Don't the Moon Look Lonesome: A Novel in Blues and Swing.
Stanley Crouch's recent novel is a revelation. A sho nuff, in yo' face revelation. But I fear not in the way its author intended.1 There are to be found within its pages a number of engaging, original, and skillfully drawn characters. (Unfortunately, the protagonists are not among them.) Then, too, there is the occasional passage of inspired, nicely achieved prose. But finding these nuggets entails the idiot optimism of a traveler trudging mapless through a Sahara of arid, malformed prose, hoping blindly to stumble upon an oasis over the next dune.
Can corporate downsizing have so depleted Random House's stable of fabled editorial competence that they're now reduced to publishing unread manuscripts? Or could this be yet another ploy to demonstrate definitively the inevitable erosion of standards inherent in Affirmative Action? Call me paranoid, but can't you just see the satanic glee of some blue-eyed devil of an editor? "The perfect murder, I tell ya. Give the hanging judge enough rope and watch ol' Mr. Tambo lynch his pretentious black ass and Affirmative Action along with it. Ah guarantee it." Well, if that's the bait those bastards gonna use, they'll catch ol' Stanley, addled by the toxic drug of his terminally inflated ego, every time.
Of course, practical explanations of the novel's logorrhea are possible. It could be that Stanley was being paid by the word--a not uncommon arrangement on Grub Street, where, lo these many years, he has made his residence. Yet another recent sorry example of the triumph of commerce over art, greed over taste? One hopes so. Any writer deserves to be lavishly compensated for the critical ass-whupping this book is sure to earn him.
Whatever the explanation, ironies and embarrassments abound and wonderment increases. What of Crouch's vaunted literary friendships? Could none of that coterie of right-wing literary "illuminati" [sic] whom Stanley has been so shamelessly cultivating for so long not have pulled the brother's coat? "Yo, Stan. Trust us on matters of fictional language. This here be's some jarringly bad writing, yo. Check yo'self before yo' wreck yo'self, Jack."
Could not, should not the monumentally self-absorbed and overrated Saul Bellow have given his abjectly loyal courtier some rudimentary instruction in literary craft? Given his monumental ego, can the Crouch really have failed to notice the alarming evasiveness and tepidness of Bellow's endorsement? Nary a single word about "artistic vision," "genius," or "innovation"--or even novelistic craft or literary accomplishment. Instead, Bellow finds only "relief from ideology's burdens" and "color free facts"? Is this any way to talk about a great work of "Art," Stanley?
As a writer--and a black man--one can't help but be embarrassed for Stanley. But I can't honestly say I'm sorry. Crouch has been for too long an arrant intellectual bully-boy on the black side and a shameless sycophant and poseur on the other. So if he is now ill-served by the public exposure of this work in all its ill-finished ineptitude, it is just a particularly ironic form of poetic justice.
Hithertofore, I have been careful to restrict these remarks to matters of craft, taste, and execution. This restraint is an act not merely of discipline on my part but, oddly enough, of mercy. To publicly engage, with any honesty at all, the manifest shallowness of much of the book's contents requires summoning a quality of sadism that I do not have. I am content to leave that level of gleeful, gratuitous, and unseemly critical savagery to Stanley's fellow travelers over at The New Republic, that right-wing white-boy rag which has afforded El Croucho safe haven from which to launch his unique brand of mean-spirited critical nastiness at black targets.
But there remains abundant cause for still further wonder. Has Stanley's ill-considered publication of this literary leviathan given license to a certain kind of rebarbative white animus toward any stirrings of black cultural ascendancy? Why else would the New Republic and the New York Times have assigned so much space to far-ranging discussions of a work they pre-pronounce (quite accurately) to be both trivial and silly? The low cunning of the Wuzungu again? Swahili proverb: "When you see the Wuzungu [white man] pointing a cannon at a small bird, you can be sure he is really aiming at the elephant behind the bush." But even here, I'm sure Stanley will find a way to claim a victory of the dubious "it-doesn't-matter-what-they-say-so-long-as-they-talk-about-you" variety.
Which has in fact begun to happen. The authoritative New York Times Book Review, thinking, I'm sure, to do faithful Unc' Stan's book a kindness, sought out a Scottish fellow traveler to review it and assigned the scoundrel an entire page to that lofty purpose. You must understand that James Campbell is the bumptious London hack who has tried to make a career, first of denigrating James Baldwin's literary legacy, and later cynically trying to exploit a scurrilous version of Jimmy's private life on stage for profit. So, to the Times editors, Campbell must have seemed Stanley's British alter ego--so to say, a marriage made in Hell.
