Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Swings and Misses: On Jesmyn Ward's First Three Novels

Two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward's first and least heralded novel, Where The Line Bleeds, is the kind of book critics like to call 'promising.' Just good enough to spark interest in what the writer might do next, it's an unexceptional example of MFA program social realism, more a member of the Dreiser-Farrell-Wright school (descending ultimately from Zola) than the Faulkner-Ellison-Morrison line (with ancestry in Melville, Hawthorne, Poe) to which Ward is generally considered heiress-presumptive. This novel lacks any of the gothic strangeness that energizes the best American fiction. Nor does it feel like a tale that particularly needed telling. And Ward's tale and telling are far too predictable. Still, it was a good enough novel to hold my interest to the end (if it had been 200 pages longer, that might not have been the case) and push me forward into Ward's next story of the African-American inhabitants of the southern Mississippi town of Bois Sauvage.

Salvage the Bones begins (here comes that word again) promisingly. There's an immediately engaging narrative voice, an agon with Faulkner signaled by an explicit intertextual relationship to As I Lay Dying, prose that pumps up the lyrical volume, and even a hint of the gothicism notably missing from her first novel. But within the first hundred pages things start to go awry. The intertextual thread is lost or dropped, an initial gothicism gives way to the less interesting realism of Where the Line Bleeds, and even the prose flattens as the Katrina wind rises, causing this reader to lose interest even as the action climaxed. (The fact that this novel is, again, very predictable didn't help.) The beginning of Salvage the Bones makes Faulknerian promises that the Steinbeckian-Caldwellian remainder fails to fulfill. Harold Bloom might have called this an example of a failed agon. Ward faced Faulkner and flinched.

If Salvage the Bones was 'a swing and a miss' at William Faulkner, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a too-slight, minor attempt at an agon with the Toni Morrison of Beloved and Song of Solomon. It's a very well written book--there are nearly perfect sentences, similes, metaphors scattered (albeit too thinly) throughout all three of Ward's novels--but the supernatural elements somehow fail to Morrisonianly mesh with Ward's more topical concerns (mass incarceration, police violence), and the book overall seems a thin, too-predictable, un-rereadable thing. Ward's rather tepid magic realism doesn't grant her novel the "anything can happen" quality we find in Garcia Marquez and Morrison. I was impressed, but not overly impressed. Still, I'm hopeful. Jesmyn Ward's first three novels chart a progression toward artistic excellence and imaginative originality--also, a movement from strict realism to a gothic-tinged Morrisonian magic realism--so I await with interest her fourth novel, hoping it will blow me away. Her first three did not exactly strike me with gale force.

(And now to parenthetically turn to the elephant in the room. Why did Ward's two relatively minor novels win National Book Awards, the same honor given to such undeniably major works as Ellison's Invisible Man, Bellow's Augie March, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Styron's Sophie's Choice, Walker's Color Purple, etc.? I suspect that the answer has less to do with individual judges advertising their wokeness than with a general decline in the quality of American literary fiction. Litfic in America has hardened into a safe, delimited, academicized genre that no longer has much room for huge groundbreakers like Invisible Man or Gravity's Rainbow. Of recent NBA winners, only William Vollmann (who won for Europe Central, one of his more accessible books) imagines novels on that fearless level. Our culture also seems to have lost the 'sweet spot' where high artistic quality and bestsellerdom can coexist, a spot occupied forty-some years ago by The World According to Garp, Song of SolomonRabbit is Rich, The Executioner's Song, Sophie's Choice, etc. We have a smaller literary fiction today, I sadly and pessimistically suggest, because our high culture is contracting under pressure from a low, lucrative, relatively mindless, and wildly popular techno-culture. People who spend their ever-contracting semi-free time looking at antisocial "social media" aren't in the market for difficult fiction. The fictions that move them are provided by Russian intelligence.)

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