No American novelist riffs like Paul Beatty. His superlative novel Slumberland established his comic mastery years before he won the Man Booker Prize in 2016. Set in Berlin just before (and after) the fall of the Wall, Slumberland is the picaresque tale of Ferguson W. Sowell, a.k.a. DJ Darky, a Los Angeles native on a quest to find the Schwa, a mysterious East Berlin Schallplattenunterhalter who can “ratify” our narrator’s perfect beat. True to the genre of expatriate lit, DJ Darky leverages the wisdom afforded an outsider’s perspective, as Germany’s multikulti breeziness becomes a lens on race relations in the U.S., and on othering more generally. The novel exploits the tragicomic potential of the reversals, slurs, and embarrassments that might befall a black man in Berlin—a “jukebox sommelier” with a penchant for tanning booths, our narrator eventually endeavors to rebuild the Wall—but the boldest joke might be subtly, cheekily metafictional: forget dancing about architecture, Beatty’s written a syncopated novel about sound.
I picked up Slumberland after finishing the German philosopher Byung-Chul Han’s book-length essay The Agony of Eros. Though very different in tone, together the two make a kind of contrapuntal harmony. Like Slumberland, The Agony of Eros is rife with asides on Heidegger and porn. But where DJ Darky eventually aims to make otherness “passé,” Eros takes the opposite tack. Han is concerned with preserving the idea of the Other as a check on contemporary narcissism, according to which “everything is flattened out into an object of consumption.” In other words, by acknowledging the sovereignty of another person as other, not mine—by resisting the temptation to translate difference into familiar, “consumable” terms—we delineate a limit on the Self. It’s as earnest and compelling a diagnosis for social malaise, romantic or otherwise, as any I’ve come across. But as we search for a cure, I’m reminded of another impulse behind Slumberland: often it’s in the face of despair that we reach for the joke. —J. Jezewska Stevens Read More