High Stakes: Danielle Evans’s Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self

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James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is a story that always manages to surprise me because it just works. There is, of course, tremendous style and skill in the execution. But there is nothing ostentatious: no cheap jumps or surprises, no shifts in voice, no postmodern irruptions by the writer. “Sonny’s Blues” is simply an intense story with high stakes. Sonny will either manage to live in this world or, in his great desperation and pain, fall to heroin. This life or death conflict lies naked on the page, so that every word, spoken and narrated, must either point to it or pointedly talk around it, each word advancing the cause of one or the other outcome. Because there is no gimmick to it, because there is honesty and bluntness in the telling of the story, Baldwin is able to rest the world on Sonny’s shoulders. As the story goes on, Baldwin returns again and again to the pronoun “we” and to apocalyptic metaphor. A story about a man convincingly becomes a story about a nation, and a story about human beings. It is not only Sonny’s fate that remains undecided at the end of the story; the apocalyptic “cup of trembling” that sits at the top of Sonny’s piano in the final sentence is meant for all of us.

The stories in Danielle Evans’s short story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self are built on the model of “Sonny’s Blues”. There is no trick to these stories, only brute intensity. These are stories about people, particularly women, who have suffered terribly, who stand on the precipice, and who implicate us in what has happened to them and in what they intend to do. These are women whose desperation to be heard and to be loved drives them to feel with a terrifying, violent intensity. They remind me of Dorcas, from Toni Morrison’s Jazz, a “girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made [her lover] so sad and so happy that he shot her just to keep the feeling going.” They expect nothing and somehow get less; they know better than to get their hopes up about anything.  Parents forget to pay the electric bill and the lights get cut. They abandon their children in the house, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll return: “Liddie and I sat in our pajamas, alone, staring at the tree that wouldn’t light up. When our parents returned hours later with pizza and Chinese food and flashlights and candles, we exhaled breath we didn’t even know we’d been holding and ate cold food in the dark silence.” When the protagonist of “Virgins” loses her virginity, her ambivalence speaks for every other character in the collection: “I did understand then that there was no such thing as safe, only safer; that this, if it didn’t happen now, would happen later but not better.”

Evans also shares Baldwin’s talent for dialogue: both writers know well what lies are hidden behind every word. A character in “Jellyfish,” upon receiving a self-serving offer from her father, slips up and says “That’s wonderful for you,” instead of “That’s wonderful of you.”  Despite her best intentions, the mistaken preposition and the greeting-card formality of her response reveals exactly what she thinks about the matter. The same story features this expert piece of dialogue:

“You sound like me the week after you left me the first time,” said Cheese. “I thought every woman walking beneath the window was you.”

“Well,” said Eva. “Here I am.”

Eva responds, but doesn’t really respond; that might make her vulnerable. It is typical of most communication in the collection, sensitive negotiations conducted between two hostile parties rather than any sort of genuine exchange. Characters seize on key phrases, remember them exactly, and quote them ad nauseum, as if they were valuable bargaining chips: “Anyway, he told me once that love was not a real thing because it was comprised of too many subsidiary emotions.” Dialogue, for Evans’ characters, is war by other means.

Evans is smart enough to know that suffering only very rarely makes you a better person. These characters are capable of staggering cruelties. The protagonist of “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” meeting the fiance of her ex-boyfriend, Brian, for the first time, is responsible for this exchange:

“To death and divorce, then,” he says, “which are forever.”

“And marriage,” I say, clinking my drink to his and nodding at Brian, “Which is not.”

I let out a hushed oath when I read that passage for the first time, as if the characters were sitting right next to me in a crowded restaurant and I was afraid of being overheard. I honestly felt, to my own surprise, scandalized. You know these characters shouldn’t get a pass for their behavior, but you don’t quite blame them for it either. They know a certain pitiless brutality to be an immutable truth of life. Tara, of “Snakes,” puts it nicely: “I felt like somebody ought to stop me from walking out, like there was a rule that you couldn’t leave behind such palatable need.” But, as she well knows, there isn’t. So she does walk out.

