Monthly Archives: December 2015
Another Country, James Baldwin
It’s a funny thing – Baldwin writes with the density, the patience, that I’d love to bring to bear myself. Despite a limited cast of characters, the world he creates is full, more than likely because he has captured some of the most important elements of our own – an honesty, if a situated one. He describes life richly for his characters, whatever gender, orientation or race they may be, heartening fare in these latter days of identity politics, by way of a slow build – artless in its execution, in the best sense of the term. There are some novels, some stories, that can leave you saddened upon their completion – the characters have become, in a way, friends, and the end of the story is a parting that, despite the best efforts of imagination, you know to be final. A melancholia descends, irrespective of how the story ended – for good or ill. For all Baldwin’s skill, despite the quality of the work, Another Country was not, for me, one of those stories.
As per his reputation, Another Country does an admirable job at exploring, interrogating, race relations in post-war America. Not only do we have a frank exposure of the well-meaning yet chronically blind white liberal, destined to foul their best-intentioned efforts, but, even-handedly, there are examples of ways in which, despite whatever legitimacy it may have had in the offing, old hatreds, generational hatreds, can reach up and blind living beings, choke out the present and prevent any growth or change. The interplay of White and Black, the power dynamics that surge and boil in the New York of the early 60’s – races crammed in together, classes defined by the thinnest of streets yet living worlds apart – this is on display in Another Country, with all its terrible starkness. The characters, though none wish for it, are dealt a hand that needs to be reckoned with before any real life can happen. The problem, of course, is that the reckoning may simply be beyond them.
Baldwin, himself a gay man, also looks at the way we deal with a sexuality that is given to us, much as race is, in a straight cut, pre-packaged form. Throughout the novel, many of the characters battle with, protest against, or come to terms with feelings that they have for one another, for friends, for those of the same gender more generally. The way that this is wrapped up in racial relations is key – do white men use black men the same way that they use black women? Is the sexuality of white people, as one character believes, invariably twisted, such that they should mythologise black bodies and push on them their fears and hatreds? What does it mean of a man, his masculinity, that he should go with another man – the active submission, is it an emasculation? Is there power in the submission?
The description of sexual acts, while direct, never descends to the torrid. More often than not, the reader is left pitying the actors, rather than feeling aroused. It should be noted that while we have a rich examination of what it means to be an American man – there are characters of other nationalities, existing mostly as an example of dissimilarity – the characterisations of women, be they white or black, was a bit thin. It’s not to say that they weren’t enfleshed, but rather that they find the pole star of their motivation in their male associations. Without having done an exhaustive search, I’m fairly certain the book fails the Bechdel Test (whether or not we want to take that as worthwhile methodology, it is still something). This may not even be by negligence – the novel is set in a world that predates the sexual revolution, let alone its souring. Very much, it describes a Man’s World. The character that wants to make it on her own realises she will need to use, and be used by, men to do so. The housewife realises that she has infantilised her husband all the years of their marriage, providing him with tastes and positions because he was so vacuous. In doing so, she destroyed the love she had for him. It may be a comment on just how deep-rooted the tyranny of Heterosexual Masculinity was (continues to be?) that the woman characters can’t be otherwise than the reflection of their male counter-parts, but I’d be more comfortable with broader strokes. As is, it’s left open to accusations of inconsideration.
The scope is somewhat limited in the professions the characters take – all are either artists – writers, actors, musicians – or their hangers-on, industry types, etc. Some successful, most struggling. There are descriptions of their associations with more generic, more mundane workers – whether historical relations, or the stuff of daily life – so it is not as if the wider milieu are left totally unrepresented. However, it should be noted that there are important restrictions in place because of the set under examination. That said, the slow unfolding of the story allows for the characters, in moments of dialogue or internal asides, monologues, the space to both present and ruminate on real, fundamental elements of what it means to be a person in the modern world. This is what I meant by the patience of the piece. There is time enough to get a sense of what the characters mean, what they feel, even if it is self-contradictory, or patently wrong, or needlessly prejudiced, or whatever. It provides a groundedness that lends credibility to the work, makes it come alive and say more about the world than a bare few hundred pages of ink ought to.
As I was saying some several hundred words ago, it was a clean break on finishing Another Country. I’ll continue to digest it, no doubt, over the coming days and weeks. What I won’t do, however, is pine for the continuation of the story. And this is likely because I know the continuation of the story. We live it, with our Ferguson’s and our Stonewall’s, our Bataclan’s and the daily, ever-present anxiety of personhood and meaning and position. I don’t want to know more about the characters of Another Country because I already know too much.
The place smells damp. That hot damp that hits you in the face as you come in, and gets into your hair and your clothes and doesn’t get off your skin for hours.
Sun’s down, but it’s too early for any students or happy petite bourgeois. Just the bar tender, the regulars, and me. Wine’s overpriced. Sour. Not as bad as the pint at the last place.
A dishevelled woman wanders up to the counter beside me. Too big for her blouse, fly-away hair, shade of lipstick that clashes with her tanned skin, smeared over too-thin lips. Is she drunk, or foreign? Ah, drunk and foreign.
Take a tall seat by the fire. Start to write, more to avoid the stares than anything else.
Slow, old, pickled men beside me, the words the mumble unconsidered for all they are chewed over. Gummed.
“Pacific islanders…mass exodus…What’s that all about…you reckon?” quoth the first.
“Britain’s getting’ smaller,” respondeth the second. “Erodin’ inta tha sea…”
The first murmurs inarticulately, bald head bobbing in the over-large collar of his mint-green vinyl coat. He creaks to standing, shuffles to the toilet, slowly, slowly. Socks and sandals.
I steal a surreptitious glance at the second. Grizzled, lead grey hair tied back loosely, week’s beard growth still retaining darker strands amongst the mass. Soiled t-shirt, the complimentary beer swag variety, hangs loose on him. He doesn’t see me, staring into his pint.
Two fat Americans enter, too old to be students, late 30’s, maybe. They talk shit about whiskey at the bar, revealing their ignorance even as they try to outdo one another.
My attention is drawn to the far corner – two middle-aged women cackle over a shared jest. American again, by the accent. Different from our new compatriots, who sound as if they’re from the South. No, through the cackles, they actually sound like me. Why so certain they’re American, then? The way they carry themselves, the content of their conversation. The self-satisfied disrepair of their bodies.
Our friends at the bar have switched to electronics, bullshitting about hardware specs. Once again, it’s clear they aren’t even fooling one another.
I drain off the last of the glass and leave, headed to the next stop in this dreary march.