Friday, October 5, 2018

BOOKS! (An American Marriage + Masks)

When I was in California back in August, I stopped at a Books Inc. in Mountain View on a whim and walked out with two books. Both my own selections, but they also received strong commendations and nods of approval from two of the store clerks who noticed me carrying them around the store. This review features one of them. On another day, I spent a couple hours seeking out old and used treasures at Bell's Books in Palo Alto, and only one book spoke to me while I was there. This review features that book too. Coincidentally, both of today's reads involve love triangles, though I didn't realize that connection until just now.

An American Marriage  by Tayari Jones

I can't remember the last time I read a book with such urgency. While still in the Bay I decided to forego an extra day exploring in San Francisco just so I could sit at a cafe in Palo Alto and read this book all day. On the way back home, I was reading and annotating so fervently at LAX that a really sweet older custodian lady noticed and complimented me on being "a good girl" because she thought I was studying. What's funny is that I put off reading this book for so long because of all the hype it's been getting. (Not proud to say that I'm still turned off by things that too many people are speaking highly of at the same time; trying to get over this.) And now I've put off writing about this very same book because I didn't want the story to be over. I could walk around just savoring it in my head without having to reckon with it or risk not doing justice to it with my potentially meager words. But it's been time.

Celestial is an artist and Roy is climbing the corporate ladder. They're a newlywed SpelHouse couple living the ideal life of a young, educated, successful black couple in Atlanta. Until one night changes it all. After visiting Roy's parents in his small hometown in Louisiana, they retreat to a hotel but are awakened in the middle of the night when cops bust down their door. Roy has been (falsely) accused of rape by another guest at the hotel, and despite his "respectable" background and the best efforts of both his and Celestial's families, Roy is convicted and sentenced to 12 years in jail. He only serves five of those years, but that's more than enough time to reconfigure Roy in unimaginable ways. When he's released, his first inclination is to pick up where he's left off: he wants his life and his wife back. But Celestial's doll-making business has taken off, and she's moved on with her childhood friend and next door neighbor Andre. They have their own ideas for how to contend with Roy, but will he be set aside so easily? And is Celestial really done with him?

I love how Tayari Jones informs us about Roy's time in jail through the letters that he and Celestial write each other, compared to the prose used in the rest of the book. It spares us a few of the more gruesome details, gives us a clear-enough idea of how much time has passed, and maintains the novel's initial focus on their relationship. We get both of their perspectives, but also the sense of limited access to each other's lives that Celestial and Roy face when communicating with each other. Jones enables us to not only feel the time that's been lost, but the moments that have been lost as well. Because each chapter is written from one character's perspective (either Roy's or Celestial's, but sometimes Andre's too), readers may be tempted to pick a side. For most of the book it was easiest for me to align myself with Celestial's personality and thought process, but that waned as she started to hide behind Andre more and have him deal with her problems (read: Roy). But Roy's imprisonment and release force everyone connected to him to reveal themselves in one way or another, so I suppose even Celestial couldn't help but be changed.

All in all, I'll say that An American Marriage is a book that no one should deny themselves the pleasure of reading. It's a messy love story but also an indictment of the American justice system and prison industrial complex. A collection of traumas and the ripple effects that are created when a marriage is ruptured by the harvesting of yet another black body by the state. A mix of love lives, misunderstandings, and family tensions, but also a tenderly raw tale of consequences, duty, and healing. It's my absolute favorite of the books I've read this year. If you care about Black people, enjoy reading treatises on love and relationships, know anyone who's gone to prison, love your mom, have ever had to make a difficult decision, or enjoy being a bystander to gossip, then this is for you!

Favorite quotes:
"Up until now, I thought I knew what was and wasn't possible. Maybe that's what innocence is, having no way to predict the pain of the future. When something happens that eclipses the imaginable, it changes a person. It's like the difference between a raw egg and a scrambled egg. It's the same thing, but it's not the same at all. That's the best way that I can put it" (41).
"He was gone, and I was gone, too. It was like I slipped on a patch of ice on a dark road inside my own mind" (54).
"I urge you not to disconnect from the people who remind you of the life you once had and the life you want to live again" (86). 
"I never had a chance, did I? I only thought I did" (278).

"What unkindness showed me that she loved me by revealing the ways that she didn't love me?... What cruelty revealed that she cared by making me understand the limits of the same?" (300).

Masks by Fumiko Enchi
(Translated from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter)

Ibuki is a professor and Mikame is a psychologist. They're college friends and run in the same poetry and literature circles as middle-aged widow Mieko Togano and her daughter-in-law Yasuko, who's also a widow. Both Ibuki and Mikame are infatuated with Yasuko, and as they both vie for her affections, they become more curious about her mother-in-law, who seems to influence (if not outright control) everything that Yasuko does. Mieko's perpetually serene, composed, and graceful persona is indeed a facade, but they have no idea about her real plans, which enfold all four of them in something that will never be forgotten.

There's the obvious metaphor of masks, which represents how women often hide their true intentions. Not in the sense that they're inherently devious or corruptive, as traditional lore from virtually all cultures have tried to claim. But in the sense that, so long as women's livelihoods has been shaped by their ability to curry and maintain favor with the men around them, women have consequently had to swallow their hurt, passion, anger, and desires and channel them into other forms of expression. For Mieko, that happens to be feigning modesty while manipulating people and events behind the scenes. But beyond the obvious metaphor, I appreciate how Fumiko Enchi uses the meanings of Noh theatre masks to bring attention to common stereotypes and ideals of women which in turn shape how readers characterize Mieko and Yasuko. The first part of the novel is titled after "Ryō no Onna", a Noh mask that represents the vengeful spirit of an older woman tormented by unrequited love. The second part "Masugami" is named after the mask of a beautiful young madwoman, which could refer to Yasuko but probably more directly references a different character whom I won't mention. And then the third and last part is titled "Fukai", the mask of an older woman with a deep, unsearchable heart. Again, Mieko.

This novel is so smart. It opens with Ibuki and Mikame, and most of the passages are written from their perspectives so it's so easy to only notice what they notice, especially as it concerns Yasuko and Mieko. I admit, I fell for it and was blindsided when I realized what the two women are really up to. But even after the deed is done in the book, I still have so many questions. Is Yasuko as desperate to get away from Mieko as she claims? At what point does she change her mind, and is this her own decision or yet another effect of Mieko's covert influence? Is she only pretending to be a damsel in distress in order to distract the men and inflate their egos? If Mieko is motivated by vengeance, how does it serve her to trick one of the men into [redacted]? Neither Ibuki nor Mikame did anything to her, so how does this deception function as revenge? Or will any man do, so long as she can use him for her own purposes? And if Mieko is so bitter about how her late husband treated her, wouldn't it make more sense for her to act out that bitterness by ending the Togano family name rather than scheming to prolong it? Or is it less about the Togano name and more about ensuring that evidence of her rebellion against her husband lives on after her?

If you appreciate subversive women characters, enjoy reading academic writing about literature and/or spirit possession, can deal with books that don't answer all questions, and are interested in women and gender studies within a Japanese context, then read this novel!

Favorite quotes:
"Just as there is an archetype of woman as the object of man's eternal love, so there must be an archetype of her as the object of his eternal fear, representing, perhaps, the shadow of his own evil actions" (57).

"What are patriarchal notions of blood and family to a man who has given his child you for a mother?... I am not int the least sorry to have loved you... I want to tell you once again that I feel no lingering sense of guilt, no ugly scar on my heart; and that I sense heaven's blessing in this tangible fruition of our love" (105).

"Sometimes it's better to be the one not chosen" (129).

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