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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Brit Bennett's The Mothers and The Going Rate On Words These Days


After a secret’s been told, everyone becomes a prophet. - Brit Bennett, The Mothers

I stayed up too late finishing Brit Bennett's The Mothers, because I was having fun and didn't want to put it down. When I closed it I was convinced that it was the best book I'd read all year. By the time I fell asleep, though, I'd completely changed my mind on it. Then, when I woke up, I was somewhere in between. There. That's my review of Brit Bennett's The Mothers. Five stars then three stars then four stars. What a ride.

The nice thing about this blog is this: very few people read it so I can say whatever I want here. For example: Hall and Oates is the worst band to ever exist anywhere, and by anywhere I mean even in alternate dimensions and the imaginations of man and beast alike. I challenge anyone to come up with a more annoying song than "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)," that isn't "Maneater." Holy crap, you guys. I just looked them up and they also did "Kiss on My List." What else is on your list Hall and/or Oates? Genocide? Witchcraft?

Anyway, see? No consequences. You should do this too. Write a blog post saying inflammatory things and as long as it's not about how, like, Mad Max Fury Road is sexist against men or that Star Wars: Rogue One is sexist against men or how Wonder Woman: The New Wonder Woman Movie is sexist against men, nobody gives a crap. There are just too many words out there that in the economy of words and supply and demand the supply of opinions online so outstrips the demand as to make them near worthless.

Warner Bros Pictures
Me when I'm reading someone who can actually write

Here are other true opinions that I have that are demonstrably rubbish in comparison to the overall court of public opinion that is the World Wide Web: Keanu Reeves is a good actor, My Chemical Romance has some really great songs, and the Nintendo Wii was a beautiful system that has some of the best games that company has every made. Jonathan Franzen writes crappy and boring books. You can't be sexist against men because sexism, like racism, depends on an oppressor with a preponderance of power. Women can potentially discriminate against men, but it can't be sexism unless they control the majority of government, business, and non-governmental organizations, which they do not. Like, people lose their minds when two Star Wars movies in a row have a main badass female character but had no problem at all that the previous 6 in a row starred a (admittedly kind of effeminate) dude and no big deal. See? I can do this all day.

So that's kind of freeing. Now that the system of gatekeepers that protected us from bad writing, or at least pretended to, is gone, everyone can put words in front of everyone else. I don't have an editor. I put dumb stuff up here all of the time. Who cares. I don't even have to sneak into the high school copy room and risk getting in trouble printing my sweet 'zine about how cool Morrissey is. I just hit send and there it is. Jettisoned into the ocean of nonsense like so much bilge. Nobody notices, and yet the entire ecosystem is a bit worse off for it anyway. 

We all have the power of the press now, when in the olden days words were so scary a man was executed for translating the Bible into a language readable by the masses (the small subset who could read) instead of being completely controlled by the church. Who knew that the best way to silence one's critics were to give them a microphone, just as long as every single other person had a microphone of equal volume. It's like Syndrome in The Incredibles, "When everyone's super, no one will be."

That means that we have to live in a world in which "pizzagate" is an actual word that people use seriously, and one in which someone believed it so hard he went to a pizza parlor (and let's talk later about how "parlor" is such a strange thing to associate with pizza -- alliteration aside -- which comes from the french word parler, or "to speak" which everyone knows is impossible to do in a real pizza place, especially if it has a jukebox and ESPECIALLY if that jukebox has Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" on it) with an assault rifle and the intent to raid "a pedo ring, possibly sacraficing (sic) the lives of a few for the lives of many."

What I'm saying is that I shouldn't be kept up at night agonizing over what Goodreads score I ultimately gave The Mothers and I should go to sleep secure in the knowledge that my opinion means nothing. It's kind of a liberating feeling, actually. If I was some kind of influencer or tastemaker, like people sometimes call themselves on their Instagram profiles, I could really affect Brit Bennett's career. I could say that while her character studies were fascinating to me, the way the storytelling came together was sometimes too trite and coincidental and it could actually hurt her feelings. 

