Tag Archives: Esi Edugyan

Washington Black: Won all the prizes. For good reason.

Washington Black… Washington Black… If I were redoing my comprehensive exams in Canadian literature I’d put Washington Black on the list. And not just because it has extensive scenes of Snow and Ice (our titular protagonist finds himself – unprepared and unexpectedly – in the Arctic with his master-turned-friend-turned-masterscantbefriends), but because it is a great read and comprehensive exams in Canadian literature need 99% fewer books about black flies and 99% more of this combination of compelling exploration of Canadian civility coupled with excellent writing.

Right, so what’s it about. We open with our first-person protagonist, Washington, as an eleven-year old slave on a sugar plantation in Barbados. In the opening chapters his life takes a turn when he’s ‘given’ to Tish, the eccentric naturalist brother, of the plantation slave master. What follows is a chronicle of his life from that moment until an uncomfortable resolution/departure from Tish many years later.

The initial encounter with Tish is one of the first moments where luck enters the plot (later scenes of a hot air balloon landing on a ship during thunderstorm or bumping in to the right botanist at the right time) in a way that isn’t frustrating so much as it reinforces that for all of us, the idea of our life owing to  ‘hard work’ has much less to do with merit than it does to first-foremost-and-always the inherent privilege of our race, gender and class of birth, and then-with-similar-consequence-and-similar-lack-of-control, the random fortune of being in the right place at the right time with the right people. It’s a powerfully delivered message meant to disrupt any earnest beliefs we might have about genius or personal industry.

Luck is complicated further in that Washington really is some kind of genius artist. And does make decisions for himself that have positive – and negative – consequences. So it’s not like throw-up-your-hands-nothing-matters, more a way of reminding the reader that where historic slavery ends, the continued belief that white people are better than people of colour or indigenous folks continues, and in the subtle ways of thinking that what I have is somehow (exclusively. or mostly) because I earned it, rather than a web of privilege and luck with a peppering of personal effort.

It’s also a book attentive to smell, which is great.

ANYWAY. It won like a million prizes, and so if my endorsement isn’t sufficient, maybe the Booker committee or the NYT will be. And not knowing Esi Edugyan or her work habits, I’d say this book stands in opposition to all I’ve just said – as every page shows hard work and genius.

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Filed under Booker Prize, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Giller prize, New York Times Notable

Half-Blood Blues: My thoughts on “Plot”

                         

When I ask people what they’re reading, or they ask me, the next question that usually follows is: “Well, what’s the book about?” Invariably the answer to this question has something to do with the plot of the novel. Oh it’s about WW1, or about a catholic priest who molests children, or a trial, or a wizard fighting evil. In the case of Esi Edugyan’sHalf Blood Blues, I had heard the book was about jazz musicians living in Paris during World War Two. I’d be lying if I said I found that rough plot sketch engaging. In fact, having heard a great deal about the book – as it was up for a number of major awards in Canada last year and I attended a reading – I remained steadfastly disinterested because the way the book was described; what it purported to be “about,” didn’t interest me at all. I’m not keen on jazz and so a book that was described as a plot about jazz musicians, well, it just didn’t pique my interest. Much in the same way I’ve turned down books described as “about” other “boring” (to me, at least) topics, people, eras.

And so as I started readingHalf Blood Bluesand realized that I was very much enjoying the book I began thinking about the limits of the question “what is the book about”? Because inevitably the answer to that question has something to do with plot, or, more rarely, character. But great novels aren’t “about” plot. No, great novels engage with questions, issues and ideas – questions and ideas that get worked out in the formal elements of theme, plot, character, setting, tone and diction.  To say a book is “about” WW2 or “about” jazz misses the purpose of the book entirely. By reducing novels to their plot elements we concomitantly, and mistakenly, reduce their value to something of an informational snapshot. Read this book to find out about depression, or read this book to learn about the Russian Revolution. Novels, really great novels, are about persistent and provocative questions and ideas. They are those novels that ask the reader to reconsider their position on current issues, common humanity, identity, etc.

The “etc” is in itself indicative of the breadth of “big” questions novels engage with. There’s no list that can neatly encompass (nor should there be!) the wealth of what novels can be, and are, “about.” Rather, we’d do better when reading to describe the novel not as a plot line, but as an engagement with/consideration of/investigation into whatever question, or idea, or problem. Does this risk slipping back into plot? Sure, to say it’s a consideration of “the challenges faced by black musicians under Hitler” is no less a description of plot. But to sayHalf Blood Bluesexplores the limits of bravery, considers selfishness and jealousy, and investigates the persistence of guilt over time… well, that might well get closer to what the book is “about.”

And the caveat that these are the descriptions of what a book is “about” that are better left to those really great novels is not without consideration. Perhaps this is one of the distinguishing features of really great novels: they are about much more than their plot. Here’s a hypothesis: Terrible fiction, that stuff that I’ve started giving up mid-way through, are stories reduced to a core element: character, setting, plot.The Night Circus,for instance, was terrible because it was *only* about its setting andGame of Thronesis awful because it’s overwhelming driven by plot.

And so Half Blood Blues is good, or even great, fiction because it is a story that asks and tries to pose half-answers (but never complete ones) to enduring questions, and it poses those questions not through the single element of plot or character, but through the complex weave of the formal elements: the melodic diction and tone of our first person protagonist; the symbolic repetition of those things mixed in colour (that Sid can’t stomach black coffee, that he *needs* milk, is, I think, no accident); the artful shifting in chronology that upsets teleological plot expectations and requires the reader continually shift expectations about what happens when and to whom, and more critically,why, characters do what they do; the complex characters that develop over time, but who do not (as we might well expect from observing those people who surround us) fundamentally change all that much. It is a book that is about jazz musicians as much as you might say Genesis is a book about a snake in a garden, or Moby Dick is about hunting a white whale, or Crime and Punishment is about a murder.

Great novels are not about their plot; they are about their readers.

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Giller prize, Governor Generals, Prize Winner