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No Hugging, No Learning

Sag Harbor

By Colson Whitehead
Doubleday, 2009

The main character of Colson Whitehead’s 2006 novel Apex Hides the Hurt is a nomenclature consultant. His job is to coin names for products to make them catchy and presentable, and as he delivers his corporate patter about the importance of “associations and images,” the reader understands that his preoccupation with labels has left him spiritually empty. Names can serve God or Mammon, but not both: “What he had given all those things,” the (you guessed it, nameless) nomenclature consultant realizes, “had been the right name, but never the true name.”

 

But for an author to satirize the superficiality of commercial society, he has to be conversant with that society’s habits, and in the naming of his new book Sag Harbor, Whitehead has put some of those trade techniques to use. Not in choosing the title itself, which is benignly literal (Sag Harbor in Long Island is where the book is set, and there are no sprung puns there, as in Middlesex, Empire Falls, or Howards End). I refer instead to the small italicized words following the title that read “a novel.”

It’s probably not any more allowable today to say that Sag Harbor is in fact not a novel than it is to say that what Unitarians practice is not actually Christianity; nonetheless, the designation reaffirms my conviction that the word “novel” has been largely stripped of any specific artistic implications. It’s become market-developed. Novels are now primarily defined as books that writers and publishers decide to call novels. In the case of Sag Harbor, I think the decision was based on the fact that the word “memoir” has less literary credibility, and leaves you open to the possibility of being scolded by Oprah Winfrey on national television.

Whatever the thinking, Sag Harbor is a funny, sweet-tempered book that declines to avail itself of a single license that novel-writing affords. You will find in it no story to follow, no characters to watch evolve, no ideas to see developed, and no patterns to coordinate. The only clear nod Whitehead makes in the name of fiction is to change some proper nouns.

Vacation slide-show autobiographies are all over the place, of course, and Sag Harbor is surely better written and more amusing than most of them. But it’s the first thing Whitehead has written that you finish with an empty feeling. His three previous novels are books you have to contend with. They’re glutted with ideas.

The Intuitionist (1999) is an idiosyncratic allegory of a black elevator inspector named Lila Mae Watson, who has been framed by a rival political faction of elevator inspectors and must go underground to expose the machinations of the criminals and try to get her hands on the hotly-rumored blueprints for a “perfect elevator.” Lila Mae is of the school that inspects elevators by feel – the Intuitionists – whereas her opponents are Empiricists. Whitehead takes this invented world seriously, but he’s most interested in mining it for its themes. If you’re of a creative temperament, you’ll have already started to pull potential ideas from the premise: rising and falling, verticality as progress, the body and soul division reflected by Empiricists and Intuitionists, racism and its role in the impulse to construct a “perfect” society. Using the framework of a shaggy-dog mystery novel, Whitehead juggles these and many more themes in original ways and ultimately guides the performance to a conclusion of genuine profundity.

 

Colson Whitehead

There are, if anything, even more ideas shuffled through Whitehead’s second novel John Henry Days (2001), which depicts a rogue’s gallery of characters – from hack journalists to disturbed philatelists – travelling to a small town in West Virginia for the unveiling of a commemorative stamp depicting the mythic steel driver. Explorations of country and city life, heroism and cowardice, the uses and abuses of folklore, and the different ways that people can destroy themselves in their work are spliced in a myriad of short coruscating chapters. Apex Hides the Hurt (2006), in which the nomenclature consultant is hired to provide a small town with a fresh new moniker, is comparatively thin stuff and its characters are overly flattened into allegorical placards; but it still is more original and thought-provoking than most books you’ll read in a year.

Whitehead is an adroit and vivid prose stylist (in all four book I don’t recall a single cliché), but his signal strength is that ability to provoke thought. The books tend to move deliberatively and to encompass a bare minimum of action; they are furthermore chopped up into overlapping storylines, so they never benefit from much narrative momentum. When they sustain their drama, it’s through intellectual tension. In The Intuitionist, the question that riles you is not “Who set up Lila Mae?” but “What does this all mean?” You can tell it means something, but you have to labor with Whitehead to dig through the midden of scattered ideas before you hit bedrock.

Labor is the word, although Whitehead lightens the task with a wry sense of humor. He very palpably seems to begin elaborating his plot conceits without knowing what they’re going to yield – intuitively, as it were. There are consequently a number of red herrings and failed connections in each, rocks meticulously unearthed that turn out to hide nothing underneath. Whitehead can get away with this technique for the simple reason that he’s exceptionally smart, and when he focuses his powers of cerebration on a subject, he’s going to make more and deeper discoveries than you or I could. These are books that reward you for your effort, and in a striking way: they engage you more the day after you’ve finished them than while you’re reading.

Yet even considering the amount of intellectual spadework being done in the books (and the slightly arid climate of Apex Hides the Hurt), a dogged moral paradigm emerges. In The Intuitionist, Lila Mae, having uncovered a corrupt corporate agenda that seems to explain the elevator conspiracies, determines nevertheless to put her faith in “a power beyond rationality.” Just as Whitehead organizes his novels by chance and feel, he sets this humbling sixth sense, whatever it may be, in stark and hopeful opposition to the grubby realities of modern life. His foils are urban professionals who have fallen victim to the great nullifying force of commerce. John Henry Days is especially brilliant in its skewering of the vapid subculture of “junketeers,” freelance journalists who simply drift from gala to expo drinking for free and then burping out a thousand words of content on each event. J. Sutter is the principal lost soul of the junketeers, and the hip truncation of his name (the J. stands for something, but no one knows what) speaks to his missing humanity. Like the nomenclature consultant, he is an anonymous and unhappy black man utterly dislocated from his race and his roots. Whitehead’s heroes are the quietly irrational beings questing for the “perfect” elevator or the “real” John Henry – those seeking the human truths that have long been buried under concrete and steel.

