TOB 2010: The Book of Night Women vs. Big Machine

March 25, 2010

There are interesting parallels between these books. Both involve secret societies, they share essentially the same metafictional twist with respect to narration, squabbles between rival religious sects or disciplines play an important role in each, issues of race and social status are central, the stakes are quite high, and the novels start with great hooks but end with relative whimpers.

The differences are huge. The Book of Night Women tells the story of a green-eyed slave, Lilith, in Jamaica from the late 1700s to the early 1800s. It is narrated in Jamaican patois and involves incredible detail regarding violence against slaves. The book is not particularly easy to read, though it is certainly engaging. There is a distance between the reader and narrator, partly due to the use of patois and partly due to the historical setting. I do not think that is a bad thing, but necessary given what Marlon James has done and is trying to accomplish. The problem is, I was not convinced. I thought the novel came up too far short of its ambition to be a success.

Of course, Big Machine was not entirely successful with me. I think it was more of a success on its own terms. The book was included in the Los Angeles Times list of the Best Science Fiction of 2009. I cannot say it really qualifies as Science Fiction. It is more like Supernatural Fiction. But it is successful within its own terms and framework. It is not a framework that I found particularly satisfying, but that is my quirk, not the book’s. Besides that, LaValle had more memorable lines and observations about the world. Whether that was because he was writing in modern English or because he is the more gifted at crafting sentences does not matter. This is a tournament. Only outcomes matter.

While I picked The Book of Night Women to win before I had read it (but after I had read Big Machine), I think I was wrong on the merits. I enjoyed The Book of Night Women more, but I think Big Machine is the more well-written and successful book. It is not Victor LaValle’s fault that I am put-off by books that rely on the supernatural as a central feature or plot device. He deserves to win the match.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

March 17, 2010

D.G. Meyers has been discussing the idea that plot “serves the same function in fiction that argument serves in philosophy.” He uses Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence to support this thesis. I think he makes an excellent case and, at the very least, the idea is a useful one. In Age of Innocence, each twist of the plot pushes forward the central idea of the novel, which Meyers boils down to “the tragic view of marital duty.” Meyers summarizes:

What is striking is how ingeniously Wharton arranges for Newland Archer, “impelled to decisive action” and moved by “a spirit of perversity,” to do the very things that later make it impossible for him to achieve the happiness he so desperately longs for. He himself plotted, behind the scenes, to remake Ellen Olenska’s life, and his plot comes back to haunt him.

I have not read Age of Innocence, so I cannot engage in a meaningful discussion of Meyer’s thesis as applied to that novel. He makes a strong case, though. I find the idea a useful one.

The Book of Night Women fits nicely into the paradigm D.G. Meyers has constructed. The novel is filled with plotting, both by the author and by the characters. The novel is set in the Jamaica of the late 1700s and early 1800s. Marlon James, to some extent, sets out to explore in Jamaica some of the themes Toni Morrison has explored in the American South. The “night women” of the title are slaves enduring the cruelties of slavery as practiced in Jamaica. Jamaica is, of course, an island and, therefore, there is no Underground Railroad to a free North. The men and women enslaved on the Montpelier Estate do look elsewhere for inspiration and hope, specifically to Saint-Domingue (which, in 1804, would become the Republic of Haiti).

The novel is told entirely in a Jamaican dialect and begins with the 1785 birth of Lilith to a fourteen year-old mother who bleeds to death in the process. The opening scene and the tone in which it is related are sobering:

Two black legs spread wide and a mother mouth screaming. A weak womb done kill one life to birth another. A black baby wiggling in blood on the floor with skin darker than midnight but the greenest eyes anybody ever done see. I goin’ call her Lilith. You can call her what they call her.

The overseer places Lilith with childless woman who raises as Lilith as her own. Lilith grows up spirited and defiant. She competes with the boys in athletics, but is slapped and admonished when she bests them. Lilith is not bowed, however, but cusses and complains about the injustice. This defiance and sense fairness are defining features of her character. Lilith’s character drives much of the plot.

She has the good fortune (relatively speaking) to work in the house rather than in the field. There, she meets Homer. Homer is a wise old woman who has earned the respect of her masters and fellow slaves alike. She takes Lilith under her wing, begins training her to work in the kitchen, teaches her to read, and, eventually, invites Lilith into a secret society of women.

Homer is a practitioner of Myal (not to be confused, as even Lilith does, with Obeah) a form of traditional African magic or sorcery. She is feared by the other slaves and may be responsible for the death of Lilith’s foster mother. She seems to have no real rival for power among the other slaves and has brought together a group of six women. Lilith, asked to join when she is still very much a girl, is the seventh.

The purpose or function of the group of night women remains a mystery to Lilith and the reader for much of the book. The group may be a priesthood of Myal and Obeah practitioners, a group planning an escape or revolt, a governing body among the slaves, or something else entirely. Their existence and some members’ resistance to Lilith joining the group provides some of the mystery and suspense of the novel.

During the daylight hours, the plot is pushed by the familiar intrigues, travails, and small joys of slave life. Lilith is a very beautiful young woman with striking green eyes, so Homer spends a fair amount of time trying to shield Lilith from the undesirable attentions of the white masters and the black “johnny-jumpers” (slave drivers). For her part, Lilith develops a crush on an Irishman who, it seems, pays her little mind despite her various attempts to catch his eye.

All of the later plot developments are foreshadowed effectively, but not convincingly. This lack of persuasiveness was a problem for me throughout the novel. At times, the book almost brought me on board, but each time I felt as if something was not quite right. Imagining the life and psychology of a person trapped in 18th/19th century slavery is not easy for anyone. The failure may be as much mine as the author’s, but I was not entirely convinced. Too often, I felt like I was reading stage directions to get the characters where they needed to go. For all its originality, and there is originality here, the book never completely drew me in.

There is another, perhaps deeper, problem too. The central thesis, without revealing too much, seems to be the way the institution of slavery corrupts everyone it touches. There is no way to live an entirely honorable life within the strictures of the abominable practice, whether as servant or master. However, I do not think the plotting is as tautly conceived as it could have been to make that point (or, if that isn’t the point, then any other point). I do not think all the events work together to prove James’ apparent thesis. He does not spare his characters, but, even so, there is a hesitation to follow events and psychology to their natural conclusion.

The Book of Night Women is an entertaining read, though not the easiest due to its dialect. It has depth, but it is not a complete success. If you are interested in the types of issues and situations common to books on slavery, I would certainly recommend this book, but with reservations. Toni Morrison has so brilliantly harvested so much of this field, the yield of authors like James can only suffer by comparison. There are things left to say and James makes a very good effort at saying them, but I do not think this will be a long-lasting contribution to slave literature. At bottom, the plot deviates too much from the point for the novel to be an artistically convincing argument.