Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Slumberland by Paul Beatty

A very funny novel by the author of the also funny White Boy Shuffle. The narrator, who goes by DJ Darky, moves to Berlin to find a reclusive musician, nicknamed The Schwa, to have him record the perfect beat the narrator has created. It's kind of a quest novel and so it does feel resolved when the Schwa gets found and the beat recorded (I'm not giving away much of a surprise there) but it's not really a novel too worried about plot. Instead, in DJ Darky, Beatty has created a narrator so clever and word-wise and observant that Beatty can take the novel anywhere. It's really just a forum for all his insanely sharp and original observations about life in the right now (except the novel takes place when the Berlin wall is coming down). This kind of thing--a novel that's mostly a stringing together of thoughts by a really clever narrator--could get pretty irritating if it came across as smug or overly convenient or just plain boring, but Beatty is just unbelievable in his ability to give a fresh take on familiar subjects. And it's precisely because the narrator can go anywhere in his references at a given moment (Beatty's ability to connect disparate things is uncanny) that the novel stays interesting. Back when I read The Master and Margarita, I talked about how the plot can go anywhere because Bulgakov holds it together with one central event, well in this case, the thinking can go anywhere because it's held together by one central character.

Case in point:

A dialogue between the narrator and his girlfriend when she won't turn on the heat: "'Doris, it's eight degrees in here. Do you know what that is in Fahrenheit?' 'About fifty degrees.' 'Fifty-one-point-eight degrees to be exact, which is the temperature at which black men lose their f-ing minds. In 1967 when my Uncle Billy turned down a scholarship to UCLA and volunteered to go to Vietnam, it was eight degrees Celsius. On that clear, blue, carry-me-back-to-Ol'-Virginny morning when Nat 'Crazy Like a Fox' Turner looked directly into a solar eclipse and decided there and then to kill every white person in the world--it was eight degrees Celsius. In Rocky II, when Apollo Creed agrees to give Rocky Balboa a rematch in Phila-f-ing-delphia, Rocky's hometown, it was eight degrees Celsius...'"

Or this: "I'd never been in love. I'd always thought love was like reading Leaves of Grass in a crowded Westside park on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, having to suppress the urge with each giddy turn of the page to share your joy with the surrounding world. By 'sharing' I don't mean quoting Whitman's rhythm-machine poetics to a group of strangers waiting for auditions to be posted at the Screen Actor's Guild, but wanting to stand up and scream, 'I'm reading Walt Whitman, you joyless, shallow, walking-the-dog-by-carrying-the-dog, casting-couch-wrinkles-imprinted-in-your-ass, associate-producer's-pubic-hairs-on-your-tongue, designer-perambulator-pushing-the-baby-you-and-your-Bel-Air-trophy-wife-had-by-inserting-someone-else's-sperm-bank-jizz-in-a-surrogate-mother's-uterus-because-you-and-your-sugar-daddy-were-too-busy-with-your-nonexistent-careers-to-f--k, no-day-job-having California Aryan assholes! I'm reading Whitman! F--k your purebred, pedigreed Russian wolfhound! F--k your WASP infant with the Hebrew name and the West Indian nanny! F--k your Norwegian au pair who's not as hot-looking as you thought she'd be! I'm reading Whitman, expanding my mind and melding with the universe! What have you done today? It's ten in the morning, do you know where your coke dealer is? Have you looked at the leaves of grass? No? I didn't think so!' That's what I thought love would be like. Reading Whitman and fighting the urge not to express your aesthetic superiority."

And also, the novel very cleverly sets its tone by having the black narrator go to a tanning salon in the first scene--seemingly a pointless, possibly crazy action--and he lets the reader see the absurdity of the moment--and then he reveals the narrator is in Berlin and desperate for some serotonin-sunshine. An absurd action committed for a rational reason. This is the narrator in a nutshell--he seems like a nut until you know him better.

1 comment:

irad said...

Thanks! This book has been on my to-read list for a while. I came so close as to actually check it out of the library last summer but am embarrassed to say I never cracked it. It won't happen again.

PB's poetry is also really smart and I especially like his second novel TUFF which is really smart and funny too. Lots of great references there...