Monday, February 28, 2005

Pure Poetry

Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, by Alice Randall, Read by Lisa May Pitts, Blackstone Audio, 2004

The first time I heard of Alice Randall, she was embroiled in a lawsuit and the attendant controversy. I knew nothing of her, of her writing, anything, but the lawsuit caught my eye because suits involving authors often come to my notice. Her debut novel, The Wind Done Gone, was being held up by the estate of Margaret Mitchell and the publisher’s of Gone With the Wind. That first book ultimately saw publication, Randall’s appropriation of elements of Mitchell’s saga being deemed acceptable fair use of what had become cultural icons (imagine not being able to riff on Sherlock Holmes).

I didn’t read that book, despite being interested in the lawsuit itself from a curiosity perspective. Not by design, but by sheer laziness, I often find my hand, when reaching for a novel, falls all too easily on an author that looks like me, white, male, devastatingly attractive. I went out of my way this month to break that habit, mostly because it did happen to coincide with African-American history month, and because I like to set myself up with vague notions of curriculum when I read. For a while, I’ll read western philosophy, then Irish authors, then modernists, then Portuguese poets. This month, black Americans, mostly female. Whether they mirror me in the devastatingly attractive category I can’t vouch for as I spent my month listening to audiobooks, which don’t typically feature author photos.

What’s most fascinating about Randall’s second book, Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, is how utterly repellent the author makes her narrator at the book’s beginning. We are quickly introduced to the narrator, Windsor Armstrong, and her dilemma — and her rage. The book jacket describes the situation thusly:

Windsor Armstrong is a polished, Harvard-educated African American professor of Russian literature. Her son, Pushkin X, is an exceedingly famous pro football player, an achievement that impresses his mother not at all. Even more distressing, however, her beloved son has just become engaged to a gorgeous white Russian emigre who also happens to be a lap dancer.

Windsor is both a snob and a racist, two facts she willingly comes to admit about herself by the novel’s end, but which she is hesitant to own up to at the beginning. Her rage has blinded her to her son’s decision to marry the white stripper Tanya, and she is incapable of seeing it as anything more than an utter renunciation of everything about her. On the book’s second page, we are given to understand the depths of her rage and disappointment when she tells us, “I could kill him. I sound just like my daddy when I say that. I want to go very Marvin Gaye’s father on Pushkin. I’m crazy like my mother when I feel that.” She assures us, though, “that I’d kill myself before I would hurt him.”

What follows this confession is a much, much larger confession. Armstrong coming to an understanding of her past and her future in Pushkin’s life. But what immediately follows that and makes up the bulk of the first two discs are what I can fully confess make compelling reading on the page and a bit of vague navel gazing in audio form. It is very internal monologue without much action. When I read part of this in print, it read very well, very entertainingly interesting. When I listened to it read to me, it had to fight to keep my attention, the narrative qualities of internalized stories just not making compelling audiobooks.

And yet, Randall is that good of a writer that she manages to sink her hooks into you quite without you’re knowing it’s happening. When she emerges from these meditative sessions, there is a sense of what you take away from it, a hidden concrete element that lingers throughout the more narrative portions of the book. I will probably not forget the line, “White Folks ain’t nothing but a broken down black pimp’s dog,” for quite some time. Many times throughout these contemplative moments, Randall perhaps tells a little more than she should, refraining from showing us

Part of the difficulty with this book is that too often Randall tells instead of shows. It’s the elementary law of writing and she breaks it often in the books’ beginning without really needing to. Flashbacks are populated by people we are only given the barest matchstick portraits of, thoughts of characters not the narrator are provided without explanation, and much of what is going on is referential to things we will only come to learn later.

In that way, Randall’s novel owes a debt to Toni Morrison’s later novels that are themselves of a similar indeterminate nature, of things explained only much later. In literary structuring, however, Pushkin and the Queen of Spades to me most resembles the novels of Henry Miller, the obsessive turning to small moments, the spiraling narrative twists and turns that doubles back on itself, circling, circling, the focus on sex. Time does not flow in a straight line in this novel, but is chopped to pieces, rearranged, doled out as necessary, each segment frequently uneventful but reflective. The book becomes a helical house of mirrors, Pushkin the writer and Pushkin the son and Pushkin the town in Russia, Tanya the dog Windsor once owned and Tanya the Lap Dancer, Pushkin’s absent father and Windsor’s gangster father, and Windsor’s mother Lena and herself as mother and the town of Windsor, Ontario where Windsor’s parents met.

Windsor takes us on quite a trip from Alabama, to Detroit, to Washington, D.C. to Leningrad. We visit her childhood and adolescence as well as her son Pushkin’s childhood and adolescence. We meet gangster’s and poets, Oxford professors and pimps, lap dancers and football players. And the trip is constantly harrowing and hysterical and heartfelt.

There is a bit of distracting quality when Windsor, writing the book as a private manuscript wedding gift for Pushkin and Tanya, talks about him in the third person, then a sentence later speaks to him directly in the second person, before reverting (for a while) back to third person. It’s kind of pointless and Randall should stick with one or the other or make a more divided element of it, rather than flipping back and forth from sentence to sentence. Randall is quite aware of the book’s lack of formula and discipline, Windsor often freely discusses its shambling form, its essentially unquantifiable genre bursting. Is it a confession? A memoir? An enormous pastiche of lies?

When Windsor gives Pushkin her formal wedding present to him, a rewriting of the poet Pushkin’s unfinished The Negro of Peter the Great, the book turns into a recitation of this poem in rap-rhyme. This is amusing and entertaining, but it’s not what I really wanted to hear. The story of Windsor and her son and her family is far more interesting than the poetic fiction we’re supposed to read as allegorical of her son.

In the end, Randall proves herself adept at managing multiple fiction tasks at the same time. She writes movingly, originally on race without reductive simplicity of oppressed v. oppressors. This in itself is reason enough to celebrate. But then she leads us on an interior journey that is matched by an external one, telling in part personal history matched to cultural history, while remaining framed by the transformative story that takes place during the writing of the novel. She impressively writes a sympathetic intellectual snob, but one who hasn’t forgotten curiosity and hasn’t lost the ability to grow, giving us all something to shoot for.

Reader Lisa May Pitts gets robbed in the credit department, the audiobook jacket listing her as the reader while each disc is printed with the name Vonna Bowen. It’s a shame too, as she delivers us beautiful characters nicely seasoned with street smeared dialects and snooty ebony tower haughtiness. She carries off Randall’s novel with a wink and a smile and even kicks in some excellent Old English (the language, not the beverage) to boot. What more could anyone ask?

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