And Through The Morning Air The Sun Poured Yellow Surprise Into The Eye Sockets Of The Stony Skull

I remember having some very undiplomatic feelings recently about epigraphs in general — about which had something, in general, to do with frustration at never fully understanding the references, not wanting to spend too much time divining the possible deep meaning behind the epigraphs and basically generally impugning the general worth of those writers who indulge in epigraphs. I suppose it's a nice way to pay homage to those writers who came before but as a reader I feel it sets the reader on an unnecessary abstract tangent before having even read a single word of the book they're supposed to be reading. All of which is to say, I don't know that I've ever fully comprehended an epigraph, and most of the time I think I generally skip them.

The title of Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me is a quote from a Richard Wright poem, which is the epigraph to the book.

Every once in a while I've come across a piece of writing that is unassailable, and when something is unassailable you can often feel the writer show a freedom and ease in his or her prose that is wonderful to read. When it happens, writers air things out, feel comfortable in their voices, experiment with ideas, and often do it really successfully. They add epigraphs, and those epigraphs sound tight and organic.

The conceit of Between is that it's sort of a letter from Coates to his son. That conceit serves to make Between doubly unassailable: you're not supposed to critique but rather eavesdrop.

The idea that you're eavesdropping is part of what makes Between so conceptually masterful: merely "listening" is an aggressive move; it's like when you're sitting next to a couple at an adjacent table at a restaurant where you can't help but get sucked into a private conversation — no one's going to say anything, not even those buttinskys that that scoundrel Quiñones entraps.

That said, the conceit only goes so far. Frequently you forget this is a message to his son, mostly because it hardly ever reads like that, except when Coates circles back around and brings it up again. Also, I'm not sure why you go on cable or publish a wildly successful book if you don't want people to discuss it. It's an interesting conundrum, and in 50 years when Between is in the canon of novels about the African American experience, I don't think any reader will think twice about.

Part of what makes Between a little frustrating is the no-man's land between cultural criticism and poetry. Coates self-deprecatingly writes that he first tried to be a poet, and was bad at it. But I have the feeling that every poet probably started out as a bad one, and eventually transcended their youth and inartfulness. The poetry Between is subtle, but I'll take it at face value; so in this sense the "Dreamers" (who believe in the American Dream and benefit from being generally white enough to benefit from it) are blind to the advantages they have enjoyed via their whiteness. It all makes me wonder how much is a reaction to the narrative versus the words on the paper.

And the thing is, you don't have to construct a labored metaphor when the facts at hand are already so powerful. The salient details about his upbringing in violent neighborhoods in Baltimore are compelling enough: if it really is about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then Thomas Jefferson has a lot to answer for, because this environment fails on all counts: life is often denied, people are not free to walk certain streets or be out during certain times and the pursuit of happiness seems pretty impaired.

For me, the disconnect between the poetry and metaphor of the Dream versus I guess what some who deign to respond to it as a concrete thing (and open themselves up to seeming universal scorn, ahem) is maybe the crux of the matter. What if the US isn't a Mount Rushmore of democratic brilliance but rather a country like any other on the planet that evolves and makes new policies and continues to work toward the promise of a just society? Coates uses France as a foil — and he's not unaware of France's fucked up colonial transgressions — but I was thinking of Germany, which obviously has a pretty fucked up past but which doesn't carry the baggage of the Declaration of Fucking Independence, or at least the narrative of chopped cherry trees and whatever else. Point being, do "we" — meaning those not on cable news or writing in the Atlantic — in our day-to-day lives really perceive the United States of America as the greatest nation that ever existed or just a place where we live and work and raise families and whatever else. Not to sound unpatriotic, but most of us live in a country and not a narrative.

There's a passage — and you've got to hand it to Coates for including it (and which is also an example of the unvarnished freedom he's hitting) — where he poops in the 9/11 punch bowl by admitting that his heart was cold. This wasn't that upsetting to me — I remember talking to someone in the months after 9/11 who, when reflecting on how things had shifted, noted his own impression of firefighters, who in the years before 9/11 he associated more with a particularly offensive float in a Labor Day Parade than everyday valor.

People experienced 9/11 in concentric waves; those closest were hit mightily and then so was everyone else in a nationally tragic sort of way. Coates writes he was cold on 9/11 because his classmate at Howard was still dead at the hands of police brutality. The story is as horrible and tragic as can be, and even though he and his mother became visceral symbols of the debased dream in the book, Coates honestly portrays the awkwardness when he visits her. It's good and true, though I don't think it was necessarily written for his son — which is part of the back-and-forth you feel about the book: sometimes it seems unassailable and other times it strays elsewhere.

And then there are moments like on page 125, which has nothing to do with 9/11 or metaphors or broken bodies but rather this devastating admission: "Your mother had to teach me how to love you — how to kiss you and tell you I love you every night. Even now it does not feel a wholly natural act so much as it feel like ritual. And that is because I am wounded." On the one hand, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" seems to cover it all. On the other hand, it can come off as pretty transactional; something's missing there and I'm not quite sure what it is. It's deeper than love; I don't know what, but it's got some other important attributes in there: commitment, security, loyalty, belief and a lot of other nouns I can't possibly scare up a the moment but which I'm pretty sure kids should have a lot of. Neighborhoods, schools, the justice system — all of that seems like it can be ameliorated (eventually, somehow) — but no society can put in place policies or programs or national conversations to show love to your children.

Posted: October 28th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: