Something interesting happens when a word that suggests action is applied to beauty: It recasts beauty as something that can be done, pulled off — not just possessed. On Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter, when “flawless” is used as praise, it implies a friendly interest in workmanship — in a brow arched just so, in contouring cream ingeniously applied, in effort and experimentation as much as the final effect. True, “flawless” has its own conventions and idiosyncrasies: It usually refers to a certain kind of regal woman — think Beyoncé, Rihanna, Michelle Obama — with a sculpted look that feels achieved (also, possibly, complicated and expensive to maintain). But its abiding spirit is generous and even vaguely campy; it honors the artifice in all beauty and is skeptical of anything wanly “natural” or “authentic” that conceals the trouble it took. Its ethos could be Simone de Beauvoir’s observation that “one is not born but rather becomes a woman.”
The famous preface to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” reads like a goad: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”
No book is as regularly ransacked. Bowdlerized, when not outright banned, from the moment of its publication in 1884, it has been read like a rune and interrogated for its embodiment of American anxieties about race and freedom and language, the call of the open road (or river). “The brilliance of ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ ” Toni Morrison wrote, “is that it is the argument it raises.”
There is some unpardonably bad sex writing, most of it unprintable here (and, in a just world, anywhere). We must contend with “uterine” as a favorite adjective. We must contend with a tender, anxious regard for virility and the concomitant dread of the “female sex organ,” variously depicted as cave or coffin. We must suffer nonsense like: “Woman steals sperm as Prometheus stole fire. Stealing what belongs to the gods.” Or, worse, Quignard’s odd ideas about evolution: “There is only one human posture — standing upright on account of the erection.”
You don’t read Nell Zink so much as step into the ring with her. Every sentence is a jab or feint, rigged for surprise. Every word feels like a verb. The plot leaps will give you vertigo.
Her debut novel, “The Wallcreeper,” is a very funny, very strange work of unhinged brilliance — rude sex comedy meets environmental tract. Tiffany, our narrator, a creature of almost profound indolence, marries Stephen, her senior colleague at a pharmaceutical company, within three weeks of meeting him. Imagining marriage as a kind of early retirement plan, Tiffany hopes only for a protracted break from work that would allow her to pursue a nebulous course in self-actualization — as well as discreet sexual adventures. She follows Stephen as he is transferred from Philadelphia to Bern to Berlin; they start to get to know each other but quickly think better of it. Soon they’re into birds, Berlin’s radical activist scene and sleeping with other people. Stephen dabbles in drugs, Tiffany in eco-terrorism. They are magnificently ill suited, and they cannot be parted.
Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is an anatomy of American racism in the new millennium, a slender, musical book that arrives with the force of a thunderclap. It’s a sequel of sorts to Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004), sharing its subtitle (An American Lyric) and ambidextrous approach: Both books combine poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, words and images. But where Lonely was jangly and capacious, an effort to pin down the mood of a particular moment—the paranoia of post-9/11 America and the racial targeting of black and brown men in those years—Citizen’s project is more oblique, more mysterious.
For the book is, first of all, a surprisingly seductive object. Its pages are slick and pearly, and the full-color images—paintings, TV screenshots, photographs—give it the feel of a gallery catalogue, which, in a way, it is. Citizen guides us from spectacle to spectacle, from a consideration of Serena Williams’s career and the racist taunting she has endured to a beautifully reproduced photograph of Kate Clark’s Little Girl, a sculpture of a hoofed woman; from an elegy for Trayvon Martin to Carrie Mae Weems’s Blue Black Boy, in which three identical blue-hued prints of a boy are presented side by side, one labeled BLUE, one BLACK, one BOY. And in the book’s most powerful passages, Rankine reports from the site of her own body, detailing the racist comments she’s been subjected to, the “jokes,” the judgments. It’s what we commonly call microaggressions, what Rankine calls “invisible racism” for how swift and sneaky it is, how ever-present. It is the word uppity. It is the word strident; it’s “No, where are you really from?” It’s stop-and-frisk. It’s what Hilton Als calls “phantasmagorical genocide,” what Kara Walker calls the “perpetual reminder that in this culture a Black body is not safe and my humanity is not real.” It is death by a thousand cuts.
Increasing attention has been paid to microaggressions in recent years. There have been books like Touré’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? (2011); social-media campaigns like “I, Too, Am Harvard,” in which students discuss comments that have made them feel marginalized on campus; even BuzzFeed lists (“21 Racial Microaggressions You Hear on a Daily Basis”). And there’s “Killing Rage,” a classic of the genre: bell hooks’s 1995 essay about the array of racism she encountered on a trip to New York, a scalding piece of writing that begins with the indelible “I am writing this essay sitting beside an anonymous white male that I long to murder.” Rankine works in a cooler register. She renders her encounters in language rinsed of color, cant, and emotion. Her descriptions could be courtroom testimony: “The man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work. If this is his routine, he didn’t use it on the friend who went before you.” “You have already settled into your window seat on United Airlines, when the girl and her mother arrive at your row. The girl, looking over at you, tells her mother, these are our seats, but this is not what I expected.” “The woman with the multiple degrees says, I didn’t know black women could get cancer.”
It’s the framing that gives the vignettes their teeth: By telling us these stories, some of which she borrowed from family and friends, in the second person, Rankine builds her book on shifting sands—the reader is never immediately sure who in the story is black or white, whom to identify with, whom to trust or fear.
