More Than a Mystery

The Other Americans     Laila Lalami     (2019)

Exactly who are “the other Americans” in Laila Lalami’s novel of that title? She introduces multiple narrators, each of whom could be categorized as “other.”

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  • Driss, a Moroccan immigrant who runs a diner, is a ghostly presence in many ways. On the first page he dies in a late-night hit-and-run accident, yet we get his back story piecemeal in chapters throughout the book.

  • Efraín, a Mexican doing landscaping in this California desert town, witnesses the accident but is afraid to come forward because of his undocumented status. We follow his crisis of conscience over many weeks.

  • Anderson, a prime suspect in the accident case, is an elderly white guy who runs the bowling alley next door to Driss’s diner. He sees himself as ostracized in a corporatized and increasingly diverse society.

  • Nora, Driss’s adult daughter, is convinced that her father was not killed accidentally but murdered, and she pushes the police to dig deeper into the evidence. As a musician, she finds some acceptance in the jazz community, despite her brown skin.

  • Coleman, an African American police detective, is assigned to the accident case. She’s smart and savvy, but she struggles at home in raising her teen stepson.

  • Jeremy, another police officer, is a veteran of the Iraq War who clearly suffers from PTSD. Early in the novel he becomes Nora’s boyfriend, and their relationship anchors a significant sub-plot.

The list of characters goes on, and Lalami integrates the disparate narrative perspectives smoothly as she disentangles the mystery of Driss’s death. All her characters (even Anderson in his way) are outsiders, with personal histories that define them in opposition to the people around them. A sense of otherness can arise from many sources, including race, ethnicity, religion, gender, immigration status, woundedness, or occupation.

Although the ensemble cast of The Other Americans is very large, the characters are fully fleshed out, with distinct voices. I really wanted Lalami to broaden each of their stories, although I know that this would have cluttered the novel and distracted from the main plot. She does provide a brief and tantalizing wrapup of the hit-and-run accident, several years out, from Nora’s point of view.

I got to know these Americans; I sympathized with many of them and wished them well. Good novels do that to a reader.

Social Histories of Detroit

Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story    David Maraniss     (2015)

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I’ve been reading a lot of Detroit histories as background for a novel I’m currently writing. This is my favorite.  

Journalist David Maraniss combines deep research with eminent readability as he describes  Detroit in a narrow but critical slice of time—from the fall of 1962 into the spring of 1964. In an Author’s Note, Maraniss confirms that “the city itself is the main character in this urban biography” (xiii). But a dozen or so of Detroit’s prominent inhabitants are featured also, their stories woven through the narrative, their characters and personalities tellingly revealed: labor leader Walter Reuther, auto exec Henry Ford II (“the Deuce”), Aretha’s father the Rev CL Franklin, mayor Jerome P Cavanagh, and Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr, among others.  

Maraniss also interviewed many ordinary citizens. I found the remembrances of Robert C Ankony, as transcribed by Maraniss, particularly effective in evoking Southwest Detroit, which was smack up against the border with Dearborn. He describes the smokestack smell from the foundry at the River Rouge Complex and the look of the storefronts on West Vernor and Michigan. Ankony was a 14-year-old truant from school on the fateful day of November 9, 1962, when he became an eyewitness to the massive fire that burned the Ford Rotunda to the ground. The Rotunda was a fabulous exhibition space that was one of the five top tourist attractions in the US at the time, and its destruction, which opens Once in a Great City, portends coming troubles in all sectors of Detroit life.  

Complete with maps to help you visually locate key sites from the period, Once in a Great City chronicles the battles for civil rights, the marketing of the first Ford Mustang, and Detroit’s failed bid to host the 1968 Olympics. National events form a backdrop: the assassination of JFK, the rise to prominence of MLK, the Great Society promises of LBJ. These three men paid attention to Detroit in the early Sixties because it was then still a truly great city.  

The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit     Thomas J. Sugrue     (1996, with a new preface by the author in the 2005 edition) 

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In academic research about 20th-century Detroit, everything starts with this classic social history, which breaks through previous assumptions that a “culture of poverty” and the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson created urban decline in Rust Belt cities such as Detroit. Thomas Sugrue amasses meticulous details to construct instead a picture of deindustrialization and of discrimination in employment and housing that led to an impoverished underclass of African Americans hopelessly stuck in a deteriorating urban landscape. 

The research basis of this book is astounding. Sugrue went digging in numerous archives, drilling down to the level of newsletters of local neighborhood associations and minutes of city commission meetings (as just two examples) to extract the story of what really happened in Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s. He didn’t rely just on newspaper accounts or police reports, which were often skewed to downplay racial violence, redlining, and the shenanigans of the captains of industry. While we may assume that the 1950s were a period of unalloyed American prosperity, Sugrue’s data demonstrate that the societal prejudices of the 1950s and the previous decades led directly to massive unemployment, infrastructure decay, and white flight to the suburbs in mid-century and late-century Detroit.