However, from the review which resulted, the marriage must not have taken and Crouch was not grateful. In a fit of ill-temper, Stanley denounced the Times' importation of "a European hatchet man to savage his book." Say what? The race card? Not from our aggressive assimilationist and devout praise-singer of the European canon? Oh, no. Nothing quite so provincial. Because, as our man Stan goes on to declare, it is certain that "James Joyce or Thomas Mann" would have understood and fully appreciated the true greatness of his masterpiece. So the issue must have been which European? Or I guess Joyce and Mann, having transcended their European provincialism, have now become "universal," huh, Stanley? Whatever the case, the Times clearly was most remiss. The should have spared neither expense nor metaphysical aids withal, in securing the services of either or both gentlemen to ensure peer review for Crouch's magnum opus. On hearing this, my friend, the Rabbi Susan, mused, "Quite so. I would also have liked to hear what Aristophanes might have thought."
The one line from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer which I, as a child, never could understand, now takes on a new resonance: "Let the dead bury the dead." As our great ancestor Junebug J. Jones says, "What we black folk need most today is a lot of patience and a sense of irony." Let the church say, Ahmen.
The critical venom is almost enough to stir misplaced feelings of cultural loyalty and ties of kinship in even the hardest black heart. Except that this book is really beyond defense. To go there would entail trying to defend Crouch's pretentiously eclectic yet oddly stunted notion of what a "serious novel of ideas" is. In Crouch's case, an untidy combination of hand-me-down Ellisonian literary Europhilia (which was none too persuasive in the original), with the peculiar brand of quasi-intellectual name dropping and a catch-as-catch, know-a-littleabout-a-lot "erudition" which has become Crouch's signature.
In this book the combination is predictably disastrous: In one case, an interminable (over thirty pages) and pointless sermon, comparable only to Ellison at his uninspired worst, which, as we have recently seen, can be very grim going indeed. But this act of filial devotion cam father veneration was quite predictable. It is only the sheer artlessness of the imitation which surp rises.
The truly startling and eye-opening surprise is the extent to which long stretches of Lonesome Moon seem a vastly inferior imitation of James Baldwin, a writer Crouch loudly professes to despise. He has wasted much energy and many words in a compulsively foolish campaign to denigrate all aspects of Baldwin's literary accomplishments. Yet, and only, because both are set in the free-market talent jungle of New York's artistic netherworld, Moon bears a cursory resemblance to Another Country, Baldwin's justly celebrated New York novel. The telling difference is that Moon reads like nothing so much as a truly bad parody, as though Crouch set out to demonstrate and magnify every one of the many grievous literary sins which Crouch-as-critic has for many years been trying to impose on Baldwin's infinitely superior work. Go figure.
Chief among the novel's many major problems is Crouch's protagonist. The central character--to whose experiences and perceptions the reader is held hostage to the length of 546 densely packed pages--is, as we are constantly told, an American original. A real white woman [sic], Ms. Carla is Midwestern, Scandinavian, and blonde--but with a difference. She is one of these ladies of whom it might well be said that her future is behind her.
In high school the all-American cheerleader, fashion plate, homecoming queen, blonde bombshell, and Olympic-class figure skater, she grows into a jazz singer, all-'round Negrophile, and devoted connoisseur of the black male body. Her truly distinguishing characteristic, to which our attention is constantly directed, is the "anatomical anomaly" [sic] of a "gorgeous" [sic] pair of gluteus maximus africanus worthy, it seems, of the Hottentot Venus. The Crouchian version of black American male erotic fantasy incarnate? Oh, Stanley, speak for yo' own damn self.
The ultimate concern of this omni-American beauty--which we are invited to share--is her unrelieved angst at the cruel and unfair prospect of being dumped by her black jazz musician lover because of the one thing she is not and can never become, black. This is a conceptual boldness in the face of which the novel's natural competitors in the current crop of "sistah girlfrien' "romances must fade into insignificance. In that arena, Stanley, you de man. Yes, you is.
It does not help that Crouch elects to surround our lovelorn damsel with a cast of recognizable New York crossover types best defined by their designer clothes, their fashionable downtown addresses, their racial alienation, their race-driven professional resentments cum status anxiety, and the corrosive emotional bankruptcy of their personal lives. While readers may want to duck their heads, knowing instinctively that the company and conversation of these familiar New York buppies are things we'd wish at all cost to avoid, the novel does not afford us this mercy. Instead we are stuck with boozy barroom conversations of staggering self-absorption and race-driven social anxiety, as well as long-winded, pseudo-profound pronounciamentos on the nature of "Art" and "Creativity."
