Tuesday, July 20, 2010

ZZ Packer Warrants Your Consideration, Dear Readers

Yes, still here & talking about the Top 20 Under 40 of the according-to-the-New-Yorker variety, once o-gain. I just finished ZZ Packer's short story collection, "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere." Not to sound like some multicultural and P.C.-trumpeting self-righteous douche bag, but I have a strong urge these days to approach reading and literature with a more pluralistic eye. My biggest reason for doing so is this, I consider reading to be a great way to learn something very profound about a writer, even if it's not exactly apparent what that might be, even after I've completed a reading in its entirety. Like, it's not so easy to put what I feel I've learned about said writer into words. But it's in the endeavor, the attempt, that I think you can find fulfillment, fulfillment that defies description -- or, what's more, doesn't necessarily require it. Nabokov probably describes all of this very well in a story or essay someplace.

Problem is, "understanding" a writer is easier done, I think, if you feel you come from a point of concrescence -- a similar point of origin, a related background with which to identify more easily. Which is why it is, I believe, that for most of my life I've gravitated towards white male authors. This is fine, nothing wrong with the tendency to read who you "know" -- irony there being you don't really "know" anyone but by perception and presumption, though really, before I start on that track, enough. More important is that you're open to eventually stepping out of your comfort zone, which the funny thing about doing that is how readily it feeds on itself. How you might discover, yes, you like green eggs and ham, but you also like purple eggs and ham, or some REALLY fucked up dish.

As I've already noted I've been searching high and low for good female authors to read. So far I've found a great many contemporary female authors worth your time, with the latest being ZZ Packer. (Jhumpa Lahiri and Nicole Krauss are next on the list.)

So to return to "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere," in Packer's collection religion's role in the African American community figures heavily. It's a strange spin on the age-old motif, expressing the hypocrisies of religion as they relate to the human affairs of a given community. The contemporary, and not-so-contemporary, African American community is very much guided by the kinds of perverted dogmatical forms of normative behavior that can plague any people too taken with waving the banner of a given creed. That might be a strange place to begin interpreting Packer's work, especially as I consider her interpersonal elements to be equally if not more powerful in effect. But as already said, pluralism is a notion I'm taken with right now, and it's those possible sociological critiques that I'll be drawn to most readily as consequence. This is where my perception has me coming from, dear reader.

Malignant and hypocritical men of the cloth pervade many of Packer's stories in this collection. In "Doris is Coming," a certain Reverend Sykes incorrectly predicts the rapture as the last day of 1961, thus setting a measure of uncertainty and reasonable doubt to all his exposited beliefs thereafter. Doris, meanwhile, is a coming-of-age black girl growing up in the segregated south, though she's endowed with a top tier intellect that allows her placement in upper level honors courses at school, which means she's the only African American amidst a sea of white students. It would be dishonest to suggest that Doris and Reverend Sykes' ideological differences are the prime mover of this story. The great thing about all of Packer's stories is how variegated they are. Certainly there is a theme of radical change clashing with a perceived conservative prudence, but Doris has many more influential encounters with different people than just Sykes. Still, Doris and Sykes' ultimate clash was a memorable point in the story to me, particularly for the telling way in which it ends, with Sykes putting forth a rather radiantly red herring, to wit:

And these other churches. I suppose they're Baptist and A.M.E.? Now, them folks think you can sin on Saturday night and sing hungover with the choir Sunday morning. Did you see that mother of that unsaved family that came in on New Year's? That woman! Coming to church in a red dress, of all things.

Religion and denomination then operating as a distraction, smoke and mirrors, and expressing Reverend Sykes' impartial interest in the lead story, i.e. what's in the best interests of the African American community? He deflects this question, favoring something far more superficial in terms of the here and now. What should it matter, any of those things he cites, when compared with the battle being waged against social injustice? But he's convinced himself of their superior weight. They hold superior weight to him -- because he has lost touch with any sense of proportion, acclimatizing himself to a submissive role in society.

"Every Tongue Shall Confess" features a more despicable but equally misguided church leader, Deacon Jeffers. Brings to light a sense of the misogynistic elements that are to be found in African American churches, as they would be anywhere else. I put special mention on the critique of the church in Packer's work also because I think popular culture has had a nasty habit of romanticizing the gospel singing and general exuberance seemingly found in such predominantly African American places of worship. As I see it, Packer is not condemning the idea of religion, nor is she condemning it specifically as a cultural referent with respect to African Americans, but she does see the institutional hypocrisies to be found anywhere in which power is to be had, likewise. She says African American churches are no different from any other in this way, and not everything is roses. I find that emphasis fascinating, along with so much else Packer succeeds at in her stories.

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