That indeterminacy, that unsettling openness in the text, recalls the paranoia racism evokes (“Did she really just say that? Did I hear what I think I heard?”), and it’s an unusual feature of writing about race. From Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 memoir to James Baldwin’s essays to Teju Cole’s rereading of Baldwin’s essays, the dominant mode has been pedagogic, messianic: the writer trying to persuade white America of her humanity, trying to save its soul.
But Rankine keeps a different faith. In her work can be felt the opposing strains of wanting, and wanting badly, for her writing to serve some practical purpose (“I tried to fit language into the shape of usefulness,” she writes in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely) as well as something more anarchic. When she quotes the filmmaker Claire Denis—“I don’t want to be a nurse or a doctor, I just want to be an observer”—it isn’t critically. Rankine is profoundly interested in witnessing how power and pain move through the body and the body politic—but without prescription. She doesn’t declaim. She rarely consoles. Instead she creates a space for readers to engage with their own preconceptions, fears, and hostilities. It’s the visual artists she seems most in conversation with, those who approach race at a slant—Weems as well as Kehinde Wiley and Yasumasa Morimura—with their reliance on repetition and juxtaposition, their ability to bring the viewer into the work. The plainness of Rankine’s prose, the deliberate flatness of her second-person set pieces, recalls Kara Walker’s silhouettes, those panoramic nightmares of plantation life mounted on bare white walls, on which the viewer’s shadow also falls. So do we enter Citizen. We are invited, we are implicated.
We are also disoriented. Rankine scatters elliptical, enigmatic images and poems throughout. Take Clark’s sculpture Little Girl, a beguiling creature with the body of a deer and the face of a wary woman. Along her face, something glints, like tears or jewelry. They are tiny nails drilled into the skin. She appears to be the victim of some enchantment, one of those women from myth punished for spurning the gods. She huddles low on the page, puzzled and puzzling—until we read on and the riddle seems to reveal itself.
Racist language is, after all, itself a kind of enchantment, a kind of spell. And Rankine stages her encounters so we can see, almost in slow motion, how it enters and lodges itself in the body, and what havoc it causes. There is first the shock (“Did I hear what I think I heard?”), the somatic response (“Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs”). The taste it leaves behind (“a bad egg in your mouth”), that feeling of being marked, befouled (“puke runs down your blouse”). And confusion, even self-blame: “You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed, he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there. You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.”
Rankine reminds us that racism is an intimate violence—its perpetrators are not just institutions or strangers who deny our humanity but friends, colleagues. It is language that renders one “hypervisible,” she writes, quoting the philosopher Judith Butler. The body is made a public place, subject to scorn, suspicion, regulation. Continue reading “‘Citizen’ by Claudia Rankine”
Lucretius said to handle them with caution; Berkeley, not to handle them at all. Aristotle said that too many confound; Locke, that even one can “mislead the judgment”; Hobbes, that their natural end was “contention and sedition, or contempt.” Sontag said simply, they kill.
Pity the poor metaphor, so maligned, so alluring. We’ve been warned repeatedly — and, inevitably, in metaphors — that metaphors can do terrible things. (According to Sontag, the grotesque metaphors attached to AIDS and cancer contributed to their stigma and prevented people from seeking treatment.) And yet, it’s impossible to go without. Supposedly, we use one metaphor a minute, about one metaphor for every 25 words; we seem scarcely able to string together two thoughts without them (there goes one), they cast such clarifying, necessary light (and another).
The essayist Eula Biss is something of a specialist at handling our twitchiest, most combustible metaphors. In her 2009 collection, “Notes From No Man’s Land,” she picked apart the metaphors we’ve used to construct and report on race in America. In her new book, the subtle, spellbinding “On Immunity,” she goes under the skin. She asks why vaccination triggers such anxiety — anxiety so intense it lives in the language: The British call it a “jab,” Americans, a “shot.”
At the Met, Mr. Lerner stood before “Joan of Arc” so long and talked about it with such intensity that, in the peculiar way of museums, other people became gradually persuaded of its importance. A small crowd gathered. A nun pulled out an expensive-looking camera.
“That’s one of the things I really love about painting,” Mr. Lerner said, “the implied history of other people’s looking. I imagine all these very different people who have stood before a painting, people who, of course, I don’t know. Generations I don’t know. Which is in the novel a lot, that what’s interesting about a picture or a book is the community of viewers.”
Over the last 50 years, Mary Ellen Mark has photographed twins, clowns, patients in a mental hospital, Ku Klux Klan members and Liza Minnelli. She likes to look at people who are used to being looked at, and she uses her camera like Wonder Woman’s golden lasso — as a truth-telling device that peels performance from personality. In one of her most famous photographs, “Tiny” (1983), a Seattle street kid poses in her Halloween costume: a little black dress, little black gloves and a hat with a netted veil. It’s the daintiness of Tiny’s dress combined with her defiance that gives the photograph its charge. Tough Tiny looks afraid.
NPR.org, May 13, 2014, Listen on All Things Considered
In “Notes During Long Phone Conversation With Mother,” a woman listening to her mother express a desire for a cotton summer dress doodles variations of “cotton”: “nottoc,” “coontt,” “toonct,” “tocton,” almost palpably driving her pen into the pad. What is happening here? The word “cotton” disintegrates into fibers, perhaps the daughter’s patience fraying along with it as her elderly mother drones on. The story ends on that allusive “contot” — with its shades of cannot and the book’s title. Davis dances right up to and around that final mystery that can’t, won’t and must be borne, that most inexplicable magic trick, life’s vanishing act.