In the Box

Dale Peck

  • How Stella Got Her Groove Back by Terry McMillan
    Viking, 368 pp, £16.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 670 86990 2
  • Push by Sapphire
    Secker, 142 pp, £7.99, September 1996, ISBN 0 436 20291 3
  • The Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid
    Vintage, 228 pp, £8.99, September 1996, ISBN 0 09 973841 4

Every once in a while a reviewer is fortunate enough to find in his hands three or four or five books whose shared aesthetic and thematic concerns mark a distinct shift from those which have preceded them, and which afford the reviewer the singular privilege of announcing a new school of writing. It’s an idea, an image really, which has attracted me ever since I read Edmund Wilson’s early reviews of Stein, Hemingway, Woolf and Joyce; here was a man who, in the course of meeting his weekly deadline, just happened to chart the birth of Modernism. Oh sure, there was an element of luck involved – how often does a Ulysses just drop onto your desk? – but there was a certain skill on Wilson’s part too; an eye keen enough to discern new genius and a voice skilled enough to schill for the new literature without being shrill about it. Still, it’s not something a critic can plan for. Revolutions in the way literature is made occur maybe once or twice in a lifetime; and it takes such truly seismic shifts to spur the critical establishment to recognise the new movement. Modernism and Post-Modernism are the last two such radical restructurings of literary taste that I can think of, and the latter, depending on how you date it, is at least a half-century old. It sort of begs the question, doesn’t it? I mean, isn’t it time for something new?

Well relax, folks, because this isn’t one of those times.

Still, I don’t think I’m the only person who wishes it was. I think that a lot of people are looking for something fresh in literature, and they’ve been looking, a little desperately, for at least twenty-five years. But the majority of those who are looking are doing so not in journals like this one, or in the academy, but at the marketing meetings of major publishing houses, where bottomline logic demands a new literary ‘movement’ every five years or so – and, more important, a new market for that literature. It’s this situation that seems to account for the fact that the nearer one comes to a contemporary point of view, the more likely it is that a single thread of literature’s tapestry will have been worried loose and gifted – or saddled – with a name of its own. Think of the Dirty Realism of the early Eighties, a term whose sole raison d’être seemed to be to place Raymond Carver in a marketable context; or the Brat Pack writers of the late Eighties, whose three ‘founders’, Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz, remain its only viable practitioners; or the so-called New Narrativists of the first half of this decade, writers as diverse in talent and sensibility as Rebecca Brown, Dennis Cooper, Kathy Acker, Gary Indiana and Sarah Schulman, writers whose main similarity seemed to be that they all started out at small presses before being ‘discovered’ by big houses.

By now – by which I mean, in the most Nixonian sense of the phrase, at this point in time – the formation and arrival of new schools of literature has become a given, a plot point in a narrative as familiar as a John Grisham thriller or a Danielle Steel romance: somewhere, ‘out there’, a few writers are preparing the ‘next big thing’, and these writers will ‘unexpectedly emerge’, usually at a time when critics are bemoaning the lack of fresh talent on the literary scene. Three seems to be the generally accepted minimum number of writers needed to announce a new school, as in the McInerney-Ellis-Janowitz school, or the Kerouac-Burroughs-Ginsberg school, and I’m sure that more than a few sighs of relief were heard in the meeting rooms of New York publishing houses when the novels of Isabel Allende first began appearing in English, so that her name could be added to that of Gabriel García Márquez and, um, Jorge Luis Borges, and a decades-old phenomenon combining certain characteristically Post-Modern elements with certain characteristically Gothic elements could be given the rejuvenating moniker ‘magic realism’, and the career of Louise Erdrich was made.

