Tuesday, November 27, 2018

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

Barely over a year into their marriage, Celestial and Roy, a rising Atlanta couple, visit his parents in rural Louisiana. Knowing his mother’s discomfort with his choice of a city girl, independent and artistic and ambitious, he opts to lodge with Celestial at a motel not the house. Which proves fateful: he is accused of raping another guest, and we watch the well-greased skids as an African American man is in quick succession accused, tried, convicted, sentenced, and incarcerated, with little concern for due process, legal subtleties, or opportunity to assert his innocence.

This novel is told in first person, in the voices of Celestial, Roy, and Andre, Celestial’s childhood friend and confidante, who introduced her and Roy.

Through an exchange of letters we watch the couple’s relationship devolve. Celestial’s prosperous family gladly foots the bill for appeals, but her visits dwindle as her business, hand-sewing fabric doll-babies, takes off. Roy supported her dream before his own was derailed, but the incongruity between her life and his becomes an intolerable burden. Celestial writes:
“At your mother’s funeral, your father showed what the connection is between husband and wife. If he could have, he would have gone into the grave instead of her. But they lived under one roof for more than thirty years. In some ways they grew together and grew up together, and had she not died, they would have grown old together. That’s what a marriage is. What we have here isn’t a marriage. A marriage is more than your heart, it’s your life. And we are not sharing ours.
I blame it on time, not on you or me. If we put a penny in a jar for each day we have been married, and we took a penny away every day we’ve been apart, the jar would have been depleted a long time ago... The last three times I have visited, we said almost nothing to each other. You can’t bear to hear about my days and I can’t bear to hear about yours.”

Her friend Andre claims more ground based on their lifelong kinship, and Celestial finally stops waiting for the end of her husband’s twelve-year sentence. These young men are careful in how they treat each other - both want Celestial, but both respect her career, her choices, her needs. And they respect each other, which doesn’t make it any easier when they finally face off as rivals.

These characters remind us of what “civilized” means: having a highly-developed society and culture; polite, urbane, refined. In our current climate of polarization and intolerance, such characters might seem quaint - yet it is their conviction that civility is essential that makes their dilemma so striking. It would be easy to put a gun in the hand of Roy, maybe Andre as well, but Jones has greater range than to settle for the predictable solution. She dives deep into her characters’ love and anger and loneliness, and doesn’t let anyone off the hook as their desires collide.

She offers us different versions of marriage: Roy’s mother, pregnant at 16 and abandoned by the baby’s father, meets Roy Hamilton who not only marries her and adopts the boy but loves him as a son, honoring him with his own name, fathering no other children who might displace his love for the boy. Celestial’s mother divorced, and her second match was for love. Andre’s father left his mother, marrying another woman and raising children with her - at which point Celestial’s father positioned himself as a father to Andre.

These families disapprove of the affection they observe blooming between Celestial and Andre - “Aren’t you still married?” - but in Roy’s absence, she discovers in her oldest friend a deep understanding she cannot push away. Jones doesn’t take sides - she gives as much weight to Roy Sr. and Celestial’s parents as to Celestial and Andre. All their convictions are heartfelt, and utterly at odds. Someone has to lose.
Here’s a sample of how she puts it:
Gloria [Celestial’s mother] said, “I raised her to know her own mind.”
My father [said], “What is all this stuff about love and her own mind?... What did Roy do to deserve any of this? He didn’t do anything but be a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Though this is a story about marriage, it is also inescapably a story about what it is to be black in America. Roy’s college degree and rosy future mean nothing in prison - he is reduced to a man without agency. And it’s clear that if this can happen to him, it can happen to any man of color. When white people complain about the term ‘white privilege’, it is without experience comparable to a black man’s that demonstrates what that really means: the ground of assumption that one is dangerous, even criminal, regardless of one’s circumstances. ‘White privilege’ means one is not automatically at risk of suspicion or arrest or death for wearing a hoodie, browsing in a store, driving a car, renting an AirBnB ... anything you might do in the course of your life. I recently watched a YouTube video called “Birdwatching While Black,” a droll but not funny guide about how to avoid getting arrested or shot while in the field identifying birds, if you happen to be black.

Thank you, Tayari Jones, for making a world real, for plumbing the hearts of people who mean each other no harm, but who in the end lack the choice.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Place, a film by Paolo Genovese

Not since My Dinner with Andre can I recall a film set in a single location - now we have Paolo Genovese's 2017 Italian film The Place, a cafe by that name in which a distinguished-looking fiftyish man holds court at a back table. Supplicants come to him with the problems that most deeply disturb them, and he flips through his thick handwritten notebook to one of the red ribbons - the kind you’d see in a Bible to mark a verse - and tells them what act will bring about what they want.

