Monday, October 28, 2013

Book Review: Going to Meet the Man: Stories by James Baldwin

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.
~James Baldwin
I've always been somewhat fascinated by the phrase "La Petite Mort." For those who might be unfamiliar, the French phrase translates to 'the little death' and it's become a euphemism for an orgasm, specifically the moment right after an orgasm when it feels like all of the life force has been drained from your body. But as a phrase in and of itself, I find la petite mort to be fascinating and wide ranging. I've never thought it had to be relegated to sexual satisfaction, or exhaustion as the case may be. Indeed, I think active audience members experience the little death often. Whenever we're engaged with a great story, I think we get so wrapped up in the proceedings that the result can only be described as the little death. How many times have you put down a book or left a movie theater and thought "That was better than sex?"

This describes the experience I'm left with after every James Baldwin book and short story that I've ever read, and in the interest of full disclosure, I've read a lot of them lately. I am forever and irrevocably in love with this man. James Baldwin had a way of conveying human experience that I don't think I've ever seen before. To read his passages is to feel immersed in the experiences they describe. Whether he's writing about sitting in a Jazz bar or sitting in a church sermon, you'll feel it. James Baldwin is the kind of writer I long to be.

Going to Meet the Man is the first collection of Baldwin short stories I've read, and it creates a wholly different feeling than reading his novels or a short story on its own. As a fan of the short form, I've always been fascinated by collections of short stories. How do you decide which works to put into the collection? How do you decide what order to place the stories in so that they tell a grander story in the end? I've read a number of short story collections that don't seem to have a rhyme and reason behind these questions. The same cannot be said for this one; each story is clearly chosen with painstaking attention to detail and organized in the same fashion. Notice how so many of the stories deal with the struggles of African Americans living in America and having to deal with racist whites before you reach the last story, the titular Going to Meet the Man, and find a story told from the perspective of a racist white man. Notice in that story how some of the experiences Baldwin has explained time and time again from the perspective of blacks are now reversed and we see just how different they can look from the other side of the aisle. Brilliant.

The two stories that open the collection, The Rockpile and The Outing, are supplemental reading for his first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain (which is also amazing by the way). The Rockpile doesn't do much to enhance one's understanding of Go Tell it since the scene it describes is actually just a rehash of another pivotal scene in the novel, but it's still a fascinating read. The Outing, on the other hand, is pure gold. There could be a complaint that Baldwin uses the story to take something implicit about his main character in the novel, John, and make it explicit, but the emotional journey the story takes you on makes it well worth the effort. If Rockpile starts the collection off slowly (at least for readers of Go Tell it), Outing is Baldwin slamming his foot on the gas pedal. The collection doesn't ease off until around the penultimate story in the series, Come Out the Wilderness, and even that story only starts slow before finally showing its teeth for the final 1/3 or so. 

Contained within these pages is an entire collection of Baldwin themes and messages. Everything I've seen coming up in his writings over and over again these last few months that I've dedicated myself so fully to his writings I found in these stories. Stories about race relations and sexuality and the intersection of those two things; themes about how things never seem to change and people don't change and on some level the world will be like this forever, but a continued and prolonged hopefulness that maybe we can make the best of it are all strung throughout these pages. And always, always, there is the beautiful and affective writing that strikes to the core of us all:

Sonny's fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn't hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that we would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now. I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mamma and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever. I saw my mother's face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moonlit road where my father's brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel's tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.

I could let that passage from Sonny's Blues (my review of just this story) carry this entire review and speak for itself; it's one of my favorite Baldwin passages, but I love it too much not to try and do a little heavy lifting myself. Look at how this scene, a scene of a brother listening to his estranged junky (recently reunited and sober) brother play jazz, is so perfectly rendered that you feel as though you're there. Baldwin's prose mirror Jazz so well that I'm not fully sure those are words and not just music notes on the page. His sentence structure and diction in this passage is alive and varied in a manner that a Jazz musician would be proud of. Baldwin gets it.

I could go on and on, but there are only so many ways that I can say I love this man and I love his stories. Literary critic Roland Barthes spoke of la petite mort as the chief objective of reading literature. He metaphorically used the concept to describe the feeling one should get when experiencing any great literature. Read James Baldwin and you will get that feeling! You'll get a fascinating look at Race in America in the 50s and 60s (and today for that matter), you'll see your own experience mirrored back at you in some fashion, you'll feel less alone in the world, and if all else fails, you'll fall in love with his prose. You won't regret picking up any one of his books, I promise!

1 comment:

  1. He's so good! I read a ridiculous amount in a short amount of time, but after reading a Baldwin story I feel like I need time to recover...let it all sink in. It is exactly like good sex.