None of this is, by the way, particularly bad. Silly: yes. Distracting: usually. Necessary: well, probably. Certainly from a marketing point of view, but, from a critical standpoint, there’s something to be gained by charting the minutiae of stylistic and formal innovation. Henry James and James Joyce, for example, seem hardly to be writing in the same century, but if one inserts a few writers between them the journey from The Portrait of a Lady to The Portrait of the Artist doesn’t seem very long. Still, times have changed since the Modernists pulled the well-worn carpet from beneath the feet of the Victorians. Back then, it seemed that the old guard yielded to the avant only when the former had both exhausted its aesthetic possibilities and no longer reflected or commented on the changing world. Nowadays, the world is reckoned to be changing every five minutes or so; but, let’s face it, literature hasn’t done much to keep up with it in a while. Modernism is for all intents and purposes dead, and Post-Modernism, though it has its die-hard adherents, now seems like a footnote that doesn’t know when to stop. It is, in fact, Victorian realism, one foot firmly planted in the domestic observation of Flaubert and the other in the social satire of Dickens, that holds centre-stage; after Modernism first ran its course the realists returned to the fore; then, for a while, there was Post-Modernism, but that too retreated and realism returned. Now, what one hears hailed as an emerging new genre of writing usually turns out to be nothing more than a standard realist text inflected by a preoccupation with some subject or other. The Dirty Realists liked to write about trailer homes and motels, the Brat Packers liked night clubs and drug addicts, and the New Narrativists were partial to sexual transgression and anti-capitalist pronouncements. But whatever the sentiment, it was almost always couched in familiar realist terms, with perhaps an occasional PoMo trick thrown in for effect.

And then, at some point, all of this devolved even further. What had formerly been a narrow-minded focus on subject-matter became a rather more voyeuristic focus on author ‘identity’ – that Nineties buzzword for the sociocultural and ethnic background of a writer, duly registered in the photo and bio that appear on the inside back flap of new hardbacks. For example, writing with gay content, which in terms of the number of books published had been thriving since the early Seventies, didn’t become the phenomenon Gay Writing until articles in Publishers Weekly and the New York Times declared it one of the fastest growing niche markets in publishing. I cite this particular example because it seems to me that official recognition of gay writing crystallised a trend: aesthetic issues were not merely subjugated to certain assumptions based on a writer’s identity, but the former, it was suggested, actually followed from the latter. This is, of course, simplistic, if not simply spurious. The Age of Innocence and Moby Dick, two books by white authors, are both populated by white characters, but knowing that doesn’t give you any indication of what the books are about; nor does it mean that the books exist in any but the most obvious of relationships to each other (the relationship in this case being that they both happen to be sitting on my desk). Nevertheless, and especially in the case of writers who are not white – or not straight, or not male – such crudely drawn sociological lines have become de rigueur, a crudity propagated not just by the conservative impulse of marketing meetings, but by the supposedly radical impulse of identity politicking. I don’t mean to characterise it as a no-win situation: it’s certainly been successful in moving a lot of worthwhile books that ten or fifteen years ago never would have been published, but it’s skewed the way these books are read. The combination of politicised contextualising (‘Black Is Beautiful,’ ‘Gay Is Good’) and marketing hype (‘Buy Black,’ ‘Get Gay’) have conspired to convince readers that a lot of recherché books are fresh, exciting and distinct from what has gone before, despite the fact that such divisions have about as much validity as the chalk line Lucy used to draw down the centre of the apartment she shared with Ricky, splitting couch, table and coffee-pot in half.

All of this by way of introduction to the books under review here. Their three authors are all black; they are also all women, and they are also – or almost – all American (Jamaica Kincaid was born in Antigua, but left at 17 and has lived in the United States for the past thirty years), and it is primarily for these reasons that they are being reviewed together. I say ‘primarily’, because there is the added factor that writing by black women in America is probably the most successful in both critical and commercial terms of all the identity-defined categories of writing. When I was first asked to review these books, I was both curious and a bit put off. I wondered if this random gathering could add up to some kind of coherent portrait of black women in America today, either in sociological or aesthetic terms; or whether, as I suspected, these three texts had little to say about the real world and even less to say to each other. I use the word ‘texts’ here, as opposed to the word ‘writers’ because, while I’m sure Jamaica Kincaid, Terry McMillan and Sapphire could have a perfectly nice conversation, I’m equally sure that their books, if given their druthers, wouldn’t be caught dead on the same shelf.

