All literature is literature in translation. There is no mother tongue. All of it migrates out of the body, out of a tangle of sensations and intuitions, obscure rancour and desires; we hunt racks of ready-made language for words that might fit.
Mitchell S. Jackson is the author of a sharply drawn novel, The Residue Years, and a new memoir, Survival Math. Questions of translating his experience have long preoccupied him. “I’m not writing for white people, to inform them on black lives,” he has said. Nor does he want the reader to be dazzled by the instability and violence of his childhood and miss the “bounteous love” that is as much his legacy.
Mr Jackson’s work is set in Portland, Ore., one of the whitest big cities in America, scarred by a long history of racist violence and intimidation. The black community he grew up in was small and straitened, hit hard by years of redlining. He writes about a lifetime of losses and near escapes, his mother’s crack addiction and his own drug dealing.
It’s an American story Jackson tells, nesting his own among others — that of the first black man thought to set foot in Oregon (Markus Lopius) and those of the friends and relatives whose lives Jackson depicts in interspersed “survivor profiles.” He includes poems woven out of lines lifted from the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation.
Exuberant maximalism is his mode. The digressions have digressions. There are pages of garrulous footnotes. Every story veers off into a lesson — on the history of the Bloods and Crips, the invention of whiteness and crack cocaine, the composition of plasma and the cultivation of apple trees — some sections only tenuously knitted into the narrative. The detours recall the hectic narrative nonfiction of the nineties and early aughts, by writers like Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace.
Mr Jackson tells us so much, but it’s the omissions that are deafening.
There are patterns in his reticence. He begins a personal story, he opens a wound — and when we expect emotion, he floods us with information. The elaborate architecture of the book can feel like an exercise in misdirection, especially when Jackson turns to his treatment of women.
He introduces his concept of “The Men on the Scale” — players, users of women. He has been such a man, he says, but he alludes only vaguely to how he harmed them. Instead he includes “victim statements,” testimonies of his behaviour from five former partners. They describe being cheated on and lied to, coerced into abortions, feeling too traumatised to date again. “I blamed me,” one writes. “I wasn’t pretty enough. I wasn’t light enough.”
These stories shimmer with pain. But Mr is impatient to talk about victimology instead. He wants to discuss Don Giovanni, Lord Byron, the writer Chantal Thomas, Steven Pinker, Frantz Fanon, Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, the psychologist Grazyna Kochanska — all in two pages. He wants to tell us about history’s great Lotharios.
There have been a slew of new books that have reckoned powerfully with manhood and masculinity and their intersections with race and sexuality. Mr Jackson has the facility, but what does he force himself to face? Too often, a strong protective instinct takes over. He writes, of the men he grew up with, some who dealt drugs or pimped women: “Though their foibles weren’t the crux of what I used to compose, best believe not a single man I mentioned has existed in my life beyond critique. And that’s all sorts of apropos, since I too am a flawed human striving, striving.”
The syntax turns knotty and tortured here; it trips over itself. It’s as if Jackson has remembered he’s being overheard, and by readers who might summarily condemn these men. He retreats to a safer bank — aren’t we all just imperfect human beings? On other occasions, he takes cover behind the abstractions of the pulpit. “Ours is a revolutionary era of gender fluidness and sexual equality and same-sex parents and girls doubtless need fathers, too,” he writes. “However” — however!— “this is my beating heart: Boys need fathers. Boys need fathers — period, exclamation point.”
This is stale writing — period, exclamation point. It is beneath Mr Jackson. Not only because it so casually dismisses same-sex and single parents, but because it misses the pungency and wisdom of the scenes, the richness and beautiful uncertainties of the voice he inhabits, when he seeks to depict and not merely sermonize.
The retelling of his first foray into drug dealing is indelible. “I kept faith, stood out in the shadows among others determined to clock a dollar. It was frightening and exhilarating all at once. It was near ineffable seeing that world demystified, witnessing firsthand the landscape, which by that time my mother had been roaming for years. There was also a part of me that half hoped I’d see her.”
He does, eventually. I will never forget their encounter. What a book this might have been had he stayed in this register a little longer, had he stayed with all that is “frightening and exhilarating,” and let us truly encounter him.
©2019 The New York Times Service