Evans’ collection, however, is all about attending to that palatable need. Like Baldwin and Morrison, Evans belongs to the branch of black literary humanism that, simply by recognizing its characters as people, carries with it an implicit social mission. These stories are written with such detail and attention that it sometimes feels like a personal letter, written by one black woman for another, by one loving person for another. It feels necessary. Somebody should tell these women that they are not alone and that they matter.

What makes this collection great is that moral mission, the way that the collection serves as a testament to the value of the individuals whose stories it tells. Race is here, of course. Race cannot help but be here, in every tiny crack and crevice, tainting everything from sunscreen to school pranks. Race cuts and bruises and scars the characters of this collection. But beyond their intricate filigrees of defensiveness, beyond the ways that others insist on seeing them, the characters of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self are people. They want those awfully basic things that can be expressed in simple, declarative thrusts: I want to be loved, I want your love, I want a real family. These primary human dramas are what ultimately drive the stories in the collection, and the need in these stories is so obvious and strong that it levels the heart. Such an insistent demand for love should be heard; it is worthy of being chronicled in books. There isn’t a rule that you can’t leave behind such palatable need, of course. We know this. But the gap between what we know and what we think should be is the place from which great literature often emerges. There isn’t such a rule, but as Danielle Evans persuasively argues, there ought to be.

The Beauty That Lies in Wasted Time: On Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber

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I’ll do you the favor of summarizing all the major plot points of the second volume of The Dream of the Red Chamber. Jia Bao-yu, the eccentric adolescent heir of the phenomenally wealthy Jia family, has a crush on his cousin, Lin Dai-yu, and she has a crush on him. He unintentionally slights her, and they have a fight, which is quickly resolved. Bao-yu’s flirtation with a maid inadvertently leads to her suicide; as the result of the maid’s suicide and his friendship with an escaped slave of the Imperial household, his father beats Bao-yu brutally, leaving him bed-ridden. However, he eventually recovers, and starts a poetry club with his sisters and cousins. They have a poetry contest. At the matriarch’s insistence, the family throws an extravagant birthday party for her granddaughter-in-law, Wang Xi-feng. The party ends poorly when Wang Xi-feng catches her husband cheating on her with a maid. More cousins come to visit, and to honor them, Bao-yu’s sister invites them to the poetry club, which holds another meeting. The family celebrates the New Year festival. That’s more or less all that really happens, and that story takes some 560 pages of tiny, dense text to tell. It’s also only the second volume of five, each about the same length.

At the beginning of the summer, I set out to read the entirety of the David Hawkes translation of  The Dream of the Red Chamber. Its author, Cao Xueqin, was the scion of one of the wealthiest families of early Qing China. He was also unfortunate enough, as a child, to be a witness to its dramatic downfall–a result of political purges and property confiscations. Cao spent most of his life in dire poverty, writing and re-writing the semi-autobiographical Dream of the Red Chamber continuously until his death in 1764. Dream of the Red Chamber–circulated in coveted hand-copied manuscripts until the first print edition in 1792–was an almost instant success. The novel has had a profound impact on the Chinese literary tradition; scholarly studies of Red Chamber are so numerous that there is a minor field of study dedicated to the novel – hongxue, literally, “redology.” Red Chamber serves as an invaluable record of the lifestyle of a wealthy Chinese family at the beginning of the eighteenth century, faithfully portraying the Neo-Confucian conservatism of the newly established Qing dynasty and the anxieties that preoccupied its governing scholar bureaucracy. Its doomed lovers, Jia Bao-yu and Lin Dai-yu, are as iconic in China as Romeo and Juliet are in the West. It’s also notable for its staggering length. At about twenty-eight hundred pages, Dream of the Red Chamber is about twice as long as my copy of War and Peace.

What is most striking to me about the experience of reading this book, however, is not the length. It is the vast distance between The Dream of the Red Chamber and the modern sensibility. In the post-Lish verbal economics of the contemporary novel, where every word has to count, the dramatic waste of words in Red Chamber is astoundingly alien. I am aware, of course, that not every novel is plot-driven, but most novels do tend to have some sort of force propelling them forward, some sort of urgency, whether that urgency is derived from the events, the character, or themes alluded to by the work. Dream of the Red Chamber, on the other hand, is unbelievably comfortable with its own languor. It is often content to bring the story to a complete standstill while it explains the minutiae of household management. The novel often seems to proceed only with a great reluctance.

