Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Don't Let Me Be Lonely, by Claudia Rankine.


Well. What a depressing book to read over the Thanksgiving holiday!

Although, while it was depressing, it wasn't precisely discouraging. This contradiction was one of the most fascinating aspects of this piece to me… that while the subject matter was not only somber, but entropically somber (ie. our brains are controlled by drugs dispensed by evil and all-powerful pharmaceutical companies, and so on, so what is the point of even getting out of bed, much less resistance), it rarely left me in a shitty mood. Some of this may have been due to being in a good mood generally, but I do think there was something pertinent in the work itself. I found myself comparing it a lot with Don DeLillo's Mao II. While Mao II deals with anonymity in the context of writers and dictators, the sense of universal victimization was very similar. In the case of Mao II, I was so exasperated by the end (because do we really need so much help merely to continue feeling bleak?) that I literally threw the book. I'm intrigued then, by what could have made Don't Let Me Be Lonley so palatable, enjoyable even, when it seems to follow a similar course and reach similar conclusions.

And immediate possibility is the visual look of the piece. The cover was slightly off-putting, in that an elongated shape and colorful image are offset by the obvious Photoshop insertion of the title. Not only do the words lack the graininess and light effects of, say, the clouds and sunflowers, but the angle is offset slightly from that of the billboard. I later wondered if this was an intentional "mistake."
With this sole exception, the physical presentation is meticulous. While poems are not identified, or even decisively set apart, there is an implied division in the form of eighteen static-filled television screens. This is in keeping with one of the predominant themes of the piece; loneliness and insomnia. Inasmuch as there is a strong sense of human absence from most of these poems, Rankine does evoke a sense of companionship from the television in her frequent bouts of insomnia.
There were also many images. They all had an immediate relationship to their place in the book. For example, photos of Diallo and Byrd accompany references to their murders, and the description of Mr. Tool’s artificial heart is alongside a diagram of the apparatus. Even when the references are at their most deceptive, Rankine is quick to point out the idiosyncrasy in the endnotes. An example of this is the screenshot that accompanies an evocation of The Wild Bunch. Since both represent Westerns, it is easy to assume that the screenshot is from The Wild Bunch. It is not, but Rankine admits this openly.

The piece is also very open about itself thematically. Insomnia, pharmaceutical companies, drugs, health problems, political turmoil, and racism all intersect frequently. Often the actual encounters are almost identical, or at least the sleepy way Rankine describes them causes differences to blur. The Diallo and Byrd accounts are one example of this; while their settings and circumstances, and even the cause and nature of the crime itself may differ significantly, the narrative seems to drive toward similarities. Here the emphasis falls on the fact that a individual black man was murdered by many white men through excessive, sensational, and even grotesque use of force. But more subtle examples include her multiple references to her sister’s attempts to negotiate an insurance claim regarding her deceased family. There is no conveyance of the amount of time that has passed between these encounters, or on the sister’s progress or lack thereof.

This all seems relevant to me in helping to understand why I enjoyed this book. Whereas Mao II took up a debater’s position that activity is self-defeating, and set about building an argument about unaccountability to prove its point, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely doesn’t attempt to put forth an argument at all. Or if it does, the argument is so submerged beneath layers of sleep deprivation and disorientation that it never mounts a frontal assault upon a reader. In these words, it may seem hard to believe that this could possibly be “a good thing,” but I am convinced that it is. First, given the lack of a irreducible argument, the language itself is very robust and forceful, as are the images invoked:

What do I care about the liver? I could have told her it is because the word live hides within it. Or we might have been able to do something with the fact that the liver is the largest single internal organ next to the soul, which looms large though it is hidden. (54)

Second, because the terms of the piece seem to be set down by a narrator struggling against insomnia and sickness herself, as opposed to a narrator imposing this condition upon a helpless reader, the piece not only avoids intentional hostility, but what hostility remains is organic and integral to the book’s universe.

Finally, I have to say that I thought there were moments of beauty in here, and while they stayed true to the atmosphere of the piece as a whole, only appearing vaguely and momentarily, and sometimes without narrative recognition, they make this a three-dimensional piece. In other words, despite the omnipresence of inertia and horror, there is at least an illusion of something else:

In a taxi speeding uptown on the West Side Highway, I let my thoughts drift below the surface of the Hudson until it finally occurs to me that feelings fill the gaps created by the indirectness of experience. (89)



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