The Origins of the Urban Crisis is not a quick read, but for anyone who wants to fully understand Detroit—and many other major American cities—it’s essential.

Moral Quandaries in Berlin, Part I

Go, Went, Gone     Jenny Erpenbeck     (in German, 2015)

Translated by Sarah Bernofsky     (in English, 2017)

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Richard is retiring from his position as a classics professor in Berlin. In his university office, he packs up books, clears out drawers, sorts stacks of papers. His next steps are somewhat unclear, both to him and to us as readers. Maybe he’ll write some journal articles. Maybe he’ll kick back and take his boat out on the lake on which his suburban house is situated. Richard is a widower with no children, no close family, and an ex-mistress who is no longer part of his life; he does have a good circle of friends.

By chance, Richard walks by some refugees who are protesting the poor living conditions in a ramshackle tent village in a city park. In Germany, the refugee crisis is not abstract but obvious from makeshift camps and from daily news reports. Ever the academic, Richard wonders about the backgrounds of the refugees flooding his country. He decides to do some background reading, particularly on conflict in African nations, and he draws up a list of questions to ask individual refugees from Africa. It’s unclear what the end product of this “research” will be. Will he produce some written piece? If so, will he come down as pro-refugee or anti-refugee?  Without much trouble, Richard gains access to a group of African refugees housed in an abandoned building near his home, and he starts working through his question list. (I’ll pass over the potential ethical issue of failing to seek permission for doing research on human subjects!)

Go, Went, Gone holds many layers of meaning, and as a reader you can unpeel as many of these as you want. For instance, as Richard gets more and more involved with the refugees, he’s reminded of lines in classical literature that speak to moral quandaries. He’s trying to figure out how Germans should respond to the situation, all the while Erpenbeck reminds us, by brief references to online forums, of a thriving racist element in German society.

The novel is set in the present day, but the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has left residual tensions between West and East, between capitalism and communism. Richard lived for decades under an oppressive regime in East Berlin, so he’s receiving a pension that’s significantly less than that of his counterparts who worked in West Berlin. Still, in some ways he’s a beneficiary of the removal of the Wall:  “Who deserves credit for the fact that even the less affluent among their circle [in the former East Berlin] now have dishwashers in their kitchens, wine bottles on their shelves, and double-glazed windows? But if this prosperity couldn’t be attributed to their own personal merit, then by the same token the refugees weren’t to blame for their reduced circumstances. Things might have turned out the other way around. For a moment, this thought opens its jaws wide, displaying its frightening teeth.” (95)

As Richard’s views on the refugees are slowly, slowly developing, small incidents take on larger meaning. Here it’s windblown dust on leaves: “The Sirocco . . . came from Africa and across the Alps, sometimes even bringing a bit of desert sand along with it. And indeed, on the leaves of the grapevines you could see the fine, ruddy dust that had made its way from Africa. Richard had run his finger across one of the leaves and observed how this small gesture produced a sudden shift in his perspective and sense of scale. Now, too, he is experiencing such a moment; he is reminded that one person’s vantage point is just as valid as another’s, and in seeing, there is no right, no wrong.” (55) Bodies of water take on a liminal quality, marking some critical transition. Richard thinks often about the lake in his backyard, which holds the body, never found, of a man who presumably drowned a couple of months before the novel begins. This sad fact reminds Richard of the thousands of refugees who’ve drowned in dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean.

Novelist Erpenbeck could easily have slid into didacticism or preachiness, but she doesn’t. She juxtaposes the quotidian activities of Richard’s life (making toast, taking his car in for service) with his increasing existential concerns about the direction of his life and the direction of the world around him. She presents the refugees mostly as benign figures, victims of civil wars or sectarian repression in their native countries, but not every refugee is honest or honorable.

Sarah Berofsky’s translation of this novel is exceptionally good, especially considering the difficulties of dealing with characters who are presented as speaking in many different languages. Richard himself speaks German, English, Russian, and Italian, in addition to his fluency in ancient Greek and Latin. He communicates with the refugees mostly in English and Italian—many of them crossed the Mediterranean and landed first in Italy. They work hard to learn the language of each country they arrive in, with the hope of remaining. The “go, went, gone” of the title refers to their language learning, since the conjugation of the German verb for “to go” (gehen, ging, gegangen) is important to eventual fluency. The title also refers to the constant “going” of the refugees, their peregrinations from one European nation to another, from one government office to another, from one squalid camp to another, in hopes of finding asylum and work.

