Here is what Patrick Neate had to say about Slumberland in the Guardian:
Patrick Neate on a literary freestyler with brio to burn
Not so long ago, hip-hop was the first musical genre since jazz whose nomenclature could plausibly be followed by the word "culture". People talked about hip-hop cinema and fashion, politics and argot; even hip-hop literature.
In so far as the last of these existed, a key book was Paul Beatty's 1996 debut, The White Boy Shuffle; a dazzling satire of the African-American urban experience, its diversity and lack thereof. Understandably, Beatty took little pleasure in the "hip-hop novelist" tag.
Since then, of course, the genre has gone mainstream. Hip-hop is pop music, its films are just films, its fashion just fashion and its slang just slang. And politics? Where once hip-hop might have been regarded as a performance of racial consciousness, it is now just performance. The symbol has become confused with that which it symbolised. Scarily, therefore, hip-hop is too often regarded as synonymous with the African-American urban experience. Scarier still, this is all too often conflated with blackness itself.
Ostensibly, Slumberland, Beatty's third novel, seeks to debunk such monolithic and monotonous racial myth-making. Indeed, his protagonist and narrator, Ferguson, aka DJ Darky, an African-American beat junkie with a "phonographic memory" (he can remember every sound he has ever heard), says as much on the first page. "Don't they know . . . that the charade of blackness is over?" he asks. "Everyone, even the British, says so." And yet Slumberland is a novel of precisely this "charade", a story of stereotypes abused and archetypes reclaimed which delights in racial essentialism even as it decries it and dismisses hipness using the hippest touchstones Beatty can lay his hands on.
We meet Darky in a West Berlin tanning shop in 1989, just before the collapse of the wall. He enjoys the fake rays, genuine stares and local colour. He meets a black security guard who observes, "Germany is the black man's heaven . . . You just have to let them love you." The security guard is described as belonging to "the long legacy of freak show blackness including the Venus Hottentot; Ota Benga, the Congolese pygmy displayed as the missing link in the Bronx Zoo; Kevin Powell and Heather B, the first two African-Americans on MTV's The Real World; and myself." Beatty likes triangulating meaning through lists. Often they are smart, but they don't always open up the subject he's riffing on.
Darky's on the trail of "the Schwa", a mysterious old jazzman ("Charles Manson, Squeaky Fromme, Big Bird, Huey Newton and Henry Kissinger were all big fans") whose contribution will complete - and therefore validate - the DJ's almost perfect beat. All he knows about the Schwa is that he scores East German porn films, including one particularly momentous sequence that accompanies a man having sex with a chicken.
While hunting the Schwa, Darky works at a bar called Slumberland as a "jukebox sommelier". He selects the soundtrack for the diverse clientele - black men (mostly foreign), the white German women who want to sleep with them and the white German men who tag along to watch.
At its best, Beatty's writing is shockingly original, scabrous and very funny. I particularly enjoyed the footnote description of Oprah Winfrey as being "in the process of buying the rights to the life story of every black American . . . as a way of staking claim to being the legal and sole embodiment of the black experience". Unfortunately, he also likes to dally in arcana and obfuscation. At one point Darky compares love to "reading Whitman and fighting the urge not to express your aesthetic superiority". That I don't understand this sentiment is not in itself a problem. That I haven't enough interest in the character to try to figure it out most certainly is.
I wanted to like Slumberland: Beatty has brio to burn and that is rare enough to be cherished. But I fear this novel, with no real people to care about or plot to cling to, is simply a flawed undertaking. Darky wants to move beyond the hip black narrative but finds himself locked in a series of vignettes unified by little but how black and hip they are. I would be doing DJ Darky (and, perhaps, Beatty) a disservice if I told it other than how it is - it is like watching a jazz virtuoso overdo the freestyle; after a while, you just wish he'd play something you can hum. Or, to put it another way, a hip-hop tune - I mean, a real roof-burning, wall-sweating, "ladies, follow me please" hip-hop tune - is more than the sum of its breaks.
-- Saturday 6 December 2008
-- Saturday 6 December 2008