Reading this book last week sounded like such a great idea at the time. I was away at a writing residency, living by myself in a tiny cottage on a hilltop (it was wonderful!!), and I was reading two very long books: Alice Munro’s Family Furnishings and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Alice Munro is a master, of course, but I don’t think the stories at the beginning of Family Furnishings are not her best work. They are LONG. We’re talking sixty pages. 45 pages. 52 pages. Sentence by sentence, they’re wonderful, and of course I love Munro’s lack of punchiness, the way her stories unfold slowly toward their inevitable-but-mysterious endings. But reading several of these stories in a row was a little much, so I put the collection aside. I will read more soon.
I brought Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to my residency because I was truly worried that I might spend too much time reading and not enough time writing. I have a habit of doing this sort of thing, as the entire decade of the ‘00’s can attest. My thinking was that if I brought these two long books and ONLY these two books, I could make them stretch over the two weeks and really savor them. But of course I didn’t bring only those two books. I had others that I needed to finish, and some that I wanted to bring along for novel research, and besides, using the words “only” and “books” in the same sentence isn’t really consistent with my personal brand*. And of course I had to bring my Kindle, just in case.
*Sorry. I’ve been spending too much time in Silicon Valley.
Close to the end of the residency, I was annoyed to myself because I hadn’t finished any of the books I brought, and it was the end of 2016 and it was important to me to read fifty books by the end of the year instead of the much-less-satisfying 49. So I decided to go through my Kindle and pick something quick and fun to read. I considered many other titles but chose Magic Street. Whatever else one might say about Orson Scott Card (cough – anti-gay-marriage propaganda – uncough), I’ve never once been bored by his books. I thought I would finish it in 3-4 days without interfering with my writing.
And once again, whatever else one might say about Orson Scott Card (cough – he thinks mothers are magical – uncough), dude knows how to write an opening chapter. The opening chapter in this book is SO good. Here are the basics: an English professor named Byron Williams is driving home from campus when he notices a sexy woman on a motorcycle and a homeless man standing on the street corner, whom Card describes as “a filthy, shabby, rheumy-eyed, chin-stubbled, grey-bearded, slack-lipped old bum of a black man” (1).** The man catches Byron’s eye and winks, and the next thing he knows, Byron is offering the man a ride. Byron is fastidious and uptight and can’t quite believe he is letting this man untangle himself from his plastic bag collection and load the whole bundle into Byron’s immaculate car, but he seems unable to resist the impulse to help the man, whom Byron calls “Bag Man.” This man has other names later on in the book, so don’t get too attached to “Bag Man.” In my head, he looks a lot like Ice-T, but with longer hair.
**Note: All of the characters in this novel are black. Orson Scott Card is not. And yes, many of the characters in this novel speak in black syntax and offer prolific commentary on black culture. I was a little appalled. Then less so. Then appalled again. Then less so. More on this in a moment.
On the way home, Byron finds that everything goes his way. Every traffic light is green. When he stops to pick up takeout and leaves his car with a Spanish-speaking valet, Byron finds that he can mysteriously speak Spanish. Passing a See’s Candies, he feels compelled to stop and buy a box of chocolates that happen to be Bag Man’s favorites. And when they approach Byron’s home, Bag Man informs Byron that his wife is pregnant. Despite the unreality of this moment, Byron believes him. All he thinks is, “So Nadine is pregnant – and hadn’t even told him! Wasn’t that just like her, to keep a secret like that” (11).
When Byron arrives home, he finds Nadine in labor. She’s naked on their bed, surrounded by her ripped-open clothes. She has no idea what’s going on. Byron invokes Bag Man’s prediction, but now that Bag Man isn’t present, he starts to question how and why the man was able to influence and control him – and, of course, why he seemed to have advanced knowledge of Nadine’s plight. While he contemplates, Nadine gives birth. The baby is stillborn. Baffled, Byron cuts the cord and begins to clean up. In the meantime, the Bag Man knocks on the door, and Byron’s son lets him in. He leads himself to the master bedroom and exchanges some brief dialogue with Byron. “Baby like this, it can’t die,” he says, “How can it die? Ain’t alive yet. Can’t die less you been alive, fool” (15). You know, just like they say in Salt Lake City.
Bag Man snaps open a grocery bag and puts the baby, who still appears dead, in the bag. When Byron objects to the idea of carrying a dead baby around in a plastic bag, Bag Man says, “You kind of slow, ain’t you, Byron? Anyway, nobody suffocates in my bags” (16). He takes the baby to an open lot in Byron’s neighborhood and places it next to a drainage pipe. Byron gets busy disposing of the bloody sheets and towels, and Nadine goes to sleep. When she wakes up, she has no memory of what happened. Byron contemplates his situation: “Now this man knows where we live. This man can do whatever he wants in our neighborhood. Well, if magic like this is real, then I sure as hell hope that God is also real. Because as long as Bag Man is walking around in Baldwin Hills with dead babies in his grocery sacks, then God help us all” (20).
And then the book begins its long decline.
It turns out that Bag Man is really Puck, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I promise I am not making this up. The sexy woman on the motorcycle is Titania. And the baby that Nadine gives birth to in chapter 1 is a fragment of Oberon’s soul (cough – horcrux plagiarism – uncough). Apparently in his battles with Titania, Oberon somehow became totally evil. He trapped Puck and Titania’s souls in glass lanterns and hid them in Fairyland. I think Card explained how Puck and Titania could be walking around as themselves when their souls were in Fairyland,*** but I don’t remember. I do remember that their bodies aren’t Titania and Puck’s true bodies. They’re borrowed. Oberon himself is in hell, which one accesses through the drainpipe in Byron’s neighborhood.