Depending on your point of view, the phenomenon of black women’s writing could be said to have begun all the way back in the Harlem Renaissance. Though the men of the period are better known, the Thirties and Forties also produced noteworthy work by Dorothy West, Ann Petry and Gwendolyn Brooks, as well as the great Zora Neale Hurston. Others might date it to the late Sixties and early Seventies, when such writers as Nikki Giovanni, Toni Cade Bambara, Ntozake Shange, Sonia Sanchez and Paule Marshall helped redefine and expand the parameters of the mainstream in American publishing. This ‘middle period’ was, I think, capped in 1982 by the publication of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prizewinning The Color Purple. In that novel, Celie, the protagonist teaches herself to read and write, and what she writes down is her own story; in doing so, she symbolically reenacts what a generation of black women readers and writers had just done themselves. But I don’t think black women’s writing could be called a ‘phenomenon’ until 1992, when McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale came more or less out of nowhere to become a runaway bestseller and one of the most talked about novels of that year, which also saw bestsellers by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. The following year, Maya Angelou created a sensation by declaiming a poem at Bill Clinton’s Inauguration, Rita Dove was appointed Poet Laureate and Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize. A year after publishing The Color Purple, Alice Walker wrote, ‘I write all the things I should have been able to read’; ten years later, not only was she reading them, so was much of America.

Such a transformation, from a situation in which the presence of a few celebrated writers only heightened the general absence of black women from American letters, to one in which new black women writers – Veronica Chambers, Edwidge Danticat, A.J. Verdelle – appear every month, raises all sorts of questions. The most important is ‘how did it happen,’ the answer to which would require a discussion of the tendency of the post-World War Two critical establishment to value books with a ‘positive social message’ over those which seemed ‘socially disengaged’ and ‘aesthetically decadent’, as well as histories of the Civil Rights and feminist movements. But on a more basic, and base, level it has a lot to do with the fact that the publishing industry seems finally to have realised that 22 million African-Americans are not a negligible consumer group, and that if, in addition, white Americans could be persuaded to buy books by blacks then a lot of books could be sold. (Think how well the recording industry has done with jazz, blues, rock and rap.) If the books happened to earn their writer a Pulitzer or a Nobel Prize, that was great – but if they could move a million copies in hardback and generate a hit movie, so much the better. Which brings us, finally, to the subject at hand: three books by three black women which either sold quite well, or were expected to (the speculation in New York as to how much Sapphire was paid for the 100-page manuscript of Push – the figure I heard most often was half a million dollars – has only recently been eclipsed by the speculation as to how much its publisher is losing on the deal).

Let’s start at the bottom. Terry McMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back is the most lazily written book I’ve ever read. Some people – namely, the book’s publishers – might be inclined to characterise its style as ‘breathless,’ but I think of it as a panting, gasping, protracted death rattle: four hundred pages of unpunctuated run-on sentences about virtually nothing. It is, in fact, very hard to believe that any part of Stella was actually written; I imagine McMillan dictating it into a microcassette recorder while doing her daily two miles on her personal treadmill (cf. the ‘breathless’ comment). Stella’s plot: a fortysomething black businesswoman on vacation in Jamaica is smitten with a 20-year-old stud who immediately falls for her, leaving Stella with nothing to do but kvetch for what feels like a contractually obligated number of pages before she predictably gives in and everyone lives H.E.A. Stella’s kvetching is punctuated by only two diversions: her tendency to worry about whether one of her bodily orifices is emitting a foul smell (she chooses food on the basis of its ability to clean her palette, and obsesses about douching in a manner reminiscent of Lady Macbeth); and her insistent plugging of consumer products made by or of significance to black people. Oprah is the recipient of McMillan’s largesse, as are Seal, and someone called Monteil Jordan, and MTV in general, not to mention the Toyota Land Cruiser and anything with a BMW emblem on it; but McMillan saves up an entire page for herself:

