By Matt Desjardins
With Mark Roosevelt recently departed for Santa Fe and Tom Manley officially taking over the reigns on March 1, I once again find myself pinch hitting for this column. Let me first say it’s an honor to act as Reader-in-Chief, but also quite daunting. Mark read widely and really nailed this column each month. I learned a lot about Mark I would never have known otherwise by reading it and he introduced me to several books that I now treasure. Tom is equally well read and can author some deft prose. He is the scholar-poet that will take Antioch to new heights. I look forward to reading his upcoming column on poetry or food (fingers crossed). So where does that leave me, lowly Director of Communications? Well, like many things in life, I don’t know, but let’s have some fun with it.
While celebrating the winter holidays – the College was closed between Christmas and New Year’s Day – I finished two books: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, a Minneapolis-based Jamaican novelist, and Submission by French author Michel Houellebecq. Both novels came recommended and were lauded by end of year lists and prize committees. The books are different, but do share common threads in that they are dark, political and not for everyone.
A Brief History is the ultra-violent, multi-decade tale of a Jamaican crime syndicate that overlaps with the real-life assassination attempt on reggae superstar Bob Marley in 1976. This attempt left the singer with wounds to his chest and arm, ultimately sending him to self-imposed exile in England. It is believed and emphasized throughout the book that gunmen targeted Marley for his scheduled appearance at a peace concert spearheaded by Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley (no relation to Tom Manley as far as I know). At nearly 700 pages, it is a brick filled with dense Jamaican patois (which took a lot of getting used too and ultimately hinders the book), but also richly developed characters that opened up like a well-crafted bourbon as I read on. I could not wait to finish it and move on with my life, but now that I’m done with it, I miss it.
While more of a rolling crime narrative with a set of character studies A Brief History has, like Submission, a lot to say. It’s mostly a critique on the Cold War and the War on Drugs but also spotlights Jamaican history and, of course, reggae. I came into the book knowing very little about Jamaica other than having listened to Marley’s Legend a few times (it still holds up). In novel form, A Brief History is a crash course on Jamaican history from its conception through the turbulent Cold War years when the CIA was concerned the island would be sucked into the Cuban, meaning Soviet, orbit. It ends with a cutting look at urban America in the 1980s and 90s. Throughout the book are ghosts, either popping into the plot to tell you about how Jamaica was raped by colonialism or living in one chapter only to become apparitions in the next. By the end of the book, they’re all there making the floorboards creak when you turn out the lights.
Submission on the other hand is a slim novel. I read it in one sitting while celebrating the New Year at my wife’s family cabin in the Smoky Mountains. Honestly, I still do not know what to make of this book. I admit that I’m a bit of a closet Francophile (see my last name) and this book was a highly controversial bestseller in France. Let me rephrase that: Houellebecq (pronounced Well-beck) is highly controversial in France. Everything he writes causes a stir and then seems to win an award. His last novel, The Map and the Territory, took on the insular French art world and in 2010 won the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary award. In Submission he takes on the incendiary topic of political Islam in France. If that wasn’t enough, wait for it, the book came out in France on January 7, 2015, the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Deep breaths, people.
Submission, even for an American, is a lot to swallow a full year after Charlie Hebdo and only two months after the terrorist attacks that rocked Paris in November 2015. Houellebecq’s antihero in this comic novel is Francois, a professor at the University of Paris III (Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle) and a specialist in French decadent author Joris Karl Huysmans. In the near future (2022), he witnesses a massive shift in the French political landscape when an Islamic party (The Muslim Brotherhood) comes to power activated by the Socialist party with the rest of the French Left offering their support to avoid a Marine Le Pen-led National Front (right wing/nativist) government. Riots ensue, Francois loses his job as his public university becomes a Muslim school, women are marginalized, polygamy becomes legal, the European Union expands to include Turkey and North Africa, France becomes aligned with the Gulf States, money flows in…the country is turned upside down, Europe is forever changed. Francois, a middle-aged academic who prior to the upheaval is basically lonely and depressed, is given a classic option-resist or submit.
Parts of the book are polarizing and hard to digest, but it’s a clever take on germane topics. Houellebecq was immediately criticized (perhaps rightfully so) and labeled a fear-monger and stooge of the Right by the French media. Certainly the timing of the book’s release amplified that sentiment. In a world where Donald Trump is polling at near 35 percent, it’s a lot to stomarch; a gut punch of a novel, but Houellebecq, by taking the reader to a not-impossible future exposes us to the uncomfortable truths of the present. As with A Brief History of Seven Killings, read critically at your own risk.
Reflecting on all of this, I’m not sure Mark Roosevelt would read either book, though I know he has eclectic literary tastes. The same goes for Tom Manley. Both books have nothing to do with reinventing higher education or bootstrapping a small, historic college in Southwestern Ohio. But, my philosophy is that it pays to read widely. A secondary viewpoint is that a good (rollicking or pointed) novel is always worth the reader’s time. Whether you are escorted by ghosts through a complicated past or gain insights into the complex political dynamics of foreign lands, you’re better off in the end for going through the experience of what novels do best – getting into the skulls of humans who are not you. You can enjoy and ultimately learn from a novel even if you don’t agree with its politics or its ghosts for that matter. And let’s face it; ghosts are usually jerks.
Matt Desjardins is Director of Communications at Antioch College.