Very few books written in other languages get translated into English. I try to report on a few of them on this blog, to reveal non-Anglophone patterns of thought. Go, Went, Gone is a brilliant and profound novel that you should not miss.

Watch for my upcoming review of Here in Berlin by Cristina García, under the heading "Moral Quandaries in Berlin, Part 2."

Chinese American Metafiction

The Fortunes     Peter Ho Davies     (2016)

Peter Ho Davies has crafted a heartbreaking metafictional novel about the experience of being Chinese American. I was skeptical at first about the designation of “novel,” since the dust jacket details four separate sections, each with distinct characters, set in various time periods over the past 150 years. Perhaps, I thought, this is another book of short stories, like Davies’s two previous collections. By the time I’d finished reading The Fortunes, however, I could see that it is a novel, with the sections linked in hundreds of intricate ways. It may even be that the first three sections of the novel are intended as the fictional work of the fictional main character in the fourth section, hence the “metafictional” designation. Got all that?

It plays out in this way. The first section, “Gold: Celestial Railroad,” is about Ah Ling, a half-Chinese, half-white immigrant to California during the building of the railroads in the 1860s. First as a laundry worker and then as servant to Charles Crocker, a railroad baron, Ah Ling is thrust into controversies over Chinese labor on the Central Pacific Railroad. Throughout this section, the longest of the book, Ah Ling struggles with his identity, his relationship to other Chinese Americans, and his place in the emerging society of the American West.

Next, in “Silver: Your Name in Chinese,” we meet Anna May Wong, a Chinese American actor in the early days of Hollywood. Wong is portrayed as holding her own in an industry that blatantly discriminates against Asian Americans, routinely casting white actors to play Asian characters. Wong gets lesser roles as temptresses or discarded mistresses. Off camera she takes on numerous white lovers, both male and female.

Moving ahead in time to 1982, the section titled “Jade: Tell it Slant” recounts the story of Vincent Chin, an unarmed man who was beaten to death with a baseball bat by two Detroit auto workers angered by the rise of Japanese auto manufacturing. They thought Chin, a Chinese American, was Japanese. The narrator in this section is a friend of Chin’s who fled the scene and feels guilty about it even thirty years later. Since I live in southeast Michigan, I’m very familiar with this crime and with the lack of punishment for the perpetrators. Still, I found the grisly descriptions of Chin’s death hard to read. It’s small comfort that the Vincent Chin case brought to the public’s attention the racist attitudes toward Asian Americans in our nation.

Finally, in “Pearl: Disorientation,” we meet Chinese American John Ling Smith in the present day. Smith (who has a white father and a Chinese mother) and his wife (who is Irish American) are in China to pick up a baby they are adopting. We learn that Smith has begun to write a historical novel about the Chinese workers on the transcontinental railroad. He’s also made a start on books about Anna May Wong and the Vincent Chin case, but he hasn’t completed any of these projects. He feels vaguely guilty that he holds a university teaching position.

Aha—this is where the reader sees some metafictional possibilities. Maybe the preceding sections of The Fortunes are actually John Ling Smith’s unfinished attempts to make sense of the Chinese American experience in the United States. The first three sections of the book, after all, feature historical characters, albeit in fictional scenarios. Smith is totally fictional, but his fictional character is grappling with the same issues of racial discrimination and cultural assimilation that Ah Ling and Anna May Wong and Vincent Chin faced.

Davies doesn’t pull any punches in depicting the racist attacks on Chinese Americans, both verbal and physical. I was taken aback by the huge number of offensive epithets, jokes, and fake accents that Asian Americans endure—about the folds of their eyes, the size of their genitals, and the tone of their skin. The most extreme attack is the brutal murder of Vincent Chin.

The connections that Davies creates between the four sections of his novel astonished me at every page. The word “jade” comes up as the color of the water that Chinese immigrants see on their journey across the Pacific Ocean, as the cigarette holder of Anna May Wong, as the elephant charm on a neck chain that Vincent Chin is wearing when he dies, and as the trinkets that adoptive parents buy when they are in China to pick up their babies. Elephants (real and toy) keep appearing, as do bamboo cages and baskets. Railroad cars trundle in and out of the stories. In 1860s California, the bones of dead railroad workers are carefully sent back to China; in circa-2000 China, John Ling Smith marvels at the unearthing and reconstruction of the Terra Cotta Army, part of a necropolis for an ancient Chinese emperor. We’re told that Smith attended college at Caltech, having been rejected by Stanford; the historical figure Leland Stanford, who founded Stanford University, appears in Ah Ling’s story. The linkages go on and on.

Every person interacting with society must grapple at least occasionally with questions of identity, class, and status. Chinese Americans also carry the weight of one of the great cultures in the history of the world. Davies’ characters straddle East and West; read this novel to see how they handle it.