I decide to sit out on my balcony and read a little of The Grace of Great Things by Robert Grudin which sounded good when I read the book jacket in the store but it turns out to be too academic and deep and not exactly beach reading so I put it down after a half hour and pick up Black Betty by Walter Mosley which I’ve been meaning to read since I read and loved Devil in a Blue Dress but there’s already a grisly murder on page two of Black Betty and I’m not much in the mood for death. I pick up the hardcover version [natch] of Waiting to Exhale by that Terry McMillan which I bought when it first came out and I’ve been meaning to read for a couple of years now and after reading like the first fifty or sixty pages I don’t know what all the hoopla is about and why everybody thinks she’s such a hot writer because her shit is kind of weak when you get right down to it and this book here has absolutely no literary merit whatsoever at least none that I can see and she uses entirely too much profanity. Hell I could write the same stuff she writes ...

Nearly every person I talked to about McMillan excused her egregious lack of talent by referring to her as a black Danielle Steel, although no one would say so in print, lest it be considered insulting to McMillan. In fact, the comment only insults Steel, a professional who delivers at least one new book to her fans a year, each of which features a detailed and properly formulaic plot told in simple, grammatically correct sentences. Steel doesn’t waste her readers’ time with solipsistic references to her own books – that’s what an author bio is for – or load them down with detailed shopping lists in an effort to invest her work with sociocultural significance. I was going to say that McMillan could profit from reading a few of Steel’s books, but profit is the one thing McMillan is good at making; I’m not sure what, if anything, could help the books.

The only advantage Sapphire’s Push has over McMillan’s Stella is that it’s short. There are only 142 pages of what you’d call ‘text’ followed by an additional twenty pages or so – the pages are unnumbered to emphasise their extraneous nature – of poems and journal entries by the fictitious members of a teen literacy programme. The literacy programme is where readers last see the novel’s protagonist, Precious Jones. Before she gets there, Precious must first bear two children by her father, one of which has Down’s Syndrome and is named Little Mongo. It was at that point that I started giggling, and I tittered all the way through Precious’s subsequent trials, each of which is so crudely drawn that the comedy I saw in them seemed intentional. After her rapist father abandons the family to the perils of the welfare state, Precious is first physically and then sexually assaulted by her mother, a woman so overweight that she can’t leave her own apartment; Precious’s mother also forces Precious to eat fattening food, seemingly in an effort to make her daughter as big as she is. Little Mongo and baby Abdul are taken from Precious by the state; Precious is kicked out of school for behaviour problems and because she can’t read (it’s not her fault, she’s got troubles, and besides, she’s dyslexic); then, finally, she learns she’s HIV-positive. Still, these tragedies are somehow contextualised – or, in classic liberal patois, ameliorated – by the fact that Precious is taught to read by a lesbian named Blue Rain.

All told, Sapphire has written a slim piece of propaganda designed to deliver the novel message that father-daughter rape is a bad thing and literacy a good thing, with white people falling somewhere in between, and if you thought of The Color Purple before reading the second half of this sentence then you’re way ahead of Sapphire’s game. But unlike Alice Walker’s novel – or, for that matter, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye – Push has all the grace and subtlety of a television drama of the week: ‘Ms Rain say it’s a big country. Say bombs cost more than welfare. Bombs to murder kids ’n’ shit. Guns to war people – all that cost more than milk ’n’ Pampers. Say no shame. No shame.’