The stupefying passages of barroom philosophizing by Crouch's talking heads are, apparently, the price we are expected to pay for the intellectual
pleasures of this "novel of ideas." If so, the price is extortionate. Blues Treatise in Dialogue Tempo, a riff on a line from Handy's Aunt Hagar's Blues, is typical of the general reductiveness of the Crouchian method of intellectual discourse.
Aunt Hagar's defense of the feelings the Blues evoke in her--
If the devil brought it,
The good Lord sent it,
Right on down to me.
--inspires a drunken writer to a paroxysm of serious (one assumes) theological/aesthetic speculation best described as the Gnostic-Manichean-Platonic impulses in the origins and aesthetic of the Blues (in dialogue tempo). Neither the talking heads nor their author displays the slightest awareness of the African sources or the historical and cultural nuances and ironies which inform the lyric. Instead, we are treated to a catchall of unassimilated third-century Christian heresies, with John Milton, Ralph Ellison, Anthrophagy, the synoptic Gospels, and Road Runner cartoons thrown in for our pleasure and instruction. Nowhere in this is there the slightest hint of irony or campiness. No. No. This be serious.
The English language, being a wondrously capacious and precise instrument, has names for this kind of sophomoric claptrap, one of which--acceptable in polite society--is gibberish. Not insight, not erudition, Stanley, but gibberish--and classic, colonized intellectual gibberish at that.
I find this objectionable not only for reasons of literary aesthetics, but even more so for cultural ones. This penchant, by virtue of its constant prostration and submersion of self into the shallow tributary streams of Western cultural hegemony, debases the vocabulary of black culture. Blues Treatise in its cryptophilosophical posturing and leaden language recapitulates the style and method of another recent failed Negro "novel of ideas," in this case, not Juneteenth, but Charles Johnson's thoroughly absurd Middle Passage, with its cargo of generic "Africans" and the contemporary graduate seminar philosophy jargon which Johnson finds it necessary to place in the mouth of its nineteenth-century runaway-slave narrator. This Eurocentric assimilationist tendency in these Negro novelists-of-ideas manque only manages to distort and pervert the real possibilities of culturally coherent black novels in our time.
What unlettered old Aunt Hagar in her "backwoods church" was rapping on was no "Negroid manifestation of something odd in western civilization," as Crouch's chatterer puts it. Aunt Hagar (and Handy) was evoking an ancient discourse within African cultures which, "primitive" though it may be, is far more interesting and fundamental than this character's ill-informed compendium of obligatory Western reference.
The issue is rooted within the numinous, evocative power and function of music and dance within the traditional ceremonial expression and ritual practice of African religions. The debate, which persists to this day, is a consequence of the encounter between African religious ceremony and sensibility with Christian doctrine and worship on the plantations of slavery. The Gnostic question-- Which of the great demiurges, Jahweh or Satan, animates and empowers the music?--still rings contentious across the Diaspora, wherever African musical forms have colonized religious and secular music.
I am told that Mr. C's literary ambitions began with poetry. In the light of current circumstances, the decision to abandon that form may well have been wise. Yet with the novel there may yet be hope, faint though it admittedly is, for him. Once he's able to look dispassionately over Moon, he'll see that his most original and compelling characters and the cleanest, least affected, most successful writing are in those few sections set in the experience and culture of the black community rather than the Harlem Renaissancish New-York-cafe-society ambiance where most of the novel is set.
Crouch must learn to allow his characters the space to emerge naturally in their own terms in order to find the voice and language of their black humanity, free from the tendentious and bombastic sloganeering their author tends to impose. He must curb the aggressive "crossover" impulse that clamors for acceptance by "white intellectuals" (who they?). He must also abandon the colonized notion that "universality" is a meaningful concept which may be achieved by compulsively recycling the detritus of all "Western civilization" into a single book. And he must wean himself from the vulgar U.S.A.-FIRST boosterism and smug chauvinist triumphalism which are so distasteful in American whites and absurdly pathetic in blacks.
If Stanley Crouch begins to appreciate the complex poetry and richness of a black heritage which affords a wealth of literary possibility more abundant than any thousand novelists can ever hope to exhaust and begins to pay careful and respectful attention, he may become a novelist nearly as good as he now thinks he is. And that could be very, very good indeed. But for this to happen, as the sisters keep telling Maxwell when he's out bar-hopping with Carla, "You gotta come home, brother." Let us pray.
(1.) This review is extracted from a much longer essay, the original of which is to be found in the archives of The Black World Today, www.tbwt.com
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2002|
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