Friday, May 26, 2017

Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country (2016)

Jim Crow meets Lovecraftian horror! It's hard not to be beguiled by such an audacious premise. As, I suppose, everyone knows at this point, Lovecraft was a huge, virulent racist even by the standards of his times, so it's kind of a brilliant idea, unfortunately given an extra bit of piquancy by the fact that we now have a government of unreconstructed white supremacists. Also, Ruff is the author of Sewer, Gas, and Electric, a book that I enjoyed the hell out of.

Right, so the book is set in 1954, and it concerns a black family (and assorted friends) who have to deal with, well, racism and cosmic horror and can you tell the difference? One of the characters is the editor of a book based on The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide to finding hotels, restaurants, and other amenities that would serve black customers. The necessity of such a thing is highly emblematic of our national shame. The book is written in the form of a series of little novellas/short stories, each starring a different character or group of characters.

Now let's note right off that the book itself isn't notably Lovecraftian. Ruff certainly doesn't try to do a stylistic imitation of Lovecraft (probably for the best), and there's really not much of any intimation of the kind of nihilistic cosmic horror that made his works really resonate. Also, none of his big baddies--Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Yog Sothoth, et al, nor analogues thereof--in sight. The main supernatural stuff concerns groups of Hermetic-Order-of-the-Golden-Dawn-type cultists, along with some malevolent spirits. I mean, it's all right, but it's never scary or even really hinting at scariness, and Ruff pulls his punches a bit; none of the protagonists die or go insane. Not that I was rooting for them to, but is racism a serious problem, or not? Know what I mean? Also, I can't help feeling that the connection between Jim Crow and Lovecraftianism (which, in spite of Lovecraft's personal racism, aren't really a natural fit) might have been better-developed. Finally, I'm not convinced virulent personal racism was quite as omnipresent as the novel suggests. But, of course, I'm not black and I wasn't there, so there's no point quibbling.

However, I must say, I found the ending singularly unsatisfying and undermining of the book's premise. Obviously, there's no way for me to talk about it without spoiling it, so BE WARNED. Not that spoilers are that relevant in this case, I think. So there's a young white man, Caleb Braithwhite, a powerful cultist guy who throughout the novel forces the protagonists to help him with various occult tasks. He also protects them from other occult badness, more or less, but they feel, naturally enough, that they would prefer not to be at this guy's mercy, even if he's not totally evil. So in the last part of the book, they trick him such that he loses most of his powers. Braithwhite:

"You think this is over, just because Lancaster's lodge is destroyed? It's not over! There are other lodges, all over America. They know about you, now. And they'll be coming for you, but not like I did. They won't think of you as family, or even as a person, and they won't leave you alone until they get what they want from you. No matter where you go, you'll never be safe. You--"

But he is interrupted by everyone bellowing with laughter. Because:

"Oh, Mr. Braithwhite," Atticus said finally, wiping tears from his eyes. "What is it you're trying to scare me with? You think I don't know what country I live in? I know. We all do. We always have. You're the one who doesn't understand."

I find this kind of maddening, because of course I get the thematic point that Ruff is trying to make, but in story terms, it's just a complete non-starter. Personal and systemic racism: evil and destructive. Who could argue with that (aside from Jeff Sessions)? Personal and systemic racism, plus vengeful cultists constantly trying to murder you? Much worse, actually. And let it be noted that Atticus and friends would have been completely fucked on several occasions without Braithwhite's intervention. Without it, they are really screwed. Furthermore: as Ruff himself notes, there's something quietly heroic about The Negro Motorist Green Book: society fucks black people over at every turn, so what do they do? They do what they have to do to endure, even in the face of all the shit that's thrown at them. But that's the thing: they do what they have to do. They shouldn't have to go to special stores and restaurants, but given the circumstances, they accept that they do. Trying to say "no, fuck this, it's bullshit, we're going where we want" will result, in the absolute best-case scenario, in just being kicked out; and quite often also in violence. It's a similar thing with the cultists: saying "fuck you" may feel satisfying, but in the end it's just counterproductive. I mean, an ending where the protagonists agree that they have no choice but to go along with Braithwhite if he wants them to isn't exactly satisfying, but that's what the entire logic of the book leads to. As it stands, the ending feels like cheating. I'm not saying you want to have an ending where they aren't emancipated from magical interference; I'm saying that if you want that ending, you really ought to rework the entire book so that it feels earned and logical.  


Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

Glad to have you back!

Indeed, that ending is quite a letdown. A pity, because the premise sounded intriguing.

6:20 AM  

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