Friday, March 4, 2016

Homage as Criticism: On The Ballad of Black Tom

Victor Lavalle is one of my favorite living writers. Like Edgar Allen Poe, he is able to layer weirdness on top of weirdness so that, as you dig through the monsters and the radical suicide death cults and the mysterious librarians, you find it's our real obsession with higher powers and our real attitudes toward mental health that are truly strange.

His new book, The Ballad of Black Tom is an homage to the work of H.P. Lovecraft (based primarily on "The Horror at Red Hook") that draws elements from Lovecraft's entire ouvre into a story about a young black man from Harlem trying to make his way in the world. In some ways, Lovecraft is as influential to horror writing as Tolkien is to fantasy writing, providing a lexicon, a fundamental structure, and a mythology that horror writers still use today. Lovecraft was also racist. And not older-relative-after-a-few-glasses-of-wine-at-Thanksgiving racist; he was hatefully, maliciously racist.

Lavalle has talked about what it means to be an African American author writing an homage to a racist so I don't need to here, but I think he does something interesting that reveals one of the powerful, critical aspects of homage. Homage can be more than just a celebration, more than just a retelling, more than just a depositing of a story or style in a new place or time (though all of those are fun, important aspects of homage). Homage also allows authors to critique those past works, turning up the volume on certain traits, emphasizing certain ideas, elucidating aspects that are not otherwise obvious, and even re-appropriating the works for different, even opposed purposes.

What made Lovecraft's work powerful, and what still resonates in the horror genre today, is the idea of another world of unseen forces pushing us this way and that through life. Whether it was magic, Cthulhu, or some other mysterious force, the characters in Lovecraft's stories were subject to forces vastly more powerful than they were that determined the course of their lives or even their deaths. We might feel as though we are in control, we might even believe we can harness some of those powerful forces, but that is only because we haven't dug far enough into the basement, sailed far enough into the ocean, looked deep enough into the eyes of the stranger. Lovecraft made daily life's simple anxieties visceral, bodily, and horrifying. Lavalle's homage taps into that existential anxiety, but by twisting it ever so slightly, by setting it partially in Harlem and by making one of the protagonists a young African American man, Lavalle has revealed an aspect of Lovecraft's unseen forces that Lovecraft himself never saw.

At one point, Tom comes home to find that his father has been murdered by the police. Tom's apartment was searched in connection to an investigation and one of the investigators saw Tom's father with a guitar, assumed it was a gun, shot him six times, and—because the officer “feared for his life”—reloaded his revolver and shot five more times. For most people, for pretty much everyone in this country who is not a straight white cisgendered man born in America, those mysterious powerful forces casually dealing death and destruction, those otherworldly beings, those dark underground cabals deciding the fate of those they do not regard as worthy of dignity are real. They are not forces of magic or hauntings or Cthulhu, they are institutional racism, systems of power, and the residual structures of colonialism. They are Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and 75 cents on the dollar. In some ways this really isn't even a metaphor. If a magic spell is a string of words able to bring about some kind of corporeal action, “Hello, police, there's a man in my neighborhood, um, he's tall and black” might be America's deadliest spell. Is there any ritual that signals the loss of one's personal agency more than the chanting of “Stop resisting?” I mean, the Klu Klux Klan leaders call themselves wizards and dragons for fuck's sake.

What is most interesting to me about this is how otherwise faithful to Lovecraft The Ballad of Black Tom is. The creeping unease. The protagonist in way, way over his head. The magic. The monsters. The skin of the universe peeled back for just a second to reveal the contorted organs of being beyond our conception. And yet twist it all just ever so slightly, and an entirely new conversation is created. Lavalle has been utterly faithful to Lovecraft and told a story that would've horrified him.

To me, this is where the real power in literature resides. All books are only semi-stable. Though the words on fixed on the page, the efforts of readers give them vitality, make them move, transform them into something (and some things) beyond the imagination of the individual creator. The act of writing is powerful and flexible enough that a potent reader can transform the work of a malignant racist into a statement on the experience of institutional racism. No story is ever really dead. No work of literature ever irredeemable. The Ballad of Black Tom begins with Tom delivering a magic book, which in its complete form would give the reader the complete magic alphabet and access to unspeakable power. Of course, we already have the complete alphabet and when it's used by a writer and reader like Victor Lavalle every book is magic.

No comments:

Post a Comment