Thursday, December 17, 2020

BOOKS! (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom + The Hole)

I read today's selections faster than I've been able to read any other books this year. That's my only reasoning for writing about them together. First up is an August Wilson play (soon to be a movie released on Netflix tomorrow!) about blues musicians that I read entirely in one day. And then I've got a Korean novel about a paralyzed man and his suspicious mother-in-law, the majority of which I finished up yesterday.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom by August Wilson

After Chadwick Boseman passed away in August and I heard that his final role would be alongside Viola Davis in the film adaptation of this play, I made a mental note to read it beforehand. This would be my fifth August Wilson play (after Fences, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone), and it'd been nearly four years since the last one I read, so I was genuinely looking forward to Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Bought it from B&N in October, and then read it during one extended sitting earlier this month (the day before my birthday, in fact). Set in Chicago in 1927, it's the only play of Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle" that doesn't take place in Pittsburgh. Each of the 10 plays in the cycle is set in a different decade of the 20th century, and MRBB tackles the 1920s. Again, this is my fifth Wilson play, which means that I've read half of the "Pittsburgh Cycle" so far.

Over the course of a single day at a Chicago recording studio, a blues band rehearses, argues about style and artistic choices, and generally shoots the sh*t while waiting for their frontwoman Ma Rainey to arrive so they can record new songs for a record company. Cutler is the bandleader, guitarist, and trombonist. Slow Drag is the bassist (and "perhaps the one most bored by life" according to the play, which made me chuckle). Toledo is the pianist, the only literate member of the group, and in true August Wilson fashion he's the seemingly-odd character who frequently shares profound yet perplexing insights on the meaning of life and Black identity. And last but not least is Levee the trumpet player, the youngest of the group who has ambitions of having his own band so he can record his own music and become a star. The record company is represented by two white men: an exec named Sturdyvant who oversees the production and only cares about the bottom line, and Ma's manager Irvin who plays good cop but is also similarly money-focused, and doesn't truly care about or respect these Black musicians (including Ma) any more than Sturdyvant does.

Ma Rainey was a real person and one of the first professional blues singers, which I knew but had forgotten until after I started looking up the songs mentioned in this play. What I hadn't known was that "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" was a real song, or that the "Black Bottom" was a style of dance. Detroit used to have a Black neighborhood called Black Bottom, so I thought maybe the play's title would refer to a geographical area, or would have a more poetic meaning like the depths ("bottom") of Ma Rainey's soul, or would simply be a euphemism for her actual behind. I guess that last one is accurate, since the lyrics of the song do use "Black Bottom" as a double entendre. I also find it delightfully fitting that I happened to read this book pretty soon after watching a TV show about strippers called 'P-Valley', and reading Wynton Marsalis' Moving to Higher Ground. The Southernness, the sensuality, the disastrous effects that white-led exploitation has on Black life and artistry, the primacy of the blues' ability to help Black people find the will to keep living, etc. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a solid amalgamation of the themes that I observed in those other two works.

The plot revolves around Ma Rainey, and her late arrival (with her stuttering nephew Sylvester and her girlfriend Dussie Mae in tow) is followed by more disagreements and delays as the recording session goes on. However, though she is given room to express her frustrations about having her voice commodified by white people and not being respected for her unique talent or how wealthy she's made the record company, the story as a whole doesn't focus on her as much as it does the bandmates and their conversations. And don't get me wrong, these men are hilarious! There's a joke in the play about New Orleans and a place called Fat Back, Arkansas that made me cackle out loud! I enjoyed reading their playful jabs and haunting stories about surviving white terrorism in the South, and I understand the value of highlighting the musicians who fill out the background instead of solely focusing on the star of the show. With that said, l don't know how I feel about a play that's named after a woman still being mostly about the men around her more than the woman herself. Especially since most of Wilson's plays that I've read so far are centered around Black men's perspectives. Which isn't to say that that's a bad thing, or that those perspectives are never interrogated, or that Black women's perspectives aren't also given weight in Wilson's work. Like I said, I'm just not sure how I feel about it.

