The medium and the message

October 18, 2011 by · 7 Comments 

The Sisters Brothers. Patrick DeWitt; $22.95 paper 978-1-77089-032-9, 336 pp., House of Anansi Press

Half-Blood Blues. Esi Edugyan; $24.95 paper 978-0-88762-741-5, 312 pp., Thomas Allen Publishers

In her essay, “Writer, Reader, Words,” Jeanette Winterson argues that literature is necessarily sui generis, incapable of being replicated in any other medium. Any work of literature that aspires to the status of art, Winterson writes, “can only be itself, it can never substitute for anything else. Nor can anything else substitute for it.” On the other side of the equation, “Readers who don’t like books that are not printed television, fast on thrills and feeling, soft on the brain, are not criticizing literature, they are missing it altogether.”

Our 21st-century culture, so besotted with the primacy of the image, with pictures and screens and video games, tends to privilege books that are “printed television”: fast-paced and easily digestible, strong on narrative, peopled by clearly defined, frequently unambiguous characters. Scenes that are cut sharply and edited tightly, and plots that propel themselves forward through readily discernible stages of beginning, middle, and end. Readers and, increasingly, award juries are gravitating ever more frequently toward books that eschew specifically literary techniques in favour of those that resemble, in design and execution, movies on paper. Two of this year’s most lauded books evince this tendency.

It’s no accident that Patrick DeWitt’s second novel, The Sisters Brothers, was optioned for film even before it appeared on bookstore shelves. The story – about two hired guns, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who travel from Oregon City to California during the Gold Rush to kill a prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm – comes virtually pre-packaged for the big screen. The wide-open expanses of Western landscape the Sisters brothers traverse, juxtaposed with the chaotic industrial sprawl they discover in San Fransisco, is almost defiantly cinematic, calling to mind the sumptuous cinematography in John Ford’s The Searchers or Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. In its focus on a trio of men who travel cross country to kill a pair of rustlers who have assaulted a prostitute, Eastwood’s film also provides an antecedent for the plot trajectory of DeWitt’s novel, though DeWitt’s story is more insistently comic than David Webb Peoples’ rather downbeat screenplay.

The dialogue, too, crackles and pops with the rhythms and cadence of spoken speech – hardly surprising given that DeWitt is also a screenwriter. The exchanges between his characters practically cry out to be declaimed aloud:

“Make me an offer on the black horse,” I said.

“Twenty-five dollars.”

“He is worth fifty dollars.”

“Thirty dollars with the saddle.”

“Don’t be ignorant. I will take forty, without the saddle.”

“I will give you thirty-five dollars.”

“Thirty-five dollars without the saddle?”

“Thirty-five, without the saddle, minus a dollar for the shoes.”

“You expect me to pay for shoes on a horse I’m not keeping?”

“You asked me to shoe him. Now, you must pay for the service.”

“You would have shoed him anyway.”

“That is neither up nor down.”

“Thirty-four dollars,” I said.

The stable hand’s rejoinder, “That is neither up nor down,” is particularly sharp, and elicits an easy laugh from the reader.

DeWitt unfolds his story in short, dramatic scenes that are packed to bursting with incident. Eli, the more sensitive of the two brothers, watches helplessly as his beloved horse, Tub, gets mauled by a grizzly bear, an injury that will cost the horse one of its eyes. The sequence in which the eye is removed is especially potent in its gruesome comedy: it feels tailor-made for adaptation by filmmakers with the off-kilter sensibility of the Coen Brothers. A set-piece involving a gunfight between the Sisters brothers and two trappers in the town of Mayfield is similarly forceful and exciting, and feels similarly cinema-ready.

There is a good deal of emotion in the novel, particularly where Eli Sisters is concerned. Charlie, the tougher of the two, is a drunkard and a fairly obvious psychopath, but Eli, who narrates the novel, is articulate and thoughtful, frequently given to self-doubt and uncertainty. There is a lovely sequence of scenes in which Eli appalls his brother by ordering small portions and healthy foods at mealtimes because he is trying to lose weight to appear more sexually appealing to a woman he has come to fancy. Eli’s discovery of a magical tooth powder that helps freshen the breath is also charmingly effective. And there is a running joke about an anesthetic to deaden pain that the brothers appropriate from a dentist and employ on Eli’s wounded horse, as well as on each other (“A smart man could make use of this,” Charlie tells his brother).

DeWitt’s picaresque follows a conventional, chronological path. By contrast, Esi Edugyan’s second novel, Half-Blood Blues, shuttles back and forth in time to tell the story of a group of black jazz musicians who run afoul of the Nazis in the early years of the Second World War. Like The Sisters Brothers, Half-Blood Blues is heavy on incident and plot, with robust characters and (the focus on music notwithstanding) a strongly visual narrative.

