I am finding writing about books very difficult. I don't know if other writers for this site (or readers for that matter) are having this experience, but my difficulty goes like this: Books are waaaaay too vast for me to write a good short essay about, the best you can hope for is to attach to some thread and ride it in an interesting way. At the same time, when I get really into a book, i read it at too fast a clip to write a in-progress think-through of the book, the way Herx and Rob have done so thoughtfully and fascinatingly.
This becomes even more true when I'm reading a book as not-plot-driven as James Baldwin's Another Country. Don't get me wrong... I loved this book and I'm still mulling it over. But I'm struggling to explain to you why, dear reader, I think it is worthy of my love.
The world's already bitter enough. We got to try to be better than the world.
Another Country tells the story of a group of friends whose stories are brought together by the suicide of Rufus Scott, a black jazz drummer living in New York City. The first ninety pages or so of the book are told from Rufus' perspective, detailing the final night of his life and, through memory, spiralling off into in depth looks at seminal moments over the past few years of his existence. After those pages, the perspective changes between various members of the group-- Rufus' white friends Cass (a novelist's wife), Vivaldo (an aspiring writer), and Eric (a bisexual actor living in Paris). Interestingly enough, the one main character whose head we don't get to live inside is Rufus' younger sister, an aspiring blues singer named Ida. And along the way we get glimpses at an array of vivid side characters-- Cass' husband (and Vivaldo's high school English teacher) Richard, Eric's french lover Yves, a slimy producer named Ellis, Vivaldo's absolutely hateful ex-girlfriend Jane etc.
The narrative of the book progresses in a likewise fashion throughout. A character has a moment-- a conversation, a drug experience, sex, a night at a club, whatever-- and that moment is analyzed thoroughly both within the character's head and through Baldwin's unpacking of that character's experience. This in depth analysis leads through the slippery paths of memory to other like moments throughout the characters history. The book moves forward and backwards through time easily-- it's the kind of book where Eric will be asked to come to dinner by his lover Yves and in between the asking and the answering is twenty pages detailing their first night together with a kind of emotional and intellectual acuity that's almost impossible to imagine, let alone describe.
In the book's 430 pages people meet, people fuck (it would be hard to call it lovemaking), people fall in and out of love, do drugs, chain smoke and drink a truly staggering amount of alcohol. I'm pretty sure that there is at least one alcoholic beverage consumed for each page of the novel. And in between these moments-in-miniature, we get the intertwinings of race, gender, sexuality and class in a bold way that few authors are really capable of. By exploiding these moments, Baldwin is able to reveal how social reality shapes experience, and as his various characters struggle (and largely fail) to be better than this world, the weight detail of human experience leaps off the page and threatens to overwhelm the reader.
And the conversations! My friend Charles told me that the conversations people have in this book are like the kind of conversations you wish you could have, and he's absolutely right. There's a kind of straightforwardness, an emotional rawness and honesty. It's the kind of book where a white man tells his black girlfriend that race doesn't matter and she responds that's cause you're white. Which sums up about all that needs to be summed up about that conversation.
Another Country strikes a note of despair throughout, even in the happy moments, the characters seem about to fall apart. But it's a kind of beautiful despair, a kind of requiem for America in the mid twentieth century-- its potential, power, beauty, violence, possibility and pessemism all on display. And narratively, as I said, it's not about plot, it's about detail. In the play I directed recently, George Hunka's In Public one of the characters longs for a world where we can revel in the history and potential of a gaze, a moment of contact under a restaurant table, a touch. Another Country realizes that goal with a kind of reckless abandon that at times threatens to turn tiresome. Or perhaps overwhelming is a better word. For these are not happy people, and they are living unhappy lives and trying their hardest and consistently failing. It's not a pleasant world to inhabit for a few weeks, but it is our history and-- more than we would like to admit-- our present as well.