Citizen: An American Lyric

“because white men can’t 

police their imagination

black men are dying”

I reread Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric recently. Published in 2014, this poetic, artistic snapshot of Black life in the US is stunning in its impact and intellectual heft. The book is decidedly not written for white men like me, and can, maybe should make white people uncomfortable. The combination of Rankine’s play with subject positions and the language’s poetic density makes me connect with the (narrative) voices. 

Citizen was The Stacks Podcast book of the month (part of the reason I reread it). I really recommend listening to the episode. Darnell Moore’s excellent critique of what is left invisible (queer, trans Black lives) and the strengths of indeterminacy really expanded my understanding of the book.

The Nickel Boys

“The white boys bruised differently than the black boys and called it the Ice Cream Factory because you came out with bruises of every color. The black boys called it the White House because that was its official name and it fit and didn’t need to be embellished. The White House delivered the law and everybody obeyed.”

Colson Whitehead’s book after Underground Railroad tells the story of a reform school, the Black boys in the school, the devastating impact of the school and the system that enables it.

This novel has similar strengths (based on a true story, the concept, the research and historical truth behind the concept, the heft of the prose in the best parts) and weaknesses (underdeveloped secondary characters, the sometimes less inspired prose in transitional plot phases) as Underground Railroad. It’s still a great book that is important and deserving of its success and accolades.

But it also made me realize how the important, successful, critically acclaimed, powerful ™ books by and about Black people too often focus on (historical) hurt and pain. I could use some recommendations for important, successful, powerful ™ books about  Black joy. Not because books like Nickel Boys or Underground Railroad make white people like me uncomfortable – that’s the best part about Whitehead’s work – but because stories of joy and success need to be celebrated and supported, too. Especially in these times.

of course i want to be successful
but i don’t crave success for me
i need to be successful to gain
enough milk and honey
to help those around
me succeed

From rupi kaur’s milk and honey

Milk and honey is equally heart-wrenching and heartwarming. Some of it, especially the first part “the hurting,” is a terrifying, intense depiction of abuse. “The hurting” and the closing part, “the healing” (including the quote above) are the strongest. In it’s middle it gets a bit repetitive, conventional in a way I did not expect after the first part. Thus, the four parts – the hurting, the loving, the breaking, the healing – are somewhat unbalanced. However, the middle is only conventional and repetitive relative to the rest. All in all the kaur’s work is fascinating, and probably a book I will return to again.

The Colorless Murakami

Here are a few thoughts I had while reading Haruki Murakami’s current novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. A book I didn’t hate, but didn’t particularly like, either. This includes hints at major plot points, so be warned if you care about spoilers. 

This is the first time the prose of a Murakami book feels dull, overdescriptive, bland, to me. Most of the points I disliked about the novel might be intentional to make the “colorless” point, but I’m not sure if I can buy in. The book is an engrossing, fast read but not that enjoyable or riveting, barely moving at all.

The characters of the original five friends are really conservative in more than one way.  Characters are repeatedly frowning when confronted with anything that is connected to homosexuality. Abortion is dismissed as killing a living thing. However, this is not a flaw but the design: The five friends are simple bland grownups in simple bland grown up lives with simple bland reactions to life and it’s problems. Even their deep revelations are grown up simple and bland. The big relationship reveals are also so so simple, bland, conventional.

The book is about what simple real everyday people find to be genuine weirdness. Not only the main character, but also the narration has an unnecessary, annoying fixation on female body parts and sex. It uses sex in the way that Real Literature™ uses it: omnipresent, slightly creepy, and always out of place and out of touch. The way critics love it in Roth, Houellebecq, Schlink. All the dirty old men. I’m fraid Murakami is turning into a dirty old man, too. 

The strongest passages of the novel are also its most unsettling and most problematic (as it so often is.) The theme of connecting to old friends after a long time is the best part of the book, but only develops towards the end. Increasingly unsettling is Tsukurus obsessive dreaming about very young and/or dead Yuzu. The obsessive dreaming is almost entirely sexual.Yet here is also where Murakami is at his best: Tsukuru does and doesn’t question reality. His obsession leads him to ponder the possibility that there is a deep darkness in his colorless heart. In these passages there is the split between alternate realities, both probable within the context of Murakami’s Tokyo. But they are only passages, glimpses, embetted in overwhelmingly repetitive and bland obsessive sexual dreams.

The ending is kept open, is even hopeful. But after what has happened before, and especially by the world Murakami has created around colorless Tsukuru, an actual happy ending seems unlikely. Were the guy to get the girl, they would merely be enveloped by the increasing absence of color. Ultimately the novel leaves you dead certain that if only enough time passes, we all become empty, colorless vessels.

Have you read the book and have a completly different feeling? Feel free to disagree with me