Eating The Postmodern Novel

The White Boy Shuffle, by Paul Beatty

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I had read Beatty’s latest, The Sellout, a few months ago and didn’t much care for it. When this happens, I usually ask, “What’s wrong with me? What did I miss?” I did miss something, but I’ll sort that out in a sec. I’m afraid, dear reader, that I find Beatty’s work less than enthralling. His humor is mean-spirited, his characterizations are caricatures, and his view of the world via his stories childishly cynical. What Beatty does best, though, is to  view American culture – and sharply.

The story here – and it’s not really a story, told in postmodern style, the characters fumble through life and circumstance as a device to comment on society – has a kid, Gunnar Kaufman, moving to a new L.A. neighborhood and coping with life there. That’s it. That’s the story. Beatty has him become a basketball star, yet there’s no sense of the game where. And to top that, he becomes some sort of cultural messiah, with no sense of the role played out nor the “masses” need for him in particular to play that role.

Beatty’s gift is probably not fiction. With his sharp eye on culture, black culture in particular, he should take a few tips from Ta-Nehisi Coates and focus on real life.

 

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Of Movies, Sleep, and Politics

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Sleep has been a dependable commodity for me for a few months now, but last night the lack-of-sleep demons returned – for a brief sojourn, I hope. So I watched what’s probably the most underrated movie ever, John Sayles tale of complicated life at the Texas-Mexico border, Lone Star. I had just read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic magazine  essay giving his reaction to Paula Deen’s less-than-contrite comments about the Civil War, racism, economic opportunity, and her casual use of what is now euphemised as the “N-word.”

 

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Sayles, in his brilliant portrayal of culture clashes on both the personal and societal levels, takes on much more than Coates ever has – whites, blacks, and Hispanics elbowing for personal liberties, romance, family comfort, and new beginnings.

 

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While Coates’ perspective is all too true, by the nature of his literary vehicle he’s forced to deal with these societal handcuffings by calling attention to the symptomatics and hoping for the best. Sayles’ art, though, has much more impact by not dealing in political and social abstractions. Rather, he graphically depicts the ways each of these cultural groups bind themselves, hold down themselves and one another, preventing the “hope for the best” future Coates always seems to reach for. If we’re to truly progress as a society, art must be the catalyst. If not, I fear we’re lost.

 

 

 

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Culture and Content

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The Atlantic, March 2013

Maybe I’m guilt plagued for berating a magazine I’ve read for so many years, but I smile now, happy that The Atlantic has its journalistic mojo back. The magazine clearly has an excellent stable of writers, from Ta-Nehisi Coates to James Fallows, and magazine is the better for them.

Magazines such as this one have the ability to draw from troves of social and political data – and The Atlantic often presents such data in ways that stick out, that mean something to we the readers. Such data is present in this issue in a one-pager on the student-loan crisis.

One article that tickles social, political, and economic funnybones is “Anthropology, Inc.,” by Graeme Wood. Here, business reaches deeper than the generic approach to product development and marketing by realizing that different people from the same background react differently to products – and business is attempting to cope with that by adding an anthropological approach to product development.

Jonathan Cohn’s article “The Robot Will See You Now,” plays on the growing ability of computerized entities to do more sophisticated data analysis – in this case the work of analyzing patients’ medical symptoms and coming up with more astute diagnoses.

Perhaps the most galvanizing article here is Rich Shapiro’s “The Hanging,” in which the author delved into the case of William Sparkman, whose body was found hanged in a forested Kentucky cemetery. Shapiro has gone to great lengths to provide a deep study of this hapless man and his death. It’s not a sensational article – certainly not as sensational as one might have supposed, but it does depict the sad plight of lonely, down-on-their-luck people and the grave consequences their lives forebode.

 

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Much Ado About Some Things

The Atlantic, September 2012

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This is as close to a themed issue as I’ve seen from The Atlantic, and as you might expect, the focus is on this year’s Presidential election. For someone who follows politics, there’s little new here, despite James Fallows’ gaming of the Romney/Obama showdown, a bit on the Latino Vote, and the most talked about article of some time , Ta-Nehisi Coates’ critical evaluation of race in America from the standpoint of the U.S.’s first black president. But back to that in a minute.

One other article sure to put letters in the editor’s box is Hanna Rosin’s sex on campus article. Here, Rosin speaks rather cautiously of the rise of feminist sexual romps on campus, how women are focusing on careers and independence (and that includes sexual) instead of the old saws about catching a husband during those halcyon four years.

An there are two other quirky ones: how tequila does or doesn’t make you crazy and, how the millennial generation is ignoring the old values of home and car ownership – and how that generation’s turn of values might save our economy.

Now to Coates:

Much has been said for years about a need for a national conversation on race, and Coates does his damnedest to begin one, centering on the Obama Presidency. Ignoring the 2008 hype about the U.S. as a post-racial society, Coates also all but ignores the insane charges by his political opponents and centers on Obama’s reaction to all of that. Obama, says Coates, has been more than reticent to amp up race talk, because he (Obama) fully understands the nation hasn’t come very far since Emancipation, even since the racial liberties granted in the ‘sixties. Coates’ object here isn’t to condemn Obama, but to explain his racial reticence in light of the nation’s stalled experiments in equality. And to wish Obama had ventured more bravely into this social and political arena.

Atlantic Fiction:

Emma Donoghue has written a present tense, third person story, that has a first person feel, “Onward.” It’s a pretty ho-hum story until you either realize (if your’e a student of literary history) that it’s about a woman, Caroline Thompson, who was befriended by Charles Dickens,  or are told so by an editorial footnote. Actually, I find the editorial footnote much more interesting than the story, but then that’s me. 

There are other pieces of interest here in you’re a fan of The Atlantic. But I’m becoming a bit dismayed with this mag. Why? For years it’s been one I could look to, not only to set the table when it comes to controversial social and political issues, but to suggest a way to answers and solutions. As much as I admire Coates‘ article, I don’t see a way out of the political darkness in it, nor in Rosin’s sex expose (it’s hardly an expose). Perhaps I’ll have to rely on the millennial article for that and hope for better things in the next issue.