These acts have nothing to do with their problems - a woman who wants to be prettier is told to steal a very specific amount; a blind man is told that raping a woman will give him sight. But once he pronounces an oracular “deal” he has no alternate solution. They are free not to accept it, or to follow through, but each of them wants their outcome strongly enough to make their pact - at least to begin with.

They stop by to report on their progress, which he records in his notebook. The tasks he assigns often overlap, either by his design or by some hand of providence, and some people get what they ask for, some change their minds and drop the whole thing, and some try to convince him they did as he said - but he tells them they didn’t. “How do you know?” A man of few words, he doesn’t answer, but we know they didn’t. If they had, something about them would be different.

He is an enigma - we learn the names of some characters, but even in the credits he is Uomo (the Man). He’s at The Place when they’re setting up in the morning, he’s there when the waitress is mopping up at night. As she probes, he admits he doesn’t sleep much. We don’t see him arrive, we don’t see him leave. Sometimes The Place is crowded, other times he’s the only customer, and the chairs are upside down on every table except his. Why doesn’t he get kicked out? What’s his source of funds? He eats and drinks all day, but we never see him pay.

For a man intent on details, he offers few of his own. His supplicants ask him questions, including “Who are you?” which he deflects, returning to why they have come. One character accuses him of being Satan, which he neither confirms nor denies. He displays a lordly indifference to what they think of him - his only concern, once he’s assigned their task, is what steps they’re taking to complete it.

Is his purpose to awaken conscience, or to demonstrate to people that their desires blot out their morality? Or is he an evil being with the power to grant people’s wishes - as long as he gets in trade their compromised integrity? Or is he simply a mirror of a self-absorbed culture in which our happiness is so important we’re willing to destroy someone else’s to get it?

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

An Elephant Sitting Still - a film by Hu Bo

An Elephant Sitting Still, a 2018 Chinese film by Hu Bo, just under 4 hours long, enters the lives of four people and those who impact them. First we have a high school student, Wei Bu. His parents constantly berate him, telling him he should go live with his grandma - he would, but her apartment has no heat. His friend has crossed the school bully, so Wei Bu backs him up, believing he didn't steal the bigger boy's cellphone. They meet in a stairwell to have it out, and the bully attacks Wei Bu for interfering. In a shoving match, the bully falls down the cement stairs, badly injured.

The next character, Yu Cheng, older brother of the bully, listens to his best friend's story about an elephant at the circus in Manjhouli: the elephant just sits there, even if people stab it with forks. Then Yu Cheng is caught sleeping with the friend's wife, but his friend rather than attacking him leaps from the high apartment window to his death. It's not Yu Cheng's fault - but if he hadn't been in his friend's girl's bedroom, it wouldn't have happened.

Wei Bu likes a girl, Huang Ling, but she rebuffs him - she's having a soon-to-be-revealed affair with the married Vice Dean at their high school. This man tells Wei Bu that their school, the worst in the city, is closing. "What will we do?" Wei Bu asks. "You'll be street vendors," says the Vice Dean, who then goes on to talk about the larger office he's looking forward to in the school he'll be transferred to. Huang Ling lives with her single mother, who drinks, complains, and lies around while the toilet overflows. Their hatred is mutual.

And last, we have Wang Jin, living with his daughter, her husband, and their young daughter. They want to move to another district for its better school, but apartments there are smaller and more expensive, so they'd like Grandpa to move to the nursing home. He tells them the place won't allow dogs, and besides, they're all living in his apartment. But he can see what's coming.

Everyone in this film is angry - with each other, with their lives - and most of them blame someone else for their unhappiness. Love and affection are in very short supply in this industrial city where we only catch rare glimpses of anything not man-made - a river valley one can look down on from a high overpass, a clump of weeds. And the built world is unattractive - rubble outside buildings, an abundance of concrete and rusty iron.

Misfortune caroms like a billiard ball, striking one person who strikes another who strikes a third - the only ones able to rise above the attack-and-blame cycle are those who have their thoughts on other things - Wei Bu escapes murder by telling Yu Cheng, who feels duty-bound to avenge his "piece of garbage" brother's death, about wanting to go to Manjhouli to see the elephant sitting still. That's really what Yu Cheng wants too - he despises his own thug life, but sees no alternative.

As we spend hours with these characters, their families, their enemies, we get to know each as an individual - whatever they do, harmless or evil, they are aware of it, and aware too of a sense of being trapped. And in the end, there is an epiphany, or an elephant. If you're one of those rare filmgoers who looks forward to spending four hours with a story, this one's for you! It won Best Feature Award at the Berlin Film Festival, so you might get a chance - at a film festival. Keep your eye out for it.