I've written here before about his first novel, and so have a lot of other people, so I won't get into it here. Suffice to say it's a minor classic, and I teach it at Cornell often. It is famously about an elevator inspector with identity issues. My favorite of his books, though, is John Henry Days, the tale of a press junketeer with identity issues, and I liked but didn't love his last novel, Apex Hides The Hurt, which is about an advertising executive with identity issues.
The new book is a quasi-autobiographical meander through the Sag Harbor of Whitehead's childhood. It is a detail-packed recreation of the mid-1980's, complete with knockoff Members Only jackets, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and bright white Fila sneakers, and let me say right off that I'm only 50 pages in, and I may not finish it. So this is not a review of the book. I guess what it is, is a review of Whitehead's apparent aim here--or rather, my discomfort with that aim, given how I feel about this writer. So yeah...this is a review of me, reading Whitehead.
I'm given to wonder if Whitehead worried that he was becoming a gimmick writer--that he trafficked a little too freely in the story of a black person reconsidering his/her identity against a backdrop of some not-quite-science-ficitonal alternate reality. Certainly Apex felt a little overly familiar. Maybe he felt as though it was time to write something real--a sentimental journey, about the creation of an imagination.
But the opening pages of Sag Harbor weren't doing it for me. The terrific prose is here, the instantly identifiable characters, the lavishly detailed setting. In a way, the Sag Harbor of the eighties is an alternate reality here, or it might as well be, for all the effort Whitehead is putting into making it real. And indeed, I feel very much in the book with him: it is his particular talent to be able to do this so skillfully, so thoroughly.
So what don't I like about it? Nothing really. Liking it isn't the problem. Reading this book is a little like hearing your brother tell some new friends a great story you've heard him tell before. You know all the details, you're delighted by your brother's ability to work his audience, and you feel a particular filial love for him as he does so. But you don't really need to hear it. You were there, and you've heard it all before.
Whitehead spends a lot of time (at least in the first 50) painstakingly recreating the objects, habits, and prejudices of the 80's, and I guess in the end this is what bothers me. Because he isn't inventing this world, he doesn't seem to know which details are important. And so we get paragraphs like this:
I'm talking frozen food here. Swanson, of course, was the standard, the elegant marriage of form and function. The four food groups[...]lay pristine in their separate foil compartments, which were in fact, presto, a serving dish[...]All hail Stouffer's! Pure royalty, their bright-orange packaging a beacon in refrigerator sections across the NY metro area. French Bread Pizzas--so continental!
And then we get Boil-In-Bag meals, Howard Johnson's fried clams, Chunky soup...and it's true, he gets it right on. I was there, man, pulling those french bread pizzas out of the toaster oven with him. But...I don't want to hear about my eighties. I want to hear about his eighties--an eighties I never saw before. He does that here, too--there is some good stuff about race on Long Island, the social heirarchy of the town, the street/suburb dichotomy, and it's a pleasure to read.
Ultimately, though, I think there's too much muck, too much window dressing, and because it's all real, he can't see that it isn't important. In his other novels, the conceit forces invention. It's not a crutch, it's a whip.
I do think this book will be a huge hit and will probably win a major award, which Whitehead will deserve, for being Whitehead. People are not usually awarded for their most brilliant inventions, but for the less inventive work that brought them a larger audience. This is that book for Whitehead, I think. But I, a hardcore Whiteheadian, will be waiting for the next one.
And yeah, yeah, I will finish this book. If it turns into something else along the way, I will update this post. Until then, though, have you read it? What do you think?