Additionally, there are a few things that I'm left wondering about. For one thing, I noticed that Ma's band doesn't have a drummer. I don't know if Wilson made it this way intentionally, or if it's customary for blues bands not to have drummers, or if this was simply an oversight on Wilson's part. The last two explanations seem unlikely to me, so I really have no clue why there's no drummer. Also, what is the purpose of Dussie Mae's character? Merely to show that Ma is gay but not spend time discussing it? To be something of Ma's that Levee tries to take from her, since he is so resentful yet covetous of the success and authority that Ma has? Furthermore, it was unclear to me where Ma and her band are based. They're in Chicago to record, but they keep referencing an upcoming tour and trip to Memphis, Ma emphasizes how large and loyal a following she has in the South, and all the stories that the bandmates tell take place in the South (which is also where each of them originally come from). 

Obviously I'm still turning Ma Rainey's Black Bottom over in my mind, and I'm really excited to watch the movie when it comes out tomorrow. As humorous as the play is, one of the characters gets so distressed at one point that he tries to fight God (similar to how Troy tries to fight death in Fences), and another character doesn't make it out alive. As fortunate as Ma and her band are to be working as musicians, their pasts (hate crimes and manual labor in the South) and their present (racist cops and the bloodthirsty music industry) never fail to remind them how constrained the world can be for Black people during this time. This is an ebullient and bone-chilling play, and I think everyone should read it.

Favorite quotes:

"If I had my way
If I had my way
If I had my way
I would tear this old building down" (71).
"Wanna take my voice and trap it in them fancy boxes with all them buttons and dials... and then too cheap to buy me a Coca-Cola... They don't care nothing about me. All they want is my voice. Well, I done learned that, and they gonna treat me like I want to be treated no mater how much it hurt them" (79).
"You don't sing to feel better. You sing 'cause that's a way of understanding life... The blues help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain't alone. There's something else in the world. Something's been added by that song. This be an empty world without the blues. I take that emptiness and try to fill it up with something" (82-83).
"Gonna be a bit more things before I'm finished with it. Gonna be foolish again. But I ain't never been the same fool twice. I might be a different kind of fool, but I ain't gonna be the same fool twice. That's where we part ways" (90).

The Hole by Hye-young Pyun
(Translated from Korean by Sora Kim-Russell)

Just like Moving to Higher Ground, The Hole is another selection from a bunch of discounted books that I found a year ago in Kentucky, and after this there's only one remaining that I haven't read yet. I can't remember why I decided to buy The Hole in particular; I'm guessing it probably had something to do with it being a Korean novel and having an eery, introspective, and suspenseful premise. It opens with a cartography professor named Oghi waking up from a coma and realizing that he's paralyzed. He and his wife were in a car accident that only he survived, and now he's in a hospital, only able to move his eyes and blink at first. The entire novel is written from Oghi's perspective as he comes to terms with his new reality, struggles to recover (uncertain as to which state he'll actually be able to recover to), reminisces on his life before the accident, misses his wife, and gets used to relying on his mother-in-law for survival. Oghi has already lost his parents, and his mother-in-law is a widow whose daughter has just died, so now they're each other's sole remaining family and his mother-in-law has stepped up to take care of him. It's worth noting that Oghi is the only character who has a name, besides certain famous people who are mentioned. A few characters are given initials, but everyone else is referred to by their roles in relation to Oghi ("the doctor", "his wife", "his mother-in-law", and so on). Also, for convenience's sake I'm going to refer to his wife's mom as MIL in the rest of this review.

