A review of SLUMBERLAND by Aileen Reyes
by Paul Beatty, Bloomsbury Press 2008
I like it. There's no plot, but Beatty's bombardment of language, fearless articulation of informed thoughts on race and music, and an eloquent non-pretentious use of English, made this a tedious yet enjoyable read.
This is not one definable story. It’s a segment of the main characters life, revealed in an almost collage like form. These “thought chunks”, leave no room for sappy sentiments, clichés or happy endings.
The vessel for this literary cyclone is the mind and life of DJ Darky. This black LA disc jockey, who, after scoring a series of porno films, leaves for Berlin, to take a job at the Slumber-Land bar, as a Jukebox Sommelier, 2 in order to find a virtuoso saxophonist, named Charles Stone, known in DJ Darky's musical world as The Schwa. The Schwa is discovered playing “the chicken-fucking song” 3 , on the soundtrack of a porn video, sent to anonymously to DJ Darky .4
DJ Darky is quite the character, with a phono-graphic memory 5 and intriguing love for the invention of new words. His romanticized yet realistic homesickness becomes a great device in drawing the non-writing audience into Beatty's world. In fact, nearly anyone can relate to missing even the ugliest things about the place you once called home.
As far as the mystical character known as The Schwa’, Beatty’s description makes him a elusive musical oddity, perhaps a blend of Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus and the lower eastside literary legend Orion. 6
Beatty’s invention of disposable characters, DJ So-So deaf, who is actually deaf, the female rapper, Bitch Please as well as other minor players, come and go with great timing If left to linger, they, become caricature.7
The “time frame” of the story is the tumbling of the Berlin wall, the perfect place for “black poetic literary license.” Riffs on race thrive in this revolutionary European setting. Instead what we have is a playground for racial realities and language to play freely. As a result this book reads like free jazz, from beginning to end. You might get lost if you don't listen close, or it could get too "noisy" or cluttered with invention for the typical reader.8
There are points where Mr. Beatty, finds a great use for footnotes (which I’ve only seen in nonfiction books), as a way to elaborate on thoughts that will steer the book into countless tangents, if included as part of the text. The footnotes then become the literary equivalent to the news strip on the bottom of a T.V. screen, which on the T.V. can be annoying but in this book becomes an excellent place for humorous back-story. At times, I wasn't sure if it was the author or the character talking to the reader.
The Female characters, mostly respectable real women with minds, mostly the love interests, but not mis-used as an excuse for a sexual interlude. The most interesting female in the book I believe is not heard from enough, her name is Fatima, she is the sister of Klaudia von Robinson, Darky’s black Berlin girlfriend.
Dj Darky on Fatima “What had been a healthy fear of white people shared by most of the country’s colored inhabitants ’had recently morphed ipnto full- blown leukophobia, fear of all things whit .It was debilitating at first . She stopped answering any mail that arrived in white envelopes. Refused to drink milk or eat mashed potatoes. Polar bears, snowstorms and Danes had to be avoided at all costs, because they were bad omens. And in blessed irony, toilet paper scared her shitless.”
The actual book, is very elegant, a simply designed jacket, that makes it impossible to judge it by its cover, making it even more intriguing ,because the title, catches your eye immediately and if you recognize the authors name ( which more people ought to do) then you know that it ain’t no half asssed attempt at a book.
It's lazy to place Paul Beatty in a box and compare him to other writers, so I won’t , seeing as how people do that more when speaking of artists or athletes of color. Though there is no doubt of his many influences, even hints of black comedian Paul Mooney9, what we have in Mr. Beatty is a fresh, brave voice, saying things that most people may ponder but would never mention in public.10
This novel is centered on black music, Jazz, in a fresh modern voice, without beating you over the head with it, though it is clearly a black man speaking, he has created a forum to share his thoughts in a non threatening manner. Though I’m not sure Wynton Marsalis would agree.10 ½
1..Bottom of page 114
2 .Fun word , not sure if this occupation exists or if it is another one of Beatty's brilliant inventions
3. a play on DJ Spooky perhaps?
4.please note I did not say the fucking chicken song ,but the chicken-fucking song
5 remembering every sound ever heard
6. Orion, (A.K.A. cyanide) transient middle-aged poet who in the 1990's frequented place like the Nuyorican Poets Café, abc no rio, and other places of words, reciting his genius sometimes undecipherable ,heavy accented use of language, this often included an assessment of his surroundings, fellow "poets".
A speaking Rubiks Cube , sometimes the 3 minute limit that was imposed when poets became too lazy too edit never stopped him, as he often grabbed a piece of paper, and in black ,magic marker (always) scribbled the rest of his thoughts and posted them in the neighborhood, Example, one of my favorites, from, my own archives left on the lamp-post outside the Nuyorican,
"To Bassi , the crutch on your nose doesn't give a fuck about you but since you won’t let it off the hook it makes you possessive- cyanide." He often used that nose crutch term, I thought it was a reference to Salvador Dali's paintings, or cocaine or a nose job though it didn’t look like she ever had one.
7. Like Tasty Taste in the 90's hip hop spoof "Fear of a Black Hat"
8. Luckily it's balanced with references to real world, places like Trader Joe's, that make it accessible without cheapening the rest of the book
9. In a reference to a beer, named NEGER on the bottom of page 68 “I'll have the gin and tonic, and the lady will have a large nigger”
10. I kept waiting for my favorite ponderance (yeah, my word) to pop
Up, “Do white people really sing “for he’s a jolly good fellow” or it it just something they do in film for a festive effect? …and if so what do they say if it happens to be a woman?
10 ½. see pages 52-53 and 96-97, that’s all I got to say.