King for a Queen and Stuck on a Bad Nigga by Chanel Q.; The Turner House by Angela Flournoy; The Fall of Japan by William Craig; Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish; Hello Devilfish! by Ron Dakron.
I read for entertainment, hoping always for a tour de force, regardless of genre. Use of language is paramount, and style matters more than plot, although a jolt of the appalling may help clarify one’s thinking. So, bold and original works for me, stupid and over-the-top is good, excess I’m all in favor of. I like to be dazzled with flamboyance and bullshit, or authenticity and taste, in epic or flash, from the rodeo to the ballet as far as how words move across the page.
The city, the urban situation, informs the six books discussed here. And when language transcribed from the street comes to the page rendered faithfully to its purpose, I sit up and take notice. Here are two smokin’ samples from Chanel Q.:
- Full-sleeve tats, face tats, thick chains, True Religion jeans and banging kicks everywhere. It was like a who’s who of Chicago’s finest trap daddies and hoes and I was right there in the middle of them all.
- You find out about that boy of his, that Troy. How he rolls, how he fucks, where he lays his head, where he mama at when he up some bitch’s pussy.
And then an angel arrives and writes a beautiful novel, formidable and fierce and as urban as you can get with almost no profanity because the vernacular is so well written. The Turner House is a radiant story of a family 13 kids and their two parents living in Detroit in the late 20th, early 21st century, created in a steady, writerly language, so vivid and pretty, themed with hope, and strength, and inspiration, represented by this passage:
It reassured Lelah that the ghetto could still hold beauty, and that streets with this much new life could still have good in them. On both sides of the Turner house, vacant lots were stippled with new grass. Soon ragweed, wood sorrel and violets would surround the crumbling foundations, the houses long burned and rained away.
After the glimpses of black lives in contemporary Chicago, Baltimore and Detroit, William Craig chronicles another time—1945, the end of World War II in the Pacific theater—and other lives—Filipino—and another city—Manila, for example.
Manila, “Jewel of the Orient,” had been systematically burned to the ground by the desperate marines and sailors of the Japanese Navy, acting under orders to deny the capital of the Philippines to the enemy. During MacArthur’s three-week siege in February 1945, Filipinos had died by the thousands as Japanese troops, inflamed by desperation and reckless abandon, had used them mercilessly. Mass rapes, multiple assaults on young women and little girls, had been perpetrated in streets and hallways. Columns of men and women had been doused with gasoline and set ablaze. Others had been tied together and bayoneted to death. In hospitals, nuns, nurses and patients had been stripped, raped and killed. Mutilated corpses had lain everywhere among the ruins. Manila had paid a terrible price for its freedom.
Continuing the urban and now Asian thread, the Lish book is a contemporary love story, set in the lower depths of New York City, between a homeless young American male military veteran back from the Middle East wars and a Chinese woman, immigrant, undocumented, and scrambling to stay alive working in menial jobs such as housekeeping and food service. Because the surroundings and situations are so basic and desperate, I kept waiting for the novel to break out into Cormac McCarthy-esque savagery, and hoping it wouldn’t; and while formidable tension and menace is created, Lish has a different world view. The story contains unexpected, almost breathtaking acts of mercy, unexpected because they occur in the unrelentingly dangerous, rough, cold streets of poor, urban America, but breathtaking also because they are strong and simple kindnesses, true acts of mercy, not based on bartering sex or drugs or weapons, the touch of a saint.
What endeared me to the Lish book is how he treats his Uighur protagonista, Zhou Lei, how she uses language to navigate the alien world she finds herself in: yes there is the need to learn American English, but her deportable status creates a residency of off-the-books, low paying survival jobs which means working with other Chinese who speak dialects which she doesn’t know, not to mention the language of the Guatemalans and Hondurans and other Central Americans who make up her workplaces, people from India, Syria, Pakistan, people from Africa.
“Not too many people knowing what’s Uighur people. I just think no matter any kind of people, to stay in the US it’s not easy right now.”
For me, a monolingual English speaker, it is interesting and exciting to be living in the USA right now, witness to the evolution of English prompted by our variety of communities and races and ethnicities. Lish is good at capturing the melding speech. Zhou Lei on:
- Chinese medicine: “It can cure many things that the Western medicine feels helpless.”
- Or: I will invite you the real Chinese food.
- Or: You go to party. I’m not jealousy.
- Or: He ask if he make it spice or not spice.
I call it an affectionate look at language synthesis, and Lish is on the down low, quiet and naturalistic, his spare English prose helping to frame the poetically emerging new language.
But Ron Dakron is over the top, bombastic and freaky about it. He uses the same American-Asian hybrid, but he calls it “Manglish!: With wordage like I touched a tiny sawdust or Let’s have a biology.”
And he situates his satirical, comic riot bizarro megamonster lover’s brawl in yet another urban area, Tokyo (whose landmarks, while routinely destroyed by giant movie monsters, are not as often destroyed by giant movie monsters as you may think. In fact, some experts say Tokyo is only the 10th most destroyed by giant movie monsters city in the history of motion pictures.)
The giant Devilfish versus the giant Squidra. Battle. Big scary monsters powered by “love—that rogue emotion that paves your heart with hot pink asphalt, that excuse for any excess,” combined with hello kitty killer tropes and memes and epistemes as well as a frenzy of remarks aggressive, intelligent, sexist, insightful, rude and playful and crude. After all, “Brains are magic tricks done with meat.”
It’s all loud and ginormous and fast. And while Dakron’s gigantors are destroying (figuratively and in real time) each other and civilization like it was a saloon in a bar brawl in the Old West, I’m also loving the Gertrude Stein pheromones being released to the millionth degree in the Manglish-aided lines of which four randomly chosen are these:
- I see much of a kitten here!
- Her lateness angers me glumly!
- Never use fate as your caterer!
- I am bitter with cunning!
The better part of the novel is outrageous and vulgar word play and cultural disquisition. The observations are keen, and the comic timing is impeccable. A reader will probably be simultaneously laughing out loud and taking offense. Or as the title character says: “What doesn’t kill you almost kills you—Hello Devilfish!”