However, Edugyan is generally more willing than DeWitt to allow herself recourse to passages that are more written, especially where jazz is concerned. It is notoriously difficult to capture the aural and emotional charge of music via the written word, but Eduygan manages to pull it off, for example in the following passage, which describes trumpet prodigy Hieronymous Falk jamming with jazz legend Louis Armstrong:

It was the sound of the gods, all that brass. It was the old Armstrong and the new, that mature distilled essence of a master and the boy he used to be, the boy who could make his glissandi snap like marbles, the high Cs piercing. Hiero thrown out note after shimmering note, like sunshine sliding all over the surface of a lake, and Armstrong was the water, all depth and thought, not one wasted note. Hiero, he just reaching out, seeking the shore; Armstrong stood there calling across to him. Their horns sound so naked, so blunt, you felt almost guilty listening to it, like you eavesdropping. After some minutes Chip stopped singing, left just the two golden ropes of sound to intertwine.

The metaphorical language here has a legitimate claim to being literary: the comparison of Hiero to sunlight and Armstrong to water is appropriate and evocative, as is the image of golden ropes of sound winding around one another.

Edugyan is also adept at fusing the cultural impact of jazz in prewar Europe with the rising tide of racial intolerance under the Nazis. Hiero is a German of African descent, a “half-breed,” and consequently, he is a symbol of racial impurity for the Nazis; where African-Americans are allowed passage out of Germany and occupied France, Hiero would be sent to a concentration camp if caught. In a stirring passage, Edugyan explicitly links the racial hatred experienced by blacks and Jews with the anarchic impulse that gave rise to the jazz movement in Germany:

Jazz. Here in Germany it became something worse than a virus. We was all of us damn fleas, us Negroes and Jews and low-life hoodlums, set on playing that vulgar racket, seducing sweet blond kids into corruption and sex. It wasn’t a music, it wasn’t a fad. It was a plague sent out by the dread black hordes, engineered by the Jews. Us Negroes, see, we was only half to blame – we just can’t help it. Savages just got a natural feel for filthy rhythms, no self-control to speak of. But the Jews, brother, now they cooked up this jungle music on purpose. All part of their master plan to weaken Aryan youth, corrupt its janes, dilute its bloodlines.

In Edugyan’s hands, the jazz musicians officially labelled “degenerate” by Joseph Goebbels become a force for resisting the Aryan ideology making insidious toeholds in the Europe of 1939 and 1940. This is powerful, provocative, and – not incidentally – political writing, a fictional repudiation of the extremes of Nazi intolerance and hatred more potent than most anything found in a straightforward history of the war.

And yet. The novel’s strongly literary passages are sprinkled like seasoning on a narrative that is fuelled by suspenseful scenes of the fugitive musicians hiding from the Nazi menace, venturing out fearfully, trying to avoid capture at every turn (including, in one tense sequence, a border crossing between Germany and France, during which the characters undergo interrogations from officials on both sides of the divide).

Told from the perspective of Sid Griffiths, a bass player who harbours acute feelings of professional jealousy for his more prodigiously talented – not to mention younger – bandmate, Hiero, the novel is propelled by feelings of guilt resulting from a wartime betrayal: although another member of the band, Chip, has already publicly accused Sid of complicity in the arrest of Hiero at the hands of Nazi soldiers in Paris, the true nature and extent of Sid’s betrayal is not revealed until the end of the novel.

Half-Blood Blues is in part an examination of artistic envy; Sid says of Hiero at one point, “It ain’t fair that I struggle and struggle to sound just second-rate, and the damn kid just wake up, spit through his horn, and it sing like nightingales.” The bitterness of Sid’s envy leads to the situation he and Hiero find themselves in at the opening of the book, in which they decide somewhat intemperately to venture out into the streets of occupied Paris, despite all the warnings to remain concealed. Even with the benefit of hindsight, once the novel has unfolded its entire plot and the context of the characters’ experiences has been made clear, this scene rings false.

It is, however, a dramatic opening to a novel that contains no shortage of drama. The vividness of its historical setting, the stakes facing its characters, and the scenes of danger and tension they must negotiate, are gripping, but here we return once again to the notion of the novel as printed cinema: it is no less difficult to picture Edugyan’s scenes unfolding on a movie screen than it is with DeWitt. Half-Blood Blues, like The Sisters Brothers, is propulsive, suspenseful, and entertaining, but it’s not clear that either novel could “never substitute for anything else,” to use Winterson’s phrase.

Let’s be clear: these are both solid, enjoyable books that could be given with confidence to any reader in search of a good story and engaging characters. But it’s also important to note that juries for no fewer than four major literary prizes – the Man Booker Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, and the Governor General’s Literary Award – have deemed both books to be among the best works of fiction published this calendar year. In so doing, these juries are implicitly privileging cinematic narratives and visual sensibilities over more obviously and essentially literary works. Whether or not that is desirable depends on how strongly one agrees with Winterson’s assessment of what constitutes literary art.