Friday, March 2, 2012

An American Vision of Caribbean Fiction

As his tropical homeland descends into abjection and tyranny, Alexandre takes a job managing a lush but decaying estate. He struggles to maintain a normal life, avoiding politics, and striving to join the white elites who employ him. But despite his best efforts, “normal” proves a moving target. Circumstances conspire to remind him that he remains forever black. And the violence inevitably encroaches on his secluded paradise.

I’m of two minds about Christopher Hebert’s debut novel, The Boiling Season. Behind the thicket of language lies an interesting story about the gap between aspiration and reality. Alexandre tries to shed his impoverished past and become something more urbane, but he cannot escape the forces that shape him. This keeps him blind to his own tragic flaw, but also to his nation’s continuing struggle, right up to the moment he can deny neither any more.

But to reach that story, one must first penetrate Hebert’s strange storytelling choices. He hits us with the one-two punch of an unreliable narrator and a sweeping range, continually reminding us that we cannot take anything we read at face value. This makes sense when we have the tools to sort reality from fantasy, like we get from Joseph Conrad. But Hebert seems to deliberately alienate us from any outside referents.

We have no dates for events in this story— a problem compounded by the scope of the story. Alexandre, narrating his life, will casually say things like “in the spring of our second year” or “four years had passed.” As these mount up, he’ll suddenly dip into flashbacks and reminiscences, making it harder to keep events in sequence as the book goes on.

Along with time, Hebert also withholds a sense of place. Alexandre’s homeland is merely “the island,” ruled from “the capitol.” Without such a vague location, he has to describe imagery so aggressively that it threatens to overwhelm readers. Those who study history will recognize Hebert’s setting, but the verbal gymnastics he undertakes to avoid saying the word “Haiti” become pointed.

This evasion distracts from what ought to be an otherwise engaging story. The contrast between Alexandre’s elegant aspirations and the entropy around him find an excellent mirror in the estate he oversees. His struggles to turn the estate first into a suitable home for a jet-setting international businesswoman, then a world class resort, externalize the ways in which he tries to be seen by others, especially by wealthy whites.

When Alexandre first encounters the estate, it has stood derelict for decades. As the starving population has picked the rest of the island down to the roots, the estate’s walls shelter all that remains of the original rain forest. Like the woman who hires him, he is initially drawn to its pristine state. Its lush edenic qualities, interrupted only briefly by a colonial plantation house, resist the decay beyond the walls.

But he can only preserve the property he loves by turning it into a commodity. When it proves too costly for his employer to keep the large estate as a second home, she and Alexandre begin transforming it into a resort hotel. Virgin jungle gradually gives way to swimming pools, casinos, and discotheques. They have to sell their pocket paradise incrementally to pay the high cost of staving off native entropy.

Hebert tells this gripping story of alienation and identity with a strangely dry, undifferentiated style. Moments of great psychological impact spill forth in the same tone he uses to describe the weather, which he does a great deal. I had to reread several chapters to understand what happened, not because Hebert is opaque, but because his language style never varies.

And his characternyms are just too precise. Many characters’ names reflect how Hebert wants us to see the characters. Some names only make sense if you know the code, like Rossignol and Guinee, while others, like Swallows and Freeman, are so overt that they take readers out of the moment. The characters live up to their names, and no higher. Sadly, these aspects aren’t smoothly integrated.

Which is a crying shame. If Hebert did something to differentiate his writing, something to really take us on Aleandre’s emotional journey rather than just tell us about it, this would be a great book. It stands as a good story. Unfortunately, as a debut novelist, I fear he got caught up in the idea of his book as “important,” and didn’t take it nearly far enough. This book is good, but falls short of great.

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