It occurs to me that it might be interesting to note where I read what I read this year, at least as a memory prompt to myself. I took this book downstairs with me to the Embassy Suites Portland hotel coffee shop each afternoon where I got a cup of tea and a cookie (peanut butter-butterscotch! delicious -- the Blue Collar shop motto being, "We're Not Afraid of Butter"!). I did wonder occasionally, what those not up on Man Booker titles might make of my reading choice -- did I look like someone fascinated by True Crime? Back to add that I now realize I got this idea of recording Where I Read from Vicki Zeigler's reading list for 2015. Always important to give credit where it's due.
While the novel thus, obviously, doesn't lack for graphic violence, it offers a wealth of compensation in humour and in the insight it provides into how such murderous and hateful violence, often gruesomely sexual, develops in ghettos, in deprivation and injustice.
Early in the novel, I was hooked by the gentle observation of a violent man who directed some of the most powerful gangs. Recalling a recent conversation with "the Singer," in which he tells the great man that "he have nothing worry 'bout from me," Papa-Lo explains further to the reader that "Truth be, I getting old and want me pickney to see me get so old that them have to carry me. Last week in the market me see a young boy come pick up him old grandfather. He couldn't even walk good without a big cane and him little grandson giving him a shoulder Me grudge the weak old man so much me nearly start cry right there in the market. I go back home and walk the street and notice something for the first time. Not a single old man in the ghetto" (27).
The story switches every few pages to a different voice, leaving the reader to weave a narrative of the fragments which begin to coalesce. One of the voices is that of a white, American man in his mid-twenties, hoping to make a breakthrough as a journalist. I was struck by something James has this character, Alex Pierce, say about "why the story of the ghetto should never come with a photo." Limning the nightmare of the Third World slum, "A vision of hell that twists and turns on itself and grooves to its own soundtrack," that "leaves the real to become this sort of grotesque, something out of Dante or the infernal painting of Hieronmyus Bosch. And then he comes to the reason he has spoken of, the proscription against photographing the ghetto: "It cannot be photographed because some parts of West Kingston . . . are in the grip of such bleak and unremitting repulsiveness that the inherent beauty of the photographic process will lie to you about just how ugly it really is" (81).
That's my underlining, there, not James', and I've added it because it articulates something I suppose I've known, at some latent place, but never seen so clearly. In fact, of course, there's something of that "inherent beauty" in the creative process itself, and I wonder if James must have struggled in the setting down of his words with that conundrum (something even of what Adorno wrestled when thinking the possibilities of art -- poetry was his example -- after Auschwitz). In fact, I wonder if his text comprises so many voices, clearly oral in the fiction, albeit obviously written into the novel, precisely to avoid the kind of smoothing-out mastery the camera's eye imposes, and which would be harder for a single narrator, writing, to avoid. I'm curious, now, to follow Alex's perception of events throughout the novel and compare his eventual journalistic record with what other characters tell me of events. What makes the section even more interesting is that the passage I've quoted from turns out to be part of an article Pierce is trying to write, and in the following pages, James pulls us back from Pierce's written voice to his writing voice, in which he rolls his eyes at his style, at his perceptions, at the way he crafts what he's seen to appeal to a certain audience.
Because I'm committed to getting these posts out on a more regular, as-I'm-reading basis, I'm going to stop here, although I've read another 50 or 100 pages since I wrote this a few days ago (therein exemplifying the problem -- it's always more tempting to keep reading than to stop and record impressions!). Before I leave, I'll just say that if you're just picking up this book, or if you pick it up on the basis of my enthusiasm here, you may find that James' exuberant use of Jamaican patois is challenging to follow, particularly as some characters use it (as in the quotation, above, from a self-titled "bad man" contemplating the possibility of old age). Hang in there, is all I can say. Trust to the rhythm to pull you through, and I think you'll find that meaning emerges. Personally, I didn't have any trouble after the first few pages, but I can imagine the syntax, especially, being a bit tough, especially on ESL readers. But this is English -- a remarkably versatile language! -- and if it was a tool of Empire and of the kind of colonialism that made the social and economic and political conditions James is writing about, it has also become a way for The Empire, as Rushdie once punningly put it, to Write Back (or, in the case of the street patois, To Speak Back!).
Okay, now I'm really stopping. Really. Chime in here, if you will. Have you heard of this book? Read it? Think you might read it? Care to share your own current reading? Or want to tell me how I'm doing with this new chat-as-I-go approach? You must know by know that I love your comments....