What supposedly distinguishes Push from the sentimentality of any other issue-of-the-week moral tale is the ‘powerful, uncompromising voice’ (I am quoting from Push’s press release) in which it is written. As it happens, I missed both the power and the lack of compromise: what I did notice was a lot of profanity, which I often found very funny although, again, I’m not sure it was meant to be, and a lot of grammatical errors. Precious, as I said, is illiterate for much of the book’s timeline, and the grammatical errors and phonetic misspellings are meant, I assume, to reflect this, just as the improved grammar of the book’s later sections reflects Precious’s new-found mastery of language, but the whole enterprise is rendered nonsensical because we learn on the first page that the book’s action is told in flashback. Precious, in other words, has already learned to write, and readers can only assume that she is affecting her former illiteracy. (Sapphire’s intent is further muddied by a seemingly random 16-page shift into the third person early in the book.) As a gimmick, the grammatical butchery is both inconsistent and distracting, but the problem is more than aesthetic: though the book is supposed to gain its significance from its use of urban black English, Sapphire never distinguishes between one character’s inarticulateness and the disjunction between black and white English as a cultural phenomenon. In other words, Push implies that black English is nothing more than an inability of one segment of the population to speak properly. I don’t think that’s Sapphire’s intention, you understand, but it’s what comes across. It’s a problem common to most propaganda: it can be turned against you almost as easily as it is deployed.

Of the three novels discussed here, only Jamaica Kincaid’s possesses anything like literary complexity – and that only if you’ve not read her earlier work. If you nave, then you will immediately recognise The Autobiography of My Mother as the latest and least effective reiteration of the themes of her four earlier books, three works of fiction and a book-length essay, A Small Place, all of which use some rather lovely sentences to chronicle post-colonial life in the West Indies. The problem is that, as time goes by, Kincaid’s sentences have got prettier and prettier – Wallace Stevens’s ‘floribund’, a term made from the combination of ‘florid’ and ‘moribund’, is what comes to mind – while her themes have been reduced to a few ideologically overdetermined situations.

The Autobiography of My Mother tells the life story of a post-colonial Caribbean woman whose mother dies, as the book’s first sentence tells us, ‘at the moment I was born’. The title, of course, is an oxymoron and it isn’t explained until the novel’s final pages, by which point the reader has learned almost nothing about the mother but has been saturated with the petty details of the novel’s rather mean-spirited narrator (distant father, nasty stepmother, tough life, loveless marriage etc). Then:

This account of my life has been an account of my mother’s life as much as it has been an account of mine, and even so, again it is an account of the life of the children I did not have, as it is their account of me. In me is the voice I never heard, the face I never saw, the being I came from. In me are the voices that should have come out of me, the faces I never allowed to form, the eyes I never allowed to see me. This account is an account of the person who was never allowed to be and an account of the person I did not allow myself to become.

Here is Kincaid’s ear at its best, and her mind at its worst. The prose is lovely, rhythmic, almost inexorable and, I would argue, distinctly, beautifully American, yet the sentiments expressed by the words themselves are trite, falsely universalising, and often just muddled. To be told at the end of a novel that one life is the same as any other seems to me plain dumb, but one is inclined to believe that Kincaid means what she writes, because this narrator is virtually indistinguishable in psyche from the protagonists of her earlier novels Lucy or Annie John. Maybe Kincaid does think all Caribbean women lead the same life, but I suspect that Grace Jones might disagree with her.

Still, it’s a charge that could be levelled against many authors, and it isn’t in and of itself a weakness. A carpenter, for example, can be obsessed with pine without building the same table over and over again: he can build a chair, a bed, an entire house. But Kincaid has built the same box time and again, and with this statement she seems to have nailed herself inside. All that’s left now is the burying: not just, I hope, of Kincaid’s need to render her characters’ psyches indistinguishable because they share a few commonalities of biography, but of the more odious real-world tendency to make the same reductive conclusion based on the artificial distinctions of identity-based categorisation and its attendant focus-group literature. In fact the only ‘new’ thing about black women’s writing – or black male writing, or gay writing, or Jewish writing, or Latina writing (the newest fad) is the number of people who are buying it, and I don’t think sales are quite what the term ‘movement’ is meant to imply. The last twenty-five years have seen far too much speculation about one supposed literary movement after another, from leftist (and rightist) agitprop organisations to capitalist-minded publishers to critics eager to make a name for themselves. Still, it’s hard to blame them, when the one group of people who don’t seem to be interested in finding a new literature, or creating one, is writers.