Sep 20, 2010

That's a damned answer

I have resisted the argument that David Simon is fatalistic, but now, reading The Corner, I might have to change my mind.

The Corner basically reads like source material for The Wire: here we meet earlier permutations of what will become Bubbles, Bodie, Pooh, the corner kids, the shorties, the teachers and school administrators, and the few addicts who make it on to the show. The lower level police -- the rollers, knockers, Western District's finest -- are here too, and Omar, here Odell, is mentioned, though he never makes an appearance.

My personal frustration with the book is how weak the narratives are -- the stories just kind of dribble along, dramatic moments are underplayed and never really set up for any impact. Everything, the way Simon and Ed Burns tell the story, kind of just is.

At first I just wondered where the story-telling talent so evident in The Wire actually came from, since it's not apparent here. But now, as I'm almost done with the book, I wonder if it's not that the book is just infected with fatalism.

The authors do kind of seem to believe that the corner is the natural state for these people. When characters in the book find it within themselves to hope, to believe that change is possible, the authors don't bring us into that belief, that hope, but present it as freakish. As self delusion. Where they could have written the stories in such a way that the reader hopes with characters and then is crushed by the tragedy when it goes sideways (which is what happens when this is translated into TV), here Simon and Burns seem just shrug and say, "what did they expect?"

Hope, if anything, is presented as a delusion, a kind of willed blindness: it's what makes you think that little things you do can actually could make a difference.

"She chooses to believe," the authors write of one character, and they say she chooses, against evidence that should be obvious, because "if these things are true" "everything she does here has a purpose." It's all delusion, and delusion-supported delusion. And yet the woman will be shocked when someone's gunned down, locked up, or dies of an overdose, but, seriously, what did she expect?

The way The Corner is written, meaningless confounds everything. What Cornell West calls nihilism -- "the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most importantly) lovelessness", "the murky waters of despair that now flood the streets of black America" -- and argues can be/should be countered not (just) with liberal politics of improving social structures and not with conservatives' (culpability-avoiding) moral condemnations of behavior, but by art, music, religion, philosophy, and other things that overcome the colonized mind, The Corner see as just the way the world is. There is no answer to meaninglessness that they can conceive of as actually possible.

They imagine, at one point, a newly clean, recovering addict, confronted with this meaninglessness: "So welcome back to a culture that still hasn't found a use for you or your kind," they say.
"You were born for Fayette and Mount, you went there, and, at this point, the only real surprise is that you survived long enough to want something more. If you went back there now -- a last visit, perhaps -- if you walked twenty blocks due west from the city's downtown to Mount Street and found the sage idiot manning his post, then you should state your case:
'I been a dope fiend,' you'd say.
'I'm tired,' you'd say.
'I'm trying to stop,' you'd say.
And the idiot on the corner would surely look at you and offer a cold question that points very close to the truth.
And damned if you could answer."
This seems to be the end, for Simon and Burns, burned out and damned if they can answer the meaninglessness. It seems to me that this is why they can't quite tell these stories as stories, instead of just strung-together facts: they've given up, and the stakes are so low, so non-existent, that none of it actually matters. There's only really any energy in the book when the authors get worked up in a sermon on the stupidity of various political responses to the problems of the corner, the drug war, welfare, etc. Sometimes there are glimpses of promising narratives, elements of stories that could come together to be really moving, like the opening lines, where "Fat Curt is on the corner ... lean[ing] hard into his aluminum hospital cane, bent to this ancient business of survival," but then they're overcome by lethargy.

They seem to me to hold back, to be, like someone who's burned out, unwilling to risk, anymore, the pain and hurt of hoping. I find it frustrating, though, as I read, and I want to quote back to them the Kafka they use as an epigraph: "You can hold back from the suffering of the world. You have free permission to do so .... But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided."

I guess I only noticed this, though, when I kept coming across scenes and story lines in The Corner that feel like they should feel tragic, but instead they're flat, they're fatalistic.

When two addicts walk out onto the street high and it starts to rain, for example, what should feel tragic, what should, I think, be written in a way to make you want to cry, ends instead with a shake of the head:

"Out on the street, large fat drops of rain begin slapping hard at them, slowly at first, then gradually accelerating until Gary surrenders and ducks into a vestibule. Ronnie follows and the two of them ride out the high, waiting for the downpour to slow.
'Something I'm ...'
'I got something I can't remember,' says Gary.
'You just high.'
'No, it was ...'
Gary stares up Fulton, his pupils wide, trying with all his might to bring something to mind. The rain slows, they walk on, and by the time he reaches Vine Street, it comes.
'Oh man. What day is it?'
Ronnie shrugs.
'Tuesday,' says
Gary, answering himself. He counts forward on both hands, coming first to ten, then counting again and coming to eleven.
'Eleven days. I'm still okay.'
'For what?'
'My county case. I got a notice that I have to go ten days in advance of court to talk to the public defender.'
'Where you got to go?'
Ronnie shakes her head, then pronounces Gary doomed."

Repeatedly, in the book, tragedy isn't written as tragedy, but as something normal. The authors seem to shake their heads, and pronounce these people doomed. The authors take the conrner-cynic's position, and seem surprised that anyone would expect anything different. They take the position where, hearing of Langston Hughes' dream deferred, they might ask what the fuck he was dreaming for. Didn't he know he was a nigger in Ameirca? When Fat Curt, an old addict who is easily the book's best character, begins to weep for himself, and says, "I look like a damn freak and I can't do a got-damn thing about it," the authors are incredulous. "Curt actually begins crying," they say. They seem surprised he hasn't just accepted that this is what happens, has imagined he might somehow hope or change his way out of the despair he was born to. Didn't he know "that the old corner axiom still holds: No one gets out alive"?

Even in scenes where the people who live on the corner are shocked by the corner, Simon and Burns take it as normal, natural. In the summer, a horse pulling a produce cart pees on someone's ground stash of coke and heroin. The dealers badly beat the man selling produce, and then the horse. The corner-dwellers are shocked by this -- "'Why beat the horse?' says Pimp. 'Horse don't know.'" -- but the authors assure us that this is just the way it is. Their answer to why is, "Why not? The violence roams and fluctuates with its own rhythms."

But is that supposed to satisfy us? Is that supposed to be our answer?