*** As it happens, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell ALSO concerns itself with Fairyland, but its Fairyland is different from the one in Magic Street, so sometimes I get my details confused. If my younger self finds out that on the cusp of my 41st birthday I am reading two different books about Fairyland – and while wearing extremely ridiculous socks, no less – I may need to enter the Witness Protection Program.
So this is a novel about identity, of course. The baby that Bag Man left near a drainage pipe (covered with ants – Card has a knack for the chilling detail) in chapter 1 is adopted by a local resident and raised as Mack Street. The teenaged boy who found him and brought him to his neighbor is Ceese Tucker. Ceese is the youngest of several brothers and sort of a lost soul, but when he convinces his neighbor Ura Lee Smitcher to raise the baby, he promises to care for the child after school when Ura Lee is working, so in a way Ceese becomes Mack’s second parent. Flaws aside, one of Orson Scott Card’s real gifts is his portrayal of what I will call “weary goodness” – a combination of loneliness, compassion, contemplation, cynicism, and a hyperactive conscience that characterizes many of Card’s characters, most notably Ender beginning at the end of Ender’s Game and proceeding all the way through the three “adult” sequels. Ceese has this quality too – others might call it depressive realism and/or being an “old soul.” Even Mack Street has it. Early in the novel, when he doesn’t know the truth about his identity, he spends hours roaming Fairyland only to find that every time he uses, eats, or changes something in Fairyland, there is a corresponding change in the physical world. When he learns that the food he ate in Fairyland came from the kitchen of one of his neighbors, who then had nothing to eat, Card muses, “Magic always found a way to be cruel. Mack couldn’t even have a chili supper without hurting somebody” (122) – a very Ender-like observation.
And then there’s Card’s silliness – the set of twins named Ebony and Ivory, the black panther (Black Panther – get it?) that roams around in Fairyland and the self-referential “[she] looked like an alien out of a sci-fi book they made him read in school. Like a big ant” (141), the somewhat-clever recognition that Puck’s famous line “Oh, what fools these mortals be!” is spoken (sort of: the “be” part anyway) in Black English (164) and the out-of-nowhere nod to Harold Bloom, in reference to “a book that claimed Shakespeare somehow invented human beings, or something wacko like that” (166).
Among his many other qualities, Mack dreams other people’s dreams. He calls them “cold dreams.” In each cold dream, Mack witnesses the dreaming person achieve their fondest wish, but in a twisted and tragic way – and these dreams come true in the physical world when Mack wakes up. The most arresting of Mack’s cold dreams is the one in which a girl who loves to swim dreams of being a fish so she can be enveloped in water all the time. During the dream, the girl is actually transported to the inside of her parents’ waterbed. Her father feels a solid bump under him in bed and wakes up. He assumes he imagined the bump but gets up to see if anything is wrong in the house. When he can’t find his daughter, he searches the house and the yard with no luck. Eventually he makes the connection between her absence and the solid object inside his waterbed. He cuts into the mattress, spilling water everywhere, and pulls her out. She survives but with serious brain damage. These sort of twisted wish-fulfillment exercises are the work of Evil Oberon, but we don’t know that until the end. Titania explains to Mack, “You are the Keeper of Dreams. You are the guardian of wishes. Deep desire, it flows to you. From the moment you popped out of that chimney up there [i.e. the drainage pipe], all the desires around you, they got channeled. They flowed. Right to you, into you, all the power of all the wishing in your whole neighborhood” (224). Nothing like some sewage metaphors to go along with your fairies and your cultural appropriation.
Ah, yes – cultural appropriation. I’ll end here and I’ll keep it short. Over and over again I wondered how the hell Orson Scott Card thought he could get away from writing a novel that not only features an all-black cast of characters but also does a fair bit of ruminating on black culture. I marked many passages but will spare you the details. I was somewhat pleasantly surprised to find that Card ends the book with an explanatory note explaining that a black friend of his challenged him to write a novel about black characters. Card reveals that his initial response was the same as mine – I can’t do that! – but that his friend agreed to read his drafts and help him revise anything that struck the friend as inauthentic. This epilogue made me happy on the one hand because at least it demonstrated that Card isn’t clueless, but on the other hand should writers do anything that requires an apology at the end of the book? I honestly don’t know. I respect boldness in the abstract, but in my own writing I am not often bold, at least not in this area. I have three different works in progress – two of them still in the early planning stages – that take place among people from cultures very different than my own. I can see how good these characters and narratives can be, but the arrogance of running roughshod over a culture not my own keeps me timid. I don’t have an answer. I’m not sure I could write a novel like this one, which is steeped entirely in a culture not the author’s, though on some level the fact that this is a fantasy novel makes it easier for Card to experiment. In a novel about fairies and magic flying circles (don’t ask) and five-minute gestation periods, maybe a white author from Utah can slip a little Black English in among the silliness and get away with it.
Very interesting last paragraph. Neil Gaiman wrote Anansi boys about black characters, and I remember being pleased about it. I really enjoyed the book. Now I wonder about cultural appropriation. On the other hand, are we only to write about characters that are exactly like us? Arg!
Yes, that’s what makes it a tough issue, especially in the era of shows like Hamilton that do cross-racial casting by design (though this is much less acceptable if it goes in the other direction, with white actors playing black characters, with or without blackface). It feels wrong to me to write about non-white characters, even in the very benign way I did in the witch novel. But intellectually, I think every writer should be free to write about whatever he/she wants.
I couldn’t help thinking, Why is Orson Scott Card writing a Neil Gaiman novel about black kids growing up in Baldwin HIlls?
Hahaha, so true!