(Originally composed March 2, 2017)
I’d finished this book a few days ago, and it left me with something like a pebble almost too small to notice rattling around my thoughts. The funny thing about books is that when all of the pretense and pomp is stripped away, in the end, the story that you’re spending time with is just a conversation. And what you bring to it often plays a role in what you get out of it.
My most visceral response to James Baldwin’s Another Country is that it’s messy, from its characters to its format. The first chapter is 88 pages long. The second section opens in Paris, with you looking at the world through the eyes of a man you’ve barely heard of. There seems to never be a purely joyful moment in the book, not even the sex scenes which were written with both passion enough to have it banned in a few states, and a balance of pain and beauty so delicate that you might fret over the possibility of the pages disintegrating in your hands. The first sex scene opens with the woman crying and resisting, and closes with the man feeling a sense of dread and calling her a “funny little cracker” after it’s over, and she’s said that “it was wonderful.” What is likely the most sympathetic character is an abuser of the woman I think he actually loves. And one of the most powerful characters is exposed as crushingly frail by the end, both mocked and beloved by the woman who betrayed him. Phrases like “anguished joy” are used a lot, and are relevant to many of the scenes as it’s not always clear what these people’s lives are actually doing to your senses.
Time magazine called the work a “failure,” and though I don’t agree, I can’t blame them. As the only reason I found myself stirred by this story more than I’ve ever been by most is that its messiness feels familiar to me, saddles up beside my life comfortably like a kitten and takes a nap. But it also feels like a book I could never write while sober. In my mind’s eye, I see James Baldwin sitting at a table surrounded by flames, casually sipping tea and discussing his notes with the devil while he crafts this novel’s outline.
I felt like the book was called Another Country because that’s what it seemed like most of these characters were looking for, especially the one who tells God that he’s coming to talk to him just before jumping off a bridge. And none of those countries — coming in the forms of God, music, America, France, spouses and side-pieces — seem to truly satisfy. And then the final scene arrives, with a young man getting off a plane, from France, terrified by his journey, worried that America is going to devour him, until he sees the man he loves waiting for him, and is suddenly ready to do it, to move forward knowing that everything will be alright — even though he doesn’t actually know whether it will. But love gave him that ability to press on, which is probably the part that wrecked me the most, because he hasn’t learned yet how “another country” can fail him, too.
Most of the characters end up loving a “country” which never completely loves them back, if at all, and it seems to drive all of them just a little bit mad. But they all seem strong enough, if not just resolved, to bear that reality. But when I closed the last page, I think the thought that was bothering me was, “How long can they keep that up?”
And then a poem spilled out of my pen today about how I don’t love America, and, possibly, the torment of having never known a country to love as my own. What partially inspired it after reading this book was knowing that James Baldwin did once claim to love America above all other countries, even though he was one of its most cutting and brilliant critics.
And then I read the poem to myself in my car and cried a little bit because I think I understood, for the first time in my life, why Baldwin loved America — even though it was killing him, and the people he loved.
Books can be brutal.