I’m behind on 20 Books of Summer AGAIN (although I have finished #7 and am now reading #8 and #9, so it’s not quite as bad as the post title makes out). This is mostly to do with moving house and having little time to read, but a little bit also to do with the fact that I found both of these books hard going, and kept on picking up other things. In the case of Negroland, this was probably my fault; in the case of American War, this was probably the book’s fault.
Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, despite its subtitle, is only a ‘memoir’ in the loosest of senses. Jefferson examines the world of the black American elite into which she was born in the 1950s, glancing back to mid-nineteenth-century black writers who tried to justify the ‘Negro’s’ place in society by condemning the majority of their fellows and extolling the ‘Talented Tenth’. The book focuses on the tension between class and race, and how wealthy black people tried to navigate this by, on the one hand, adopting white beauty standards, mannerisms and norms, but on the other hand, recognising the casual racism of their friends and neighbours. Jefferson recalls reciting a Langston Hughes poem with her sister and making fun of the dialect, only to be rebuked by her mother: ‘This is a beautiful poem and, girls, you are butchering it.’ The wish to fit in with her white peers, to not have to worry about these kind of things, is palpable throughout Jefferson’s retelling of her childhood.
Negroland is deliberately disjointed, taking its own project apart. ‘I think it’s too easy to recall unhappy memories when you write about race,’ Jefferson reflects. ‘You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles.’ She repeats this line very near the end of her memoir, but replaces ‘write about race’ with ‘write about yourself.’ There’s a sense that she’s uncomfortable with the whole project, often digressing from her own memories to write about other things, and it was this aspect of Negroland that I struggled with. Most of the chapters are so bitty that I found I kept losing attention. Jefferson is open about the fact that she is tired of having to come back to the subject of race, while, at the same time, closely chronicling various manifestations of structural racism that make her return inevitable; skin-lightening creams, the limitations of fictional representations of black characters, the disgust aimed by white people at the majority of black Americans, which meant that privileged girls like Jefferson had to behave perfectly at all times to prove they were ‘not like them’. Nevertheless, as Negroland maps her struggles within her own psyche, I found – as with Sigrid Rausing’s Mayhem – that it felt incomplete and unfinished, a sketch for something bigger.
Omar El Akkad’s American War is set in the relatively recent future, after a second civil war has torn apart America, leading to frequent altercations between Southern rebels and the remains of the Union. Sarat, its hefty, belligerent protagonist, becomes a refugee at the age of six and spends her adolescence in a camp on the border between Mississippi and Tennessee, where she is drawn into insurgent action. Like many dystopian novels – Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Naomi Alderman’s The Power are two obvious examples – American War has a framing narrative; but in this case, its narrator, Benjamin, is much closer to the events he’s describing than framing-narrative narrators usually are. I liked this device, demonstrating how much is at stake in the writing of history, and El Akkad makes clever use of a range of invented ‘sources’ throughout this novel, expanding on his world-building through reports, censored letters, records of compensation claims and extracts from memoirs. American War also has an obvious point to make: by making the bodies of Americans and the land that they live on the site of conflict, with anonymous benefactors from China and the Bouazizi Empire (a unified Middle East that has experienced ‘five springs’) sending care packages, El Akkad replays America’s foreign wars on its own soil.
Despite all this promising material, I felt weirdly distanced from most of American War, and couldn’t really work out why. I don’t entirely agree with this review, but its point about place seems apt to me; apart from Sarat’s affinity for swimming in swamps, there seems little particular about the setting of American War, which feels bizarre given the rich history of depictions of the South in US literature. Having read this alongside Negroland, I would also agree that the seeming irrelevance of race in this imagined future doesn’t ring true. But furthermore, I’d add, three-quarters of American War plays out as a frustratingly cliched guerrilla dystopian novel, with the expected plot beats (escape; massacre; recruitment; torture). El Akkad tries to think his way into Sarat’s head, but even his too-rare attempts to explore her internal landscape feel a bit rehearsed and unconvincing, as when she thinks about her body in relation to the bodies of the boys she knows, and wishes that being big and strong was seen as a good thing for girls. (Compare, for example, Fiona Mozley’s treatment of the same subject with Cathy in Elmet). The book suddenly came alive for me in its final quarter, when we switch into Benjamin’s first-person perspective, and all the pain, guilt, moral turmoil and broken alliances we’ve been told about abruptly feel real. Even Sarat feels more like an actual person when she’s seen through Benjamin’s eyes. I wished that El Akkad had given us much less of Sarat’s backstory, and much more of what happens after the supposed end of the civil war in 2095. Flipping the novel like this – with the backstory held back rather than presented to us on a plate – would have allowed him to explore questions of culpability and revenge much more deeply.