Sunday, September 21, 2008

...Native Son (by Richard Wright).

If you’re ever feeling depressed and want to read a book to offset your sad mood, and someone recommends that you read Native Son, do not do it. Run the other direction. Pick up some light chick-lit, the kind with cursive writing on the cover and a picture of someone’s legs in high-heels. Because Native Son is the most viscerally upsetting and maddening and blood-curdlingly-infuriating book in the world. Depressing doesn’t even describe it. What is a word that conveys more active sadness than depressing? Anguish? Native Son makes you want to throw up because you are so mad at the world and so sad for Bigger Thomas, the doomed protagonist, and it makes you want to kill yourself for being complicit in the horrible, corrupt, hateful and oppressive world Wright describes. Native Son is almost like a dare to the reader. Wright is daring you to look at the gruesome reality he goes to great lengths to depict in too much detail. Wright doesn’t end a scene when you wish he would, he stays in the moment, observing the horrible details, at times making me skim through passages or skip ahead or turn my face away to wince and shake my head and just hope it would all be over soon. Bigger violently killing a huge rat. Bigger jerking off. Bigger smothering a girl to death. Bigger cutting off her head and burning her body. Bigger raping and murdering his girlfriend. And this is from the protagonist, with whom you sympathize the whole time! Because everyone else around Bigger is far worse, and you so desperately love Max when he swoops in – too late, of course – to try to explain to the white world why Bigger’s “crimes” shouldn’t be seen as crimes but instead as symptoms of the pathological culture of black poverty and oppression created by this white culture of 1930s Chicago that of course, wants to accuse and punish Bigger of crimes that it has defined and then set Bigger up to commit. The world Wright depicts is so infuriating and so accurate that the fact that this book came out in the1930s – and that Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day – descrbing black poverty in 1990s Chicago – came out in 2008, makes one believe that if Wright were alive today he’d be just as mad, and therefore there is no solace when one finishes reading Native Son – no solace in thinking “oh, well, that was in the 1930s, things are better now”, and therefore you hate yourself more and you hate the world and you yearn for a message of hope and how-to and you curse Richard Wright for forcing you to bear witness to this tragic opera of oppression and evil and for not telling you what to do to fix it and you curse the fact that it’s still broken, and none of this makes Native Son an “enjoyable” book but in fact makes it not so much relevant as mandatory.

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