by Margaret Atwood
Nan A. TaleseBuy at Powell’s »
March 25, 2010
Oh goody: It falls to me to knock one of two brilliant young black male novelists out of the race. Thanks a lot, Tournament.
This is a contest of new fiction versus tradition. LaValle’s Big Machine is a mash-up of literary horror and quest tale, family drama and underground adventure, sprinkled with dry humor, and aflutter with loose ends, slipstream-style. Then there’s The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, a slave narrative. Or should I say, another slave narrative.
When I tell you that I have a Pynchon tattoo, you won’t be surprised that I started with Big Machine.
The first hundred pages are a slow, cold slog, as protagonist Ricky Rice, a 40-ish ex-junkie, is summoned by the mysterious Washburn Library in Vermont, where he and a handful of other African Americans with slightly sordid pasts become a new class of unlikely scholars, researching unexplained phenomena. There is a lot of reading in isolation, which, with its dubious real-life merits, is fatally dull in fiction: Imagine the first season of The X-Files showing nothing but Mulder sitting at his basement desk. It’s hard not to picture a residency-anointed novelist, ensconced in a snowy retreat, lunches delivered (just as Ricky’s lunches are delivered), staring out the window with nothing to write.
The momentum picks up when the narrative splits: Ricky is sent on a mission and he remembers his childhood in a religious cult. But it’s artificialwhy did Ricky spend 100 pages in contemplation without his mind wandering to his childhood, only to have it surface so prominently once he’s on the road? In a too-long run of tiny alternating chapters, the childhood and his quest are on equal footing. LaValle ends these chapters with cliffhanger after cliffhangerthrilling at first, it soon feels as manipulative as a bad soap opera. Slap! Cut to commercial.
New elements thrown in the mix make the story less and less cohesivean awkward religious allegory, swamp things, a mysterious illness, suicide bombersand LaValle leaves many essential questions of how the whole thing fits together unaddressed. There is something like a battle for good and evil going on, but the lines can’t stay put.
Nor can the narrative voice, which begins with Ricky saying he’s a career janitor working at a bus station. He gets an envelope and goes into the bathroom to read it in private.
He doesn’t sound like someone who deals with shit all the time, he sounds like an amusing novelist. The character’s cracks are showingand that’s in the first five pages.
I went into the third stall, the last stall, so I could have my peace. Soon as I opened the door, though, I shut it again. Good God. Me and my eyes agreed that the second stall would be better. I don’t know what to say about the hygiene of the male species. I can understand how a person misses the hole when he’s standing, but how does he miss the hole while sitting down. So, it was decided, I entered stall number two . [He opens the letter, finds a bus ticket, is interrupted, and a slip of paper falls from the envelope.]
I saw that little cream-colored sheet, no bigger than a Post-it, flat on the floor of filthy old stall number three.
Let me be more precise.
Flat on the floor, in a gray puddle, in filthy old stall number three.
Better to leave it behind than dip fingers in the muck on that floor. Even wearing gloves didn’t seem like enough protection. Maybe a hazmat suit.
This is not the case for The Book of Night Women. The narrative voice rises up from the page and in a frenzy demands attention. Devotion.
Now that is a motherfucker of a first paragraph.
People think blood red, but blood don’t got no color. Not when blood wash the floor she lying on as she scream for that son of a bitch to come, the lone baby of 1785. Not when the baby wash in crimson and squealing like it just depart heaven to come to hell, another place of red. Not when the midwife know that the mother shed too much blood, and she who don’t reach fourteenth birthday yet speak curse ‘pon the chile and the papa, and then she drop down dead like old horse. Not when blood spurt from the skin, or spring from the axe, the cat-o’-nine, the whip, the cane and the blackjack and every day in slave life is a day that color red. It soon come to pass when red no different from white or blue or black or nothing. Two black legs spread wide and a mother mouth screaming. A weak womb kill one life to birth another. A black baby wiggling in blood on the floor with skin darker than midnight but the greenest eyes anybody ever done see. I goin’ call her Lilith. You can call her what they call her.
And The Book of Night Women lives up to its promise. Sticking close to Lilith, it tells her story, from a childhood in the sort-of-free house of a whore to her adult years living in the plantation house. The voice has a rhythm of its ownhow Jamaican slaves spoke 200 years ago may be largely lost to history, but James’s invention is complete, convincing, and beautiful.
Eighteenth-century Jamaica is written from the inside out, from basements and kitchens, in fervent conversations between women named Homer, Gorgon, Circe, and Pallas; at the Montpelier estate, the overseer Jack Wilkins had a thing for Greek mythology.
This might be heavy-handed if another author tried it, but James pulls it off. The book is so immersive that there’s no space to wonder about allegories until you set it aside. And you may have tothere is horrific violence. Blacks in Jamaica outnumbered whites 10 to one, and the measures white slave-owners and black johnny-jumpers would take to maintain order are suffocatingly brutal. Whereas I set aside Big Machine out of exasperation and boredom, I only put down The Book of Night Women when I was so full up with its stories and intensity that I couldn’t take in any more.
It all hangs on Lilith, a character maddening in her self-centeredness and self-effacement, her bullishness, her distrust. She often behaves badly, falling for the wrong guy, pushing away allies, saying the most unwise things. She lives, fiercely, at the intersection of impossible loyalties, driven by anger and occasionally hope. Even when she’s petulant and contradictory, she feels like a whole person, one who can and does make surprising choices. Lilith is impossible, imperfect, and unforgettable.
Slave narratives, like Holocaust stories, are supposed to come with some nobility-of-spirit theme. This is, thankfully, not that kind of book. Lilith, who comes into the world bathed in blood, is both shaped by external violence and empowered by the darkness inside; it’s that least human part of her that enables her to survive. This is troubling and complex, yet not without grace.
For all this book’s terrors, there is the beauty in the language, the remarkable Lilith, and the unfolding of a secret history. The Book of Night Women is stunning.
The winner? Marlon James. It was really no contest.
Carolyn Kellogg is a critic and blogger for the Los Angeles Times. Known connections to this year’s contenders: I think we’re goodI tally one drink, two phone interviews, and two and a half passing meetings. I reserve my vacations in Turin to Nobel prizewinners. Weeks after judging the two books, I found myself sitting next to Marlon James at a dinner in New York.