Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tricky Little Stories

At the last house I sat, I idly started to read two books not knowing much about them but having heard good things about their authors. "New York Times Bestseller" appears on each book's cover. About a quarter of the way into each of them, I realized these wildly different books have the same theme:
A young man, left by his African father as a child, searches for his identity.

The books are Barack Obama's autobiography Dreams from My Father and Neil Gaiman's "magical-horror-thriller-ghost-romantic-comedy-family-epic" * novel Anansi Boys. Anansi is the West African trickster god, a spider who can appear as a man. Gaiman's wonderfully readable book follows the adventures of Anansi's son Fat Charlie, who gets mightily confused about his own identity when he realizes after his father dies that he was a god.

Right: Eartha Kitt (some kind of cat goddess, for sure)

Anansi stories are big in the Caribbean, where some of Anansi Boys' characters come from. But it took me a while to realize the characters aren't white because the author doesn't outright say they're black, like authors generally do. This is part of the fun of the book--realizing Gaiman is playing a bit with writing about race--I think almost the only time he gratuitously mentions someone's skin color is when they're white. (Early on, he tells us a nurse is white, for no reason--you never see her again.) Otherwise he says things like "she resembled a skeletal Eartha Kitt," but leaves it up to the reader to decide what the skin of someone whose father is an African god looks like.

Obama, of course, mentions race outright on the very cover of his book, which is subtitled A Story of Race and Inheritance. I can't say a whole lot about this book because I bogged down on page 94. I am totally sympathetic to his search, but this guy is sooooo sincere, so literal, he works so hard to explain behavior for us, the readers, I think he's a bit of a bore.

You know how I said recently I'm not interested in messages but in good stories? Well, Obama may be a good politician and a great guy, and I'm *very* happy he's my president, but his writing foot is heavy on the message. Fair enough, he never said he was a storyteller, right? His imagination is normal. Which is probably good in a politician.

[small spoiler]
This evening I finally finished Anansi Boys, which comes to a very satisfying conclusion. It ends with the main character basically saying just what I recently said: that he chooses the way of the storyteller:
"Charlie realized, with no little surprise, that he enjoyed singing to other people, and he knew, at that moment, that this was what he would spend the rest of his life doing. He would sing: not big, magical songs that made worlds or recreated existence. Just small songs that would make people happy for a breath, make them move, make them, for a little while, forget their problems."

I don't know much about Gaiman, but he seems to have chosen the same: to entertain rather than to put over a message. In the way of things, his book comes trailing clouds of meaning, of course, because words do. Entertaining stories end up making worlds and recreating existence, too... they just do it sneaky-like. I would choose Gaiman's as a story about a man's search for identity over Mr. Obama's ponderous, literal rendition of it.

My favorite kind of story talks to everybody and everybody hears it a little differently.
Like Jesus' parables. Jesus has some trickster-god qualities, come to think of it. He hands out these confusing little pearls and leaves folks trying to figure out just what it is they're holding--and what they want to do about it. Very tricksy.

* Interview with Gaiman about Anansi Boys, in which he says he really wanted to do "was try and emulate people like P. G. Wodehouse," which helps explain the book's charm.


Nancy said...

Eartha Kitt was the sexiest Catwoman ever! That show played with the inter-racial attraction of whiteboy Batman to Eartha's Catwoman, too, in a particularly naughty kind of way considering the taboo on such relationships at the time. Glad you reminded me of Eartha in that role -- yummy!

deanna said...

I've seen the title Anansi Boys, and now I'm intrigued enough to want to get it. I appreciate, too, your honest appraisal of Pres. Obama's book, as of course I'd heard about that one, too.

The only thing I had against Ms. Kitt was that she came in and took over the role from the first woman who played her (I'm blanking on her name, but it was in a movie title and everything). As a kid (and now, too, usually), I hated to have the actor change mid-series. I never noticed the race of either of the women at the time.

Oh, and Jesus did tell tricksy stories, I agree. For the listeners to need to figure out stuff, like "just what they're holding and what they want to do about it." Quite a good way to put it.

Jennifer said...

AhhhhahahahahaI love you. You started talking about "Anansi Boys" and I immediately thought, "Oh, I'll have to cite that quote I loved so much from the book in my comment...oh, there it is." <3

Yeah, I love the way Gaiman plays with race in that one, how his characters do not define themselves as "black" because they just are what they are.

They were trying to make a movie of the book, by the way, and the studio told Gaiman they'd make it but only if all the main characters were played by Caucasian actors, because no one would go to see a fantasy movie with black characters. Gaiman informed them that was totally ridiculous and refused to give his approval to the project. Go Neil!

Fresca said...

Nancy & Deanna: In fact, I've never even seen "Batman" so can't comment on either Catwoman.

It's unfair of me to compare Obama and Gaiman, of course--apples and oranges--but it was striking, reading the two at once.
Deanna, if you read either of them, I'd love to hear what you think.

Jen: Ha! That's great we both chose the same quote!

I didn't know that about the movie plans--how ridiculous it would be to make the Anansi characters white. (The perfect counter-argument to the studio: Will Smith.)
I think of Cuban movies, where race is all so jumbled up, it's not even mentioned. The USA is not at that place politically, but stories can be.