From the outset it seems like this will be a straightforward story about Oghi's process of recovering from multiple tragedies at once, or maybe that's just what I wanted it to be and so that's what I set my hopes on. But then things start to get weird, and then downright sinister, when his MIL's behavior begins to change bizarrely. After moving Oghi from the hospital to the house that he and his wife shared, the MIL goes from carefully doting on Oghi, to mocking and neglecting him while obsessively digging a giant pit (the titular "hole" of the novel) in what used to be his wife's garden, to isolating him from all contact with the outside world and removing his access to medical care. Oghi, still paralyzed, is confined to his bed the entire time. So then I shifted my focus to hoping Oghi would receive help and escape the situation somehow, but... well. More on that later. The financial, physical, and emotional strain of caring for Oghi seems to explain why his MIL's acting differently at first, and of course there's the possibility that she's always been petty and cruel but is just now letting that side of herself show. But then it's revealed that she's likely taking revenge against him for something he did to his wife. There's a room in the house that's full of his wife's writings about him, which Oghi knows about but hasn't read entirely. Whatever information it is that his MIL obtains through her late daughter's writing, it's clear that Oghi, our sympathetic main character, is not who he appears to be.

I read the dust jacket when I first bought The Hole last year, but had since forgotten what it was supposed to be about. Which I preferred, honestly, once I finally started reading it two weeks ago. I remembered that it would be suspenseful somehow, and I was glad to not be anticipating anything specific beyond that. It's the kind of novel that steadily builds up an intense sense of unease, confusion, and lack of control, the kind of novel where all the pieces don't come together until the very end (and even then readers are purposefully left with many questions). And that felt oddly familiar to me, but I couldn't put my finger on exactly why. Then I finished the book, finally read the dust jacket again, and saw the synopsis reference Herman Koch's The Dinner, and then it clicked. Yes! Exactly! Of course! THAT's the deceptively simply yet menacingly dark atmosphere that The Hole replicates. That and the Kathy Bates movie Misery, which I've never seen in full but know plenty about by virtue of cultural osmosis.

Speaking of mounting intensity, this has got to be the most cleverly-designed book that I've read in a long time. It's genius, really. On the first page of each chapter, there's a big black dot in the upper-right corner. That's something I took note of right away. What I didn't notice until halfway through the novel, however, was that as the chapters progress, the big black dot ("the hole") in the upper-right corner grows bigger. And bigger. And bigger. The higher the stakes get, the more chaotic and dire Oghi's circumstances become, the more imposing that dot becomes on the page. It goes from the size of a quarter in chapter 1 to the size of a grapefruit in chapter 15, and the visual contrast between where the story starts and ends still gives me chills. 

Now. I'm about to slightly spoil the ending, so be warned. The final chapter shows Oghi escaping the house, only to end up in the hole that his MIL dug. However, I'm inclined to wonder whether he actually escapes, or if it only happens in Oghi's mind? Because how does he go from only being able to move his hands and wiggle his fingers in the previoius chapter, to having enough upper body strength to raise his arms above his head, open doors, and drag himself across various surfaces? And wouldn't he have had to take his catheter out before pushing himself off of the bed in the first place? Perhaps he never actually leaves the bed and is only imagining what would happen if he were to escape and fall into the hole outside. And perhaps the act of imagining, along with the acknowledgement of his being trappedin the house, in his body, in the custody of his unhinged MIL, in this isolated life that's so unlike the life he had beforeis what allows him to finally grieve his circumstances, as the novel closes with him crying for the first time since he woke up from his coma almost a year prior. At least that's my theory on The Hole for now. If you liked Herman Koch's The Dinner, enjoy suspense and secrets, can appreciate open endings and not having every question answered, or are interested in learning how incredibly political map-making is, then read this book! 

Favorite quotes:

"Oghi struggled to accept that this was his body now... He did not know how to handle the disconnect between the old him and the new him. All he could do was foresee that nothing would be as it was, and he could not even begin to guess at how many things would be different in the future and how those things would change him" (32).

"No matter how hard you tried to draw the world, you could never be exact... It was impossible to capture the trajectory of life in a map... A world that could not be understood perfectly, could not be explained unambiguously, and was interpreted differently based on the political purposes and conveniences was no different from the world he was already living in. And yet, the one way in which maps were clearly better than life was that they improved with failure" (69). 

 "It was a time when their friendship had flourished for lack of hope" (74).

"His wife's tears had stopped not because she was no longer sad, but because the time had come to stop crying. And at last, Oghi cried. Not because of his wife. But because his time for crying had come" (198).

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