I won’t tell you it isn’t occasionally boring to read this novel. I also won’t tell you that it isn’t maddening. Or that, after reading every excruciating detail of the umpteenth drinking game, I didn’t want to angrily trample it, like an apostate stomping on the cross. But the extravagant waste of the prose is also part of the overall design of the novel. The low signal-to-noise ratio causes the mind to actively search for the tiny anomalies that reveal the profundity behind the endless series of parties. I love this single sentence, for example:

It was customary in the Jia household to treat the older generation of servants – those who had served the parents of the present masters – with even greater respect than the younger generation of masters, so that in this instance it was not thought at all surprising that You-shi, Xi-feng and Li Wan should remain standing while old Mrs. Lai and three or four other old nannies (though not without first apologizing for the liberty) seated themselves on the stools.

I cannot remember where I last saw the relationships between servants and their masters so concisely described. This sentence (particularly the parenthetical) perfectly captures the way a master’s gesture of apparent humility and gratitude can end up as nothing more than the ultimate expression of power.

The novel is filled with these diamonds in the rough. In fact, the overall technique of the novel is that of an elaborate shell game, as if the narrator were attempting to hide something behind every description of a meal. Surrounded by reams and reams of meaningless detail, the sudden dismissal of a maid jars us as an unconscionable cruelty. We come to understand the magnitude of the Jia family matriarch’s vanity and selfishness by carefully reading between the lines. And only by trudging through each and every poetry contest can the reader absorb the tremendous depth of the regret that suffuses the novel; with each innocent poem written about transience, with each second idly wasted, the young residents of the Jia family mansions unknowingly signal their own doom.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the novel is dead. Heck, forget the novel; the short story is dead. It’s all about flash fiction now. Not only is this a foregone conclusion, everyone knows how it happened, too. Television, or video games, or the internet, or Twitter destroyed our attention spans. For one thing, nobody reads anymore (a sentiment expressed exclusively, it should be noted, by people who read a great deal). And besides, nobody’s interested in fiction anymore (again, a statement that is only ever written by people who love literary fiction).

Myriad and ever-emerging like cockroaches, those essays that would pronounce a final sentence on the novel rely on a gross misperception of how culture works. The logic behind most of these arguments is that readers are only willing to read works that reflect their direct experience; thus, a faster paced world demands shorter stories, or an image-obsessed world eschews text altogether. “Death of the novel” essayists would condemn the art form to the dustbin of history like the telegraph, the typewriter or some other piece of outdated machinery.  Theirs is a brutally determinist view of the world; they seem to believe that culture can only reflect–and never influence–the societies and people that produce it.

However, that’s never been my experience. I have continually been shaped by books. To Kill A Mockingbird taught me what courage is. Beowulf taught me about death. Swann’s Way taught me how to let go of love. And I hope that Dream of the Red Chamber will teach me to pay attention. For as much as life is made out of Joycean epiphanies, it seems that a great deal more of it is composed of lunches and dinners, awful parties, boring family get-togethers, and countless, idly-watched episodes of Law and Order. There seems to be a great deal of value in learning how to find the beauty that lies in this “wasted” time. Not to say that we can’t also have quick beach reads. But we don’t only read to consume; we also read in order to learn and maybe even in order to change and to grow.

Since the beginning of time, there have been long novels and there have been flash fiction–though, back then, flash fiction pieces were called epigrams. I’d argue that the first post-modern novel was Don Quixote. I’d argue that the first anti-novel was Tristam Shandy. The same modes of expression have always been around, albeit with different names and different styles. Their use has only been limited by the mind, which has generally proved flexible enough to find new meaning in the old forms and come up with new forms to talk about those same old universal human experiences.

Through books–both sweepingly long ones and dramatic short ones–we’ve come to terms with the staggering impact of science, the economic traumas of capitalism, the dislocations of globalization, and the unique nightmare of modern war. I think we’ll figure out a way to deal with Twitter, too.