The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


I went to Colson Whitehead's reading of an excerpt from the then in-progress SAG HARBOR about two years ago, and then like many other people I read another piece that appeared in the NEW YORKER a few months back. I loved both of the chunks, and I think it goes beyond just really thinking I'd like Whitehead personally. I've read all of his previous books and, like most people, my favorite has been his first, the inventive and restrained THE INTUITIONIST. JOHN HENRY DAYS felt like it got out of control, and APEX HIDES THE HURT, I read it just after I read THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE by Jonathan Lethem and it just fades next to that huge novel so I barely remember it. But even in his books that I didn't like I never had the feeling that he was running dry (as I feel these days about Franzen). More like that he was waiting for his Big Novel to come to him, the continuation of the promise he showed with THE INTUITIONIST.

While SAG HARBOR isn't that book it's a very interesting detour. Most writers don't wait until their fourth novel to write the disguised autobiography they profess to avoid but tend to produce; they eject that as their first. Whitehead, though, waited until now to write his personal coming-of-age story. What's more, and what's I think a bit daringly postmodern, is that he chooses to write his coming-of-age novel not as a novel but as a kind of fictionalized memoir. I can't imagine this book appearing in the pre-memoir phase of American writing (let's say before THE LIAR'S CLUB), and I can't help thinking that Whitehead is trying to comment on the prevalence and the growing mannerism of the American memoir. It's also post-Frey: unlike James Frey (who, of course, famously turned his own drug problem into an epic and wrenching conversion narrative that I still like, that I still think loses very little in having been shown to be fictionalized), Whitehead doesn't heighten the tensions and intensity of his autobiography to make it more like good pageturning fiction; instead, he dials it down, making his novel more like aimless reminiscence. It's not plotted, and it's not even particularly character-driven. It's a series of long set pieces about setting, about a time and a very specific place and the consumer products and vocabulary and folkways that typified that setting (a long-established black upper-middle-class section of Sag Harbor, Long Island). The novel's conceit is that this neighborhood is a sort of "green world" for the kids, whose parents often leave them to their own devices during summer weeks while they work their professional jobs in New York City. They get in trouble, but with nothing more serious than a BB gun. The book's strengths are its laid-back yet carefully observed tone and Whitehead's constantly serious and charming concern with language and dialect and the interaction between a dominant language, a dialect of a marginalized group, and the linguistic adventures of a small group of people suspended (by virtue of race, class, and education) between the two.


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