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Posts Tagged ‘Colson Whitehead’

Staff Picks: Bears, Bellies, Blackmail

January 29, 2016 | by

Mickalene Thomas, Lovely Six Foota, 2007, color photograph.

Mickalene Thomas, Lovely Six Foota, 2007, color photograph.

The first entry in New York Review Books’s new comics series is Mark Beyer’s Agony, a graphic novel about two regular working people just trying to get by and the ceaseless horrors visited on them. Amy and Jordan endure acid baths, bear and monster attacks, unemployment, boring friends, prison beatings, armed robbery, an apartment flooded with blood, and deaths in the family, among other cataclysms; they bear it all with the same gaunt, anxious expressions, and usually they speak only in affectless expository sentences. E.g.: “I’ve been swallowed by the same fish that ate Amy’s head, and my legs have been bitten off. I’ve got to get out of here!” As Colson Whitehead writes in the introduction, how hard you laugh at all this depends on “how you feel about relinquishing the logic of realism in favor of the logic of undying despair.” I couldn’t get enough of their misery: I finished it in one sitting and flipped back to the beginning. —Dan Piepenbring

My traveling companion these days has been the late poet Frank Lima and his newly collected Incidents of Travel in Poetry. The book, beautifully culled by editors Garrett Caples and Julien Poirier, comprises the breadth of Lima’s work, from his early poems written as a heroin-addicted New York School outsider to his later surrealistic ones informed by freewriting. Many are autobiographical, making this one of the heavier, more affecting collections I’ve read in a while. His poems are laced with incest and smack and guns: he writes of his stay on Hart’s Island, where he tries to get clean, and of his mother who, “when I awoke … was a warm mist hovering, suspended over me, / naked, / … sweeping my body away / into the cumulus clouds / of black pubic hair.” Lima’s verse is uninhibited and unafraid; he writes with pungent frankness. My favorite lines, though, are the playful, tender ones. From “morning sara”: “I am hungry and go thru your underwear / give me some hot soup or / I’ll suck on the curtains!”; from “Mi Tierra”: “When I touch you / I see Utah / your flat white sandy belly / the powdered dust devils in your navel / the white nipples of the Rocky Mountains.” —Caitlin Youngquist
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Ishmael Reed on ‘Juice!’

September 13, 2011 | by

Ishmael Reed © Terence Byrnes.

Seventy-three-year-old Ishmael Reed has been a major figure in American letters for more than four decades. In April, Dalkey Archive published Juice!, Reed’s first novel in more than fifteen years. Juice! tells the story of a struggling African American cartoonist whose personal and professional life is disrupted by the media frenzy surrounding the O. J. Simpson murder trial. Earlier this summer, Reed, who is based in Oakland, California, responded to some of my questions about his latest work.

Juice! is your first novel since 1993. What inspired you to write another novel after all these years?

I began this one as soon as I heard about the murders. I was vacationing in Hawaii, and the murders ruined my vacation. The media went berserk over the murder of Nicole Simpson, the kind of ideal white woman—a Rhine maiden—one finds in Nazi art and propaganda, murdered allegedly by a black beast. It was a story that reached into the viscera of the American unconscious, recalling the old Confederate art of the black boogeyman as an incubus squatting on top of a sleeping, half-clad white woman. It was also an example of collective blame. All black men became O. J. The murders ignited a kind of hysteria.

Juice! does not have a conventional structure. The novel incorporates courtroom documents, television transcripts, and pieces of visual art. It also plays around quite a bit with time. What gave rise to the novel’s peculiar shape?

I try to experiment. Writing a conventional novel would be boring for me. In this novel, I added cartoons. Cartoons were probably my introduction to storytelling as a child, because on Sundays we got The Chattanooga Times, and I’d read the funnies. A publisher wanted to publish Juice! but decided that the cartoons weren’t up to par. So, at the age of seventy, I studied at the Cartoon Art Museum of San Francisco, and the cartoons improved so much that I now do political cartoons for The San Francisco Chronicle’s blog, City Brights.Read More »