Wednesday, July 16, 2008

New Release Spotlight: Slumberland

By Paul Beatty

Slumberland, the third novel from Paul Beatty, is an equal combination of reflections on language and jazz music (with some rock, classical, and pop references thrown in for good measure). The narrative is built around a plethora of pop culture references (ranging from Pink Floyd to Samuel Becket to LL Cool J) that can be either side-splitting, laugh-out-loud hilarious or distancing and only potentially amusing, depending on whether or not you understand them. It’s the kind of postmodern name-dropping that makes those well versed in pop culture, literature, and underground DJ hip-hop feel proud and elitist, and those who aren’t as well versed as if they’ve missed the boat on its maiden voyage.

The loosely composed and developed story consists of Ferguson W. Sowell (a.k.a. DJ Darky) searching Berlin, just before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, for a virtually unknown free-jazz musician named Charles Stone. DJ Darky has created the perfect beat, and he needs a perfect musician to lay down the perfect solo over his masterpiece. The novel benefits from the tremendous wordplay and rhythm of the voice, creating an auditory experience that seems a representation of listening to amazing, transformative music.

As a metaphor for conspicuous segregation and the stratification of identity, Wall-era Berlin is an ideal backdrop for Beatty’s playful meditations on race and identity. “Blackness is passé,” the narrator says, but in the end, Stone answers him with, “Being passé is freedom. You can do what you want. No demands. No expectations.” The characters constantly straddle the tumultuous line between the simple freedom of racial/ethnic equality (“colorblindness”), and the desire to maintain and express one’s identity through ethnicity and heritage.

The novel is very funny—so funny it’s easy to look past subtle anachronisms like the mention of Affirmative Action or Halle Berry circa 1989 Berlin. But the important undertones throughout—the pluralistic nature of identity, the cultural inability to escape history, and the unifying and transformative power of music, and all art—are what allows its playfulness to grab hold of the reader and never let go.

Review by Caleb Murray, Indigo Editing, LLC

ISBN-13: 9781596912403
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Pub Date: July 2008
Hardcover: $24.99


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