toward black Africans. He deserts the army, becomes a shopkeeper for a short time, then leaves that position to run his own vegetable cart in a remote area. Here he is coddled and protected by the women there who teach him how to grow vegetables and become a part of his enterprise. He meets his future wife, Bethlehem, a local shepherdess who prods Nama to find work after his vegetable cart business is destroyed by an invasion of locusts. Jama finds work as a merchant marine sailing with the British on the Red Sea, where he is drawn by an older Jewish woman, one of many of a cargo of Jewish refugees after the war seeking asylum in Palestine, or what is now modern day Israel. The older woman reminds Jama of his mother and through her and the other refugees he sees yet another face of brutality committed against humanity.

Jama’s emotional journey steers him away from hypermasculinized ideas of manhood and toward one that is life-affirming and hopeful. Black Mamba Boy is a novel that is brimming with humanity and Mohamed’s writing style is filled with simple, but beautiful observations. She creates a world that is at once insular and universal in its scope. Based primarily on her father’s experiences, Black Mamba Boy is an impressive debut and I look forward to reading more of her work.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett

Sometimes it takes satire to get how absurd modern day America can be. And Percival Everett does exactly that in his 2009 novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier. He attacks identity politics, political correctness, academia, celebrities, the middle class, and everything else in between with a finely sharpened satirical twist.

Not Sidney Poitier is so named by his crazy mama who couldn’t have possibly known that he’d grow up to look exactly like the young actor, but his name becomes a bane of existence since nobody gets that his name really is Not Sidney Poitier. After NSP’s mother dies, he goes to live with Ted Turner (yes, that Ted Turner) in whose media empire NSP’s mother invested generously enough that she left NSP a millionaire. NSP is set up in his own home on Turner’s estate and is pretty much left to his own devices. A target for bullies at school, NSP develops a technique in hypnotism that leaves his victims under his complete control, a power he uses to humorous effect. After getting in trouble, he leaves school and decides to return to hometown in Los Angeles, but winds up in a southern prison camp. When the bus transporting prisoners crashes, he and a fellow chained prisoner escapes through the woods as a posse of prison guards and hound dogs are hot on their trail.

Sounds familiar? Good, because it’s the plot to Sidney Poitier’s seminal film The Defiant Ones, costarring the late Tony Curtis. This is just one of many tricks Everett plays on the reader because the entire plot of I Am Not Sidney Poitier is a parody on a number of Poitier’s famous movies, including The Heat of the Night, A Patch of Blue, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and on and on.

As Not Sidney Poitier attempts to get back home, he not only encounters prison, but college and backwoods southern life too, all the while struggling to maintain his identity. I Am Not Sidney Poitier is filled with a cast of familiar characters, from Ted Turner, Jane Fonda, a sheriff who resembles Rod Steiger’s character in The Heat of the Night, and the author himself, albeit a twisted version of himself, a professor who teaches a class on nonsense.

I Am Not Sidney Poitier is one of those rare books that will have you laughing to yourself, not only to the allusions to Poitier’s well-known movies, but to the sharp observations about identity itself. What does it mean to have an identity when everyone thinks you look like someone else, especially when that someone else is an actor who for the longest time was considered the only acceptable model of black manhood? While the on-going joke of NSP’s name gets tired pretty fast and Everett’s characterization of Ted Turner seems forced (the actual Turner is a lot nuttier than the one depicted here), I Am Not Sidney Poitier is still an astute look at what it still means to be black in the Obama era.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

New York Magazine recently ran an article on James Frey (he of A Million Little Pieces fame, or I should say infamy) and his scheme to exploit MFA writers for Hollywood big bucks. He’s created an outfit called Full Fathom Five, which basically scours young writers at MFA programs for ideas on YA novels that are Hollywood ready (see Harry Potter and Twilight) and signs those writers under contracts in which the young scribes are paid a $250 advance to write the books. That’s not all---as per contract, Frey is under no obligation to give the writers any credit for their work, can use pseudonyms or reserve the right to change the names on the book jacket to a pseudonym, threaten the writers with lawsuits if they talk in public about the book, and only offers 40 percent of the proceeds from any sell from publishing and movie rights. In other words, it’s a deal that benefits Frey more than it does the young writers.

When Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces was outed as a work of fiction, I personally had no dog in that fight. After all, the incident showed if anything that Americans are hypocrites when it comes to the truth, too easily led by the nose with lies that appeal to some false sense of ourselves (this did occur after all when we were bamboozled into Iraq under the pretense of WMDs). This latest Frey scandal though is just nasty. I’ve never been in an MFA program (came close, but had to drop out because of health and financial reasons), but I share those young students’ dreams of writing and wanting to be published. Frey exploits those dreams (and the fact that, as the writer of this article points out, at a $45,000 tuition at Columbia, MFAs ain’t cheap) for his own gratification. He literally rewrites one book in his stable, I Am Number Four, to add more Steven Spielberg-dazzling merchandising tie-ins for the movie.

Full Fathom Five is a scam, plain and simple. That so many people, from young writers to MFA programs to major publishing houses, have fallen for it, doesn’t bode well for the world of literature.

James Frey's Fiction Factory by Suzanne Mozes 

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Bernice L. McFadden's Glorious

Bernice L. McFadden’s latest novel Glorious should be glorious, but strangely it takes a fascinating period in African American history---the Harlem Renaissance to the Civil Rights Era---and tells it like a survey history class. McFadden covers all the requisite material but only scratches at the surface.

Easter Venetta Bartlett, McFadden’s heroine, born at the turn of century in Waycross, Georgia, escapes southern racism and poverty to become a highly praised author during the Harlem Renaissance, only to see her rise to literary fame destroyed by false charges of plagiarism. She ends up a maid back in her hometown during the early sixties where her past comes back to haunt her.

In Easter, McFadden has a compelling character, even if at times her actions seem unbelievable. During the first 100 pages, Easter experiences or witnesses experiences that cover the gamut of African American history in the early 20th century, but little of those experiences affect her emotional well being. Considering everything she’s been through, you’d expect Easter to be an emotional wreck or at least as hardhearted as her friend and unrequited love, Rain, a burlesque dancer Easter works for (and later replaces when Rain suffers an accident) on her travels north to New York. Instead Easter moves from one town to the next and one incident to the next with little emotional resonance.

There’s an epic somewhere in McFadden’s slim novel. At 235 pages, she rushes through Easter’s back story when she should have expanded upon it, allowing the story to unravel at its own pace. In the end, what should have been an epic journey feels truncated and glossed over, which is a shame because her subject matter is fascinating. The Harlem Renaissance was the first time when black people in general and black artists in particular were finally able to express themselves politically and artistically. Artists as renowned as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Zora Neale Hurston rose to prominence during this period (McFadden’s Glorious is in fact based on two Harlem Renaissance writers, Hurston and Nella Larsen, who, like Easter, had seen her literary career destroyed by plagiarism charges).

I suspect the reason why McFadden chose to tell such a truncated story was due to difficulties in finding a home for her novel, a fact she alludes to in the book's acknowledgments. In an Op-Ed piece she wrote for the Washington Post earlier this year, she remarked on the difficulties she and other black writers are facing in the publishing industry, especially in these hard economic times. I imagine that a larger, more epic tale would have been an even harder sell on the marketplace. This is a shame, since it’s apparent that there was a lot of story McFadden wanted to tell. I can’t help but wonder what she would have accomplished with this story if she had the space and time to really tell it in all its true glory.

That’s why I still recommend reading Glorious. In spite of its shortfalls, it does treat an interesting period in black history with reverence and detail and the characters and story are still compelling enough to make a decent read. Glorious could have been a true epic of one woman's journey through early 20th century Black America, but for now, like a good  history survey class, it only offers readers a glimpse. It will be up to readers to research the rest.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Back in the Day: A Look at Nostalgia in Colson Whitehead's Sag Harbor

There’s a little joke in the black community that black folks don’t do nostalgia. The premise is pretty obvious. Given our history in this country, what do we have to be nostalgic about? But, like most jokes, there is also a bit of the untruth mixed up in there too. Unlike most people, black folks don’t wist nostalgic for the simplicity and wholesomeness of times gone by, but we have been known to glance fondly to “back in the day.” This is a lot different than believing the past, be it the 1950s or 1960s, was a great time to be alive, but rather an acknowledgment of the past as a personal or communal scrapbook of who we were as a people. It’s an acknowledgment about how things might have been better in spite of the bad stuff that went down; an acknowledgment of what was gained and lost on that long journey to now.

