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Journal of No. 118


January 17th, 2018

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward @ 07:59 pm


Got turned onto this by the joint PBS NewsHour/NYT Book Review reading group, newly started up for 2018. I remember interviews with Ward about this or other books and was at least intrigued, and this got me over the edge.

Sing, Unburied, Sing won a National Book Award and other such prizes, so it's decidedly in the 10% of things that are not crap (per Sturgeon's Law).

It relates the story of an extended black(ish) family in modern Mississippi: Voudon-adjacent grandma, salt of the earth Grandpa, shot by white people dead son, negligent mom daughter, initially imprisoned white baby-daddy, adolescent grandson, and toddler granddaughter.

On the surface, daughter takes her kids to meet baby-daddy when he gets out of prison and brings him back. Plenty of side-orders of family dysfunction and racism from baby-daddy's family.

Also, the supernatural. Having seen a number of people bloviate about what the ghosts 'mean', I'm here (safe in my blog) to set them straight.

Yes, they have a role to play in what the author is trying to say. But that's not the same as being able to dismiss them from the story as 'symbols'.

When we look at The Christmas Carol, we can see that the Ghost of Christmas Past has utility for Dickens for setting up Scrooge's regrets over the past. Christmas Present is a guide for how to enjoy life in the now. But this is not a story of Scrooge having some fanciful dreams and waking up cured. In the reality of the story, the ghosts show him things he could not have known (as if Scrooge gave a shit about where bob Cratchit lived and the names of his superfluous progeny).

Similarly here, we can't (I assert) interpret the ghosts as figments or imaginations of the other characters. They are real, yet also have meaning to the overall story.

(This is as opposed to pure fantasy, where of course ghosts or elves or what-have-you are real, and no one doubts it, and they are 'just' characters.)

One ghost is laid to rest, and fights off an attempt by another ghost to usurp him. The other ghost (I deem) has to be laid to rest by someone else. That ghost has seen 'the Promised Land', but it's not for him. 

 At the crudest level, the ghosts are symbols of deaths that can be laid at the feet of racism. And the other thing we see is that they are legion. They may not have a familial connection to the rest of the story, but there are out there, a nebulous cloud or tree of spirits.

These (I deem) are the Trayvon Martins, and Freddie Grays, and Philando Castiles, and Tamir Rices, and... a throng that is both perceptible and imperceptible.

I enjoyed the book. It's not perfect by any means, despite the plaudits. Most glaringly, though written first person (from different characters' perspectives in each chapter), the characters typically speak in a rather vocabulary-sparse Southern dialect, but 'think' in terms that often become disbelief-shatteringly poetic and authorish.

Looking at the book club, the other reaction that is perplexing to me is that certain characters/situations are too realistically depressing and nasty for some. "I'm sorry, this is too truthful for me to read. I had to set it aside. Where is my white wine spritzer?"

 
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Journal of No. 118