With Sag Harbor, further development of these interesting ideas has been put on hiatus. For the first time, when you ask “What does all this mean?” you suspect the answer is nothing.

The book is narrated by Benji, who looks back at the summer of 1985, when he was 15 and lived with his brother in the family beach house in a black community called Azurest. Benji continuously alleges that he was a hopeless nerd as a young man, but readers of Sag Harbor (most of whom were probably 15-year-old bookworms, after all) will be mightily unimpressed by the claim, and if they cherish their own nerdhood, perhaps a little insulted. Benji turns out to be a shy, unassuming fellow with plenty of friends who’s at worst a little slow to pick up the slang. He vaguely suggests this particular summer was transformational, but it’s hard to see why; it seems simply to have been a summer for which he’s fondly nostalgic.

Indeed, I can only think to describe this book by what’s not in it: no cherries are popped, no crimes are committed, no serious mistakes are made, no great friendships are formed or dissolved, no parents’ marriages are broken; no one is born or dies and no one falls in love or suffers a broken heart; Benji does get to go to a rap concert, but as soon as he gets inside and the scene threatens to become dramatic, the chapter ends. Because Whitehead’s previous novels are so groping and experimental, their scenes often flirt with pointlessness. But in Sag Harbor that flirtation has become a full-blown love affair.

What we do get for 300 pages is what can only be called observational humor. Here’s Benji talking about his white classmates at his Manhattan prep school:

Not that I didn’t learn anything in school, culture-wise. The hallways between classes were tutelage into the wide range of diversions our country’s white youth had come up with to occupy themselves. When I had free time in between engineering my next humiliation, I was introduced to the hack sack, which was a sort of miniature leather beanbag that compelled white kids to juggle with their feet. It was a wholesome communal activity, I saw, as they lobbed the object among one another, cheering themselves on, and it appeared to foster teamwork and goodwill among its adherents. Bravo! There was also a kind of magical rod called a lacrosse stick. It directed the more outgoing and athletic specimens of my school to stalk the carpeted floors and obsessively wring their hands around it, as if to call forth popularity or a higher degree of social acceptance by diligent application of friction. You heard them muttering “hut hut hut” in masturbatory fervor as they approached. Good stuff, in an anthropological sense.

It’s extremely funny, and there’s a lot of this sort of riffing, on Rum Raisin ice cream, New Coke, Stouffer’s frozen food, the rules of claiming “shotgun,” and so on. Whitehead is a well-educated black man from New York, so he could write a Star Trek pastiche and people would liken it to The Cosby Show (he even has Benji remark on the embarrassment of belonging to a black family that couldn’t meet the Cosbys’ enlightened standards); but the true sitcom influence here is Seinfeld, forefather of the nothing-narrative. At one point Whitehead jokes Jerry-like about “even Stephen’s immortal ledger.” In another chapter Benji and his friends drive to the beach, lie around talking about girls and music for a while, and then upon trying to go home, sit stupefied as the car refuses to start. The mind turns immediately to the famous parking garage episode.

(Once you spot the parallel, you start to track it back in earlier work. I can’t read this passage about a stubbed toe from Apex Hides the Hurt

Which toe was it? One of the shy ones, not the big toe, or the middle, but the one next to the pinky. It sat at the back of the class and did its homework, not likely to be voted anything. Never Best this, or Most Likely to that.

– without thinking of George Costanza’s monologue about how the big toe is the captain of the toes, but sometimes the toe next to it gets so big that it wrests control of the foot through a “coup-de-toe.”)

It’s not that Sag Harbor is bad (although on the occasions when Whitehead tries to conceal the pointlessness of his observations with flowery window-dressing language, the going gets tough); it’s that it’s just there, cheerfully amenable to readers who can match their own memories to it (as I can to some degree, having summered on the eastern seaboard throughout the 1980s) and offering a shrugging “Guess you had to be there” to everyone else. Near the end of the book, Whitehead gives us a glimpse at Benji’s Uncle Nelson, a battered aging man who has been cast out of the family by his father. But instead of interacting with this character, Benji quickly leaves him and says,

I could’ve made up my own lyrics to what passed between the father and the son, something about misunderstandings, the ones that don’t matter and the ones that are everything, but I would’ve gotten the words wrong. Make up lyrics to someone else’s song and you put yourself in there, botching it all.

It’s a flummoxing sentiment to find endorsed by a man who wrote an entire novel about “The Ballad of John Henry” and named its final section “Adding Verses.” Making up lyrics to someone else’s song sounds to me like a perfect description for the job of a novelist.

Memoirs, and their fraternal twins autobiographical novels, may very well be the only kind of book that literally anybody with a laptop and a life can write (even the latter requirement might be provisional). They can be terrific, naturally—David Mitchell, who, like Whitehead, began his career with three highly conceptual novels, beautifully fused his phantasmagorical prose to a meat-and-potatoes coming-of-age in his fourth book Black Swan Green. But if a book is going to aim for nothing more than humorous reenactment, you wish one of the anybodys would write it. It’s always going to be frustrating coming from one of the most inventive novelists in the country.

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Sam Sacks is the Fiction Editor at Open Letters. He has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, and thefanzine.com. He lives in New York City.

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