Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Fighting my failings as a reader

Earlier this week I heard about a novel that I immediately felt compelled to get into my hands. I checked online and found a copy available at a nearby New York Public Library branch. I ran over there on my lunch hour and checked it out. I began reading.

I'm now almost 150 pages into it. And I'm finding it hard going. A couple times when I noticed myself reading a magazine article or going online instead of rushing back to the book, which are my usual cues that perhaps this book isn't working for me, I've considered stopping. I have not stopped reading and I don't think I'm going to. But I feel ashamed at the difficulty I'm having finding my way in to what is a manifestly important, and not coincidentally a widely acclaimed, work of fiction.

The novel is Carpentaria. The author is Alexis Wright, a writer, activist and member of the Waanyi nation. The book won Australia's premier literary award, making Wright, if I'm not mistaken, the first author of Aboriginal origin to win it. The story goes to the heart of the national question in Australia, that is, what the white settler invasion and occupation of that continent did and continues to do to its native inhabitants.

Carpentaria is, then, a political novel. It concerns itself with matters of the utmost importance. As for Wright's writing, it is beautiful--lyrical, even transporting, utterly original, constantly surprising. So why have I not fallen into this book the way I want to? What the hell is wrong with me?

I do think this is an occasion of my failure as a reader. I do believe it has a lot to do with my cultural training, my literary habits that, despite my conscious intent otherwise, my constant efforts to break through, are still to a fair extent circumscribed by that Western bourgeois training. In this case, Wright's novel is not only about Aboriginal life, the clash of white settler and Aboriginal society, the deep deep oppression of Aboriginal peoples and near-genocidal suppression of their history and their way of life. The novel is not only "about" all this but its structure, architecture, rhythm, motion, its words and what is unspoken--all of these and much more that is ineffable, that is, the novel's very essence--arise from, are an expression of Aboriginal perspective. Why would Carpentaria hew to the sort of linearity of plot or even the supposed rules of characterization with which most North American readers are comfortable? Why the hell should it? There is an entirely different experience being brought to life in these pages. So who cares if I'm comfortable? If I have to work harder than I usually do? I consider it a privilege to have the chance to move through these pages, to enter these lives, to access to the extent to which I'm capable this rich and painful story. I'm pretty sure that once I reach the end I will feel grateful to have made the journey.

UPDATE: It's a couple days later and I'm another 150 pages in, and, as I expected I would be, I'm awfully glad I committed to following this story wherever it was going to take me, in whatever manner Wright was going to take me there. It keeps unfolding in new directions and exponentially expanding dimensions, all the while engaging the reader ever more deeply in following the plot and caring about the characters. There is something profound about the experience of reading this book. What a contribution it is.