Thursday, May 21, 2009

Why I'm having trouble reading Sag Harbor

The new Colson Whitehead, that is, which I have looked forward to for some time. I haven't posted much here about Whitehead, but perhaps that's because he's such a staple of my literary imagination--I feel a real kinship to this writer, aesthetically speaking, and we are the same age and gender, and have a similar taste for the wacky conceit. I don't know him personally, but I feel right at home in his nerdy, off-the-cuff prose--he's the writer I think of when I think of whom my contemporaries might be.

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?


rmellis said...

You better read it, it was your birthday present.

Zachary Cole said...

I finished it a couple of months ago, and I'm still not sure how I felt about it. When I finished, I thought to myself, "So what?" The only other book I've read of his is Apex, and even though I don't think the (unnamed) main character in that book had really changed by the last page, I loved the zany, irrevent world he created, both the town and the nomenclature profession itself.

I felt the same way you did about Sag Harbor. It felt a little pedestrian; even though I never grew up in the eighties, little he showed "wowed" me.

All that said, I say finish it. There's a great scene about a very stupid game later on that's a real treat. I guess that's my verdict on the book--the invidual parts are great, but overall it didn't seem to add to much.

jrlennon said...

That is indeed my sense of where it's going. But yes, of course, I'll finish it...and Rhian is not adding that she also got me the collected poems of Frederick Seidel and a big ole bottle of single malt scotch. So there's plenty of goodness to go around.

rmellis said...

The other thing here is that when we were IN the 80's, living it, we didn't know what would epitomize it for us later. I didn't know, for instance, that the metal Swanson's trays were on their way out, and that forever after, they would make me think of eating dinner on the coffee table while my dad worked late.

Instead, we might have thought that Wendy's would be the echt 80's thing, but it turns out there are still Wendy'ss and there's nothing particularly 80s about them.

I guess I'm saying it sounds like, because it has the benefits of hindsight, that the book is more nostalgic than a true recreation.

jrlennon said...

Yes, i think you're right about's the product of a writer casting his mind back and trying to remember what made the 80's the 80's...except that he didn't know what that would be at the time, and that confusion isn't in the book. That's a really good point.

christianbauman said...

I've had an interesting, almost parallel experience this month, at least as far as new works from admired writers go. Am reading Abraham Verghese's new novel, Cutting For Stone. His first two books, the memoirs My Own Counrty and The Tennis Partner, live happily on the shelf where I keep my extraspecialfavorite books. So very psyched when his novel came out. I AM still reading it, and I WILL finish it, and indeed it's getting better as it goes along. There are parts I adore. But also...well, hard to put finger on it until done. But I find myself rewriting his prose as I'm reading it, and he's proved himself to be a better writer than that. The story and the arc is satisfying, as are the characters. But the execution is sometimes disappointing, and I know he's a better writer than that. It's kind of the opposite of The Corrections, but with the same result: Franzen's prose in The Corrections sparkled in the way trumpeted and promised, but I had no emotional connection with the book whatsoever. So I admired as I read, but had no drive to pick the book up the next day. Once picked up, I again admired, but never the drive to pick it up. With Cutting For Stone, similar: the emotional connection is there...I want to know more about these characters and where they go, and Verghese's humanity and soul permeates, but the unexpected clumsiness makes it hard for the book to drive into my brain, which means I have to continually remind myself in the morning what it is I'm reading. Once there, I'm mostly happy. But there were moments early on when I wondered if I'd finish.

jrlennon said...

I feel as though we have to remain faithful to our favorite writers (and musicians, and artists) even when they go through what we think of as a fallow period. I mean, I hope my readers cut me some similar slack.

I also think that it's rare for everyone to agree on what the fallow periods are. I'm thinking here of my encounter with a young fella who is really into the solo records of Steve Malkmus (which is fine by me) but just... doesn't... get... Pavement. Crazy, I know, but an artist with diverse talents can never please everyone all the time.

Zachary Cole said...

I agree; how many readers of the same author can garee on what the best book is? JRL, I'm thinking back to your Lethem comments many posts back.

You and I have different "favorites" when it comes to him: I got the most out of "Fortress of Solitude", but had a lukewarm reaction to "You Don't Love Me Yet"(may be because I'm too hot on da rock n' roll.)

One last thing. Mr. Bauman, I've been reading "Voodoo Lounge" and can't get enough of it.

jrlennon said...

Hey Christian, one other thing--if The Corrections left you cold, you might try Strong Motion, Franzen's second, most flawed, and my favorite of his books.

christianbauman said...

Mr. Cole: thanks. It can't get enough of you, either.
Mr. Lennon: thanks for the recommendation. I'll give Strong Motion a whirl, mostly because you described it as both your favorite as well as his most flawed. With a a duality like that, I can't possibly pass it up. Also, I agree with your comment about giving our favorite writers slack. The reward is, there is nothing more satisfying than surviving fallow work of a favorite and then being rewarded when the hero steps to the plate again and nails one out of the park.

Teresa2 said...

I'm so glad I found this blog,I love your story reviews.
I just finished reading Lacy Dodgeson,Lacy Dodgeson in a 1998 Story magazine I got bought online.It was one of the best stories I've ever read and I consider myself a very voracious reader.I found your website because I want to read more from you.
Thanks you so much.
Teresa Bowers

Teresa2 said...

Dammit-I hate typos!

bklynharuspex said...

I'm happy to see some love for _John Henry Days_, a book I enjoyed greatly (while seeing plenty of flaws) and one that seems to have made less impression on the public than _Intuitionist_ or _Apex_ (which I also liked a lot). Discussions of _Sag Harbor_ make it feel as though Whitehead decided to go back and write the First Novel, the "write-what-you-know" book, he omitted the first time around.