Brit, if you're reading this, which you aren't, I'm in awe at your talents. You did something just phenomenal here. Your book is still sitting with me and I can't stop thinking about it. I'm just astonished at your potential, given that you wrote a nationally recognized novel amid the aforementioned ocean of words that resonated with so many people at the age of 26. I, on the other hand, am a white man who has been told by society that my opinion is important and so I find myself sharing that opinion constantly even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Thankfully for everyone involved, I'm not an influencer. I did not go to Fyre Festival in order to boost my online presence but instead eat cheese on bread and call it "gourmet." Nor do I pose topless in my van with #brands prominently displayed because someone paid me to do it while I pretend that I'm living a bohemian lifestyle on Instagram. This is not for lack of trying, you understand. There's a (small) potential that you navigated to this very post because of my very good hashtags.

This is easy to say given that I am in no position to change things but it's probably good for the greater society as a whole that Brit Bennett really is influencing people. The story of Nadia Turner is a small one, but it has massive ramifications for her small, predominately black, coastal California town. At 17, her mother commits suicide, and Nadia is left adrift. She meets Aubrey, whose mother was given the choice between protecting her daughter and staying with her abusive boyfriend and chose the latter. Those mothers feature prominently. Though we never meet them, their impacts permeate the lives of the two young women. Another mother, the pastor's wife, is hard and pragmatic. And the symbolic mothers, like the muses in Shakespeare, tell us the story. They are the elderly women in the church who watch over proceedings, gossiping not out of cruelty, but because they've seen and lived through so much, that the way events unfold seems almost inevitable. They narrate the tale with a sad shake of the graying head.
All good secrets have a taste before you tell them, and if we'd taken a moment to swish this one around in our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness of an unripe secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season.
In there too is Luke, the pastor's son who was a football star on his way to being a college great before his leg was broken. He works in the bar and, in true pastor's son fashion, disappoints his parents. These three characters' lives interweave in various ways over a period of several years, often to disastrous results.
Black boys couldn’t afford to be reckless, she had tried to tell him. Reckless white boys became politicians and bankers, reckless black boys became dead.
There's nothing mind-blowing about the setup, and often you can see things coming from a mile away. I don't know if this is because of good foreshadowing or because it deals so much in literary cliches. I was disappointed at how often I knew what was coming next because I've read it so many times in similar stories. Maybe this is on purpose, that I'm reading this with the weariness of The Mothers, the old women who've seen it all before. Like them, the reader can trace the lines starting with the horrors of suicide and sexual assault and see tragedy coming a mile away. But, like how I felt while watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens Within A Girl This Time But Why Isn't It a Man Again I Mean That's Sexist, I just wanted to be surprised once. Lead me down the path, trick me into thinking I know what's coming. Then, right before I get to the inevitable conclusion, give me a sharp turn. Just once it would be interesting.

That annoyance aside, though, the way Bennett spools out the story is beautiful and heartbreaking. These are flawed people who make often terrible decisions and are forced to deal with them. Maybe at the end things are tied up a little too tidily. Maybe it's just too convenient the way things work out. But there's something to that feeling of putting down a book after a marathon late-night read and thinking, even for a minute, that it was the best book you've read that year.

Words may come a dime a dozen (which is a pretty great deal, less than one cent per word by my reckoning) but you don't come across them organized like this very often. 
Oh girl, we have known littlebit love. That littlebit of honey left in an empty jar that traps the sweetness in your mouth long enough to mask your hunger. We have run tongues over teeth to savor that last littlebit as long as we could, and in all our living, nothing has starved us more.


Postscript: Anyway. Moms, am I right? Mothers Day is coming up and it seems appropriate to point out how frickin' rough it is to deal with the expectations American society puts on mothers. They get one day where we tell them 'good job' and maybe do an extra thing for them, then 364 of an assault of telling them they aren't good enough because the house isn't clean or the kids aren't taking 18 cello lessons a week while also somehow learning how to simultaneously build cellos while coding and starring on the soccer team. Mothers have a huge impact in The Mothers (obvs), but that impact is mostly felt from their absence. Both Nadia and Aubrey would have just loved a mother, period. If at any time you wonder if your kids would be better off without you, I promise, they won't. Just keep being there is all. Go get yourself a little treat, even. It can be a secret.