I came of age during the late 1970s and 1980s, hardly a banner decade for black folks. And yet when I hear songs I grew up listening to, movies or TV shows that I watched, my mind flits back to a past when I was young and the world seemed safer, more contained, familiar. This is the sort of nostalgia that Colson Whitehead zeroes in on in his novel Sag Harbor.

Released in 2009, Sag Harbor takes place in the late 1980s and tells the story of Benji, a teen from a well-to-do black family who spends his summer largely unsupervised in the black neighborhood of Sag Harbor, a Long Island beach town for the upper class. Now don’t let the class issue fool you. Whitehead creates a believable teenage world that you can relate to. This is a world where the various tonal deliveries of the word “dag” is examined for all its different social and emotional meanings and personal insults are finely honed like an Eric B and Rakim rhyme. This is a world where the unstructured time of summer can lead to endless possibilities, both good and bad. It’s a world where young black men weigh their manhood against ever increasing and stultifying definitions of authenticity (one that insists that a love for ABBA or The Smiths or geekiness is not “black enough”).

Whitehead deftly employs 1980s pop culture to create the unfamiliar world of the black bourgoisie (“The Talented Tenth” as W.E.B. DuBois called them) and make it every bit as familiar largely because he shows the conceit that class plays in the black community, a conceit that even a family like the Cosbys can have issues and that the children from these families still deal with problems of identity and authenticity. Unlike most novels which throw in pop cultural references to pull off phony autheticity, Whitehead instead uses them as nostalgic reference points of a time when black culture had a comfortable but tenuous finger on the American mainstream. The 1980s and early 1990s can arguably be pointed out as the last time when black youth defined American culture, whether it was through Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, Prince’s wailing guitar, Run D.M.C.’s “My Adidas,” or Vanessa Williams’s Miss America crown. While Sag Harbor takes place in 1985, it expands the way in which 1980s black pop culture defined the country then before the War on Drugs, the AIDs epidemic, and the Ronald Reagan’s rollback of the social achievements made during the 1960s and 1970s took their toll. It was an era that divided between the rise of the black middle class and the disenfranchisement of the urban black poor. Whitehead demonstrates this divide when Benji and his friends go out BB gun shooting, using a Six Million Dollar Man action figure as a target and pretending to be the gangsters from the distant poor black areas they hear about in the news. Benji and his friends navigate the various incarnations of manhood, using pop culture from Greedo of Star Wars fame to Starsky and Hutch as models. Hip hop also becomes a model on which to test their identity, and it is here that Whitehead reveals how pop culture and authenticity take an unlikely turn.

Lyrics from the aforementioned “Here We Go” and then “Now I Gotta Wet’cha,” copyright 1992 by Ice Cube, born the same year as me, who grew up on Run D.M.C. like we all did. “Wet’cha,” as in “wet your shirt with blood.” All of us, the singers and the audience, were of the same generation. Something happened. Something happened that changed the terms and went from fighting (I’ll knock that grin off your face) to annihilation (I will wipe you from this Earth). How we got from here to there are the key passages in the history of young black men that no one cares to write. We live it instead.   

Most reviewers missed Whitehead’s point entirely by focusing on the rambling, plot-less nature of the story or the pop cultural references, concluding that Sag Harbor is simply a coming-of-age tale where nothing of importance happens. I disagree. While the events in the novel are certainly not momentous---nobody dies; Benji’s family, who, unlike the Cosby family, are a dysfunctional mess ready to implode, but don’t; Benji doesn’t fall in love or lose his virginity. Rather within the story’s rambling structure, epiphanies, no matter how mundane, are made. As Whitehead writes, Sag Harbor is about that “history of young black men” of the hip hop era and how the pop culture of Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam and Run D.M.C. can turn to T.I. and Lil Wayne and all that happened in between. Sag Harbor, in essence, is a nostalgic love poem for black pop culture on the precipice of disaster.