Leave a comment

The Books Briefing: Justin Torres, ‘Blackouts’

The Books Briefing: Justin Torres, ‘Blackouts’
The Books Briefing: Justin Torres, ‘Blackouts’


This is an edition of the revamped Books Briefing, our editors’ weekly guide to the best in books. Sign up for it here.

The National Book Awards, a glitzy affair otherwise known as the Oscars for book nerds, took place on Wednesday night. One overwhelming motif pulsed through nearly all of the winning books: the will of marginalized people to have their suppressed stories heard and acknowledged. The winner in the nonfiction category was Ned Blackhawk’s The Rediscovery of America, a radical retelling of history from a Native American perspective. Craig Santos Perez, an Indigenous Chamorro writer from Guam, won the poetry prize for his collection from unincorporated territory [åmot]. At the end of his acceptance speech, he read a poem, “The Pacific Written Tradition,” about wanting young Indigenous people from his island to understand all the ways their history had actually been preserved despite not being taught in school: “Our ancestors tattooed their skin with defiant / scripts of intricately inked genealogy, stories / of plumage and pain.” The translated-literature prize went to Stênio Gardel, a Brazilian writer, for his novel, The Words That Remain, about an elderly gay man, illiterate for most of his life and from an impoverished area of Brazil, who finally learns to read and can piece together the story of his own youthful, illicit love affair. But the book that best demonstrated the night’s strong preference for works that deal with stifled or erased histories was Justin Torres’s Blackouts, which won the fiction award. Tope Folarin’s essay on the novel, published this week in The Atlantic, homes in on this theme.

First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic’s Books section:

Torres’s book is a complex, multilayered work that, Folarin writes, “incorporates photographs, scripts, and other literary fragments to reclaim history.” Its plot is not so easy to convey, but at its center is a real book, Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns, a 1941 study that predated the Kinsey Reports by several years. Sex Variants included 80 case studies of gay and lesbian people; it presented their sexual lives as aberrant while, at the same time and in spite of itself, making their world more legible to outsiders. In Blackouts, the narrator comes into possession of a redacted copy of the report, and he spends the course of the novel trying to make sense of the text that remains—“little poems of illumination,” one character calls them—while slowly working to salvage the lines that were omitted.

The novel is full of attempts at animating overlooked and forgotten lives—both the narrator and Juan Gay, the older man who passed the study along to him, become more visible through the anecdotes they dredge up about themselves. Folarin even describes Blackouts as a kind of “guidebook” for communities “seeking to repossess their past.” Torres, like any novelist, might not want his book mined for lessons, but the exercise his characters engage in, of pulling on all possible historical strands—even those existing in a book that originally dehumanized their community—is instructive. One needs to search for this alternative narrative between the redactions, and possibly underneath them, sometimes pressing very close to the page to do so.

This year, the National Book Awards valued exactly what Torres’s narrator attempts to do: insist on a past that was previously blocked out. What to do with this new sense of self, one bolstered by recovered history, is perhaps the next great theme for these writers and their cohort. How to resolve the collision of narratives that might result? What visions of multicultural society are possible? Can a focus on identity be confining, even as it’s liberating? Hopefully next year a few books might come along to confront this set of difficult questions.

a profile of a man with redacted sections
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Jupiterimages / Getty.

A Redacted Past Slowly Emerges

What to Read

Erasure, by Percival Everett

Since the vaudeville era and the early days of Hollywood, ethnic minorities have defined American comedy onstage and -screen, but the publishing industry seems to prefer that writers of color present themselves as the subjects of grim generational trauma. In Erasure, Everett goes straight at this limiting convention with a bitterness so evident, the reader cannot help but laugh. The English-professor protagonist, enraged by the success of his peer Juanita Mae Jenkins’s novel We’s Lives in Da Ghetto and goaded by his agent’s complaint that his own writing is not “Black” enough, writes a book whose working title is My Pafology. He eventually changes it to Fuck. The full text of this fictional novel appears within the book, giving us both Everett’s parody of Black literature that panders to white audiences and his idea of what would happen if that parody were unleashed upon the world: First the author is ashamed, then he gets a bunch of money, and then he wins an award. Erasure suggests that the best time to write something funny is when you’re so angry that a laser is about to shoot out of your mouth.  — Dan Brooks

From our list: Nine books that will actually make you laugh

Out Next Week

???? Shimmering Details, by Péter Nádas

???? Critical Hits: Writers Playing Video Games, edited by J. Robert Lennon and Carmen Maria Machado

Your Weekend Read

a protest sign made from an art frame
Illustration by Ben Kothe / The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

Why Activism Leads to So Much Bad Writing

When artists turn activism or introduce politics into a work of art, it’s usually taken as something virtuous, an act of conscience on behalf of justice. But artistic and political values are not the same; in some ways they’re opposed, and mixing them can corrupt both. Politics is almost never a choice between good and evil but rather between two evils, and anyone who engages in political action will end up with dirty hands, distorting the truth if not peddling propaganda; whereas an artist has to aspire to an intellectual and emotional honesty that will drive creative work away from any political line. Art that tries to give political satisfaction is unlikely to be very good as either politics or art.

When you buy a book using a link in this newsletter, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.


Source link

Leave a Reply