“Here’s a question once posed to me, by a large, baseball cap-wearing English major at a medium-size western college: Is it our duty to read Infinite Jest?…The answer is: Maybe. Sort of. Probably, in some way.”
– From Dave Eggers’ introduction to the 10th anniversary of Infinite Jest
Part of my interest in contemporary literature comes out of the duty hinted at above. I enjoy a lot of it too, but a lot of it comes down to me believing that great art can be created nowadays and we’re not condemned to dig exclusively through the past. This sense of duty led me to greatly anticipate Ready to Burst by the “father of Haitian letters” Frankétienne. Ready to Burst follows two young men, Raynand and Paulin. Raynand attempts to overcome poverty and his inability to get ahead economically in Haiti while Paulin focuses on writing a novel of and for the Haitian populous.
The novel tries humanizing them by including details like their failed romances with women, or the unfruitful grind Raynand goes through every day. Unfortunately Frankétienne renders the work’s humanity fragile at best by making it a dumping ground for his thoughts on Haiti’s colonialism, poverty outside first world countries, and the elitism of the literary establishment. I know I’m on the outside of the English speaking literary establishment saying this, but I want novels that do what novels can do, not essays in novel form. Ready to Burst certainly isn’t exclusively that, but it does have a number of places that defy the notion that the novel’s about much else. But I’m going to talk about some details that come before the political thrust of the novel that comes out most heavily in the end.
Frankétienne’s writing fluctuates between straightforward action and/or dialogue and heavily ornamented paragraphs that inflate an establishing sentence or two. Often the festooned sentences struck me as a little too dramatic and basking in their own details. For example, this paragraph which opens an episode:
A heavy day. Hot. Suffocating. Exhausting. Summer tunes its drums. Suspended by some invisible rigging, the sun, giant monster, casts its voracious tentacles on the rooftops, the streets, the bodies and blinding window of the cars. Harshly. Ferociously, even. The sun doesn’t grow old. Steadfast eye, it has become a roaming light. The day emerges from the trickle of tears gushing from the blazing eye of this wandering Cyclops. At times, a few stray clouds wipe at the dazzled corners of that eye whose every lash is the clash of a cymbal in the ears of the planet. The striking of a drumstick on the tanned hide of the islands. (65)
I’ll admit that I tend to like more intricate and wild prose like the above, unfortunately just inserting this as a kind of establishing shot doesn’t do a whole lot for me. If this kind of writing in and of itself interests you then by all means pick up Ready to Burst. The novels with more baroque language that I tend to like pair the longer, stronger sentences with plot progression or utilize images earlier in the work in order to alter or add to their connotations via context or alternate usage. I’m not just head over heels for something like volume one of Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu because his sentences often occupy multiple lines or contain strange images and metaphors. That novel tends to spend its abounding language in the right places rather than indulging the reader in an image and idea that doesn’t fit into the rest of the novel. There are a few examples where Frankétienne’s lavish sentences and images work very well to nightmarish effect like the character who goes to sleep famished and undergoes a hellish nightmare with unfinished humanoids trying to detach different pieces of his body. The same goes for the description of First World soldiers who supposedly sodomize Haitians publicly in order to torture and shame them. But too often Ready to Burst reads like the images got out of control and made what should have been a two-sentence description into a paragraph.
Lets venture into the overt political stuff. A little under halfway through the book Paulin goes on at length about women despite the novels lack of dealing with women’s issues before or after this.
-So what do you [Paulin] have against women?
-Nothing, in principle. A lot, in practice. Enslaved for millennia. A commodity in bourgeois society. She isn’t herself. In some cases an object of disdain. In other cases a degraded fetish. So my grievance is just as much with the society that has made women into a condensed form of all its problems. Married, one would live constantly with that stench in one’s nose. And that causes nausea. And I don’t like vomiting. (69)
Throughout the novel we only encounter two women, Solange and Marina. Solange comes from a richer family than Raynand and despite their mutual interests in one another his awkwardness and her fickleness lead her to another man with more socio-economic clout. Marina’s parents send her on a trip seemingly because her parents know of her relationship with Paulin and she winds up married in a foreign country. Raynand proves himself semi-clueless and he plays up his betrayal with Solange in a melodramatic way, while Paulin got nothing more than the short end of the stick.
I want to emphasize that Frankétienne uses women in the novel as an image of fertility that’s leaving Haiti. One of the things Raynand says to Solange’s parents in order to assure them he’s a good fit for their daughter is that he’s looking to move to North American in the near future. Neither woman is really a fully fleshed out character. They’re in the novel to be used as representative images rather than characters. I don’t mean to indict the book for misogyny or something by saying that. I say it because the book often flattens aspects like characters in this way. However, Paulin’s quotation does nothing, but highlight the novel’s conclusion that all oppressed peoples need to unify in order to make a better world for themselves. This is painfully spelled out in a lengthy speech Paulin gives near the end of the novel.
It’s hard for me to condemn something that I’ve spent this long thinking about and writing about, but it felt a little soulless to me. Political messages are bound to crop up in art, but when one compromises pieces of the work in order to create a dramatic and solely political effect I’m not inspired or convinced. That said Frankétienne is a major league Francophone Caribbean writer and Ready to Burst is only160 pages in a smaller than average book size. I read this out of an interest in filling in my knowledge gaps in contemporary world literature and this was a short work that accomplished that task. One more thing to note is that the translator for Ready to Burst, Kaiama L. Glover is currently translating another work, Ultravocal, by Frankétienne due out in 2015. Maybe that one will be more to my taste, maybe not.
I feel bad writing all this because I wanted to like the novel and I really like Archipelago, but you like what you like I guess.