I recently received a telephone call from the Los Angeles Times. I hardly know anyone in the United States. I live quietly in Miami with my wife and children.
"I have looked for you everywhere. . . . We would like you to write a review of 'Negrophobia' by Darius James."
"I don't speak English very well you know, although I can read it."
"You must read this book," the voice at the other end of the line answers. "I will send it to you right away."
Why me? Maybe because I am Haitian and Darius James refers constantly to voodoo in his book. Also, I have lived a long time in Montreal, where James currently lives. This, no doubt, gives him a necessary distance vis-a-vis American race relations. But most of all, I think it was because I have written a novel, "How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired," in which, like James, I analyzed the murky and ambiguous sexual relation tying the Negro to the white woman (at the heart of the whole business) in this surrealist America.
All this should make James, a novelist from the same universe as myself, a writer of the image generation (he has, in fact, written for TV, film and video). I had the impression while sniffing around in the book (I usually spend two or three hours ferreting through a book before I begin to read it properly) that I knew this world of smells, colors and sensations. A certain deja vu.
I opened James' book only to topple into hell.
The book recounts the vicissitudes of Bubbles Brazil, a blond Lolita from a rich family who had to be placed in a detox center. Bubbles is a real cartoon, like the characters in the novels of Bret Easton Ellis. In fact, "Negrophobia" is the black version of "American Psycho." In her new life, with an awful black servant, Bubbles discovers the other America: that of the jigaboos. A large part of the book is a clinical description, done with maniacal precision, of the black world as seen by this pubescent, sexy, lively blond who seems as though she has walked off a page of Vogue magazine: a typical portrayal of that portion of white America that enters the ghetto only through fancy fashion magazines.
At this point, James' endless delirium about the untouchable Lolita begins. But Bubbles Brazil is also a pretty little monster of perversity, built-up desires, disgusts, shames. A vicious mix of (the young) Audrey Hepburn and Madonna, having spent her childhood in a Norman Rockwell painting and now living in a suburb of Los Angeles, perhaps Simi Valley.
This book also catalogues, with humor, nearly all the different cliches that whites and blacks share in the United States. Blacks, clearly, eat differently from whites, make love differently, speak differently (and here James excels in his exposition of levels of language) and, above all, think differently. Up to this point, I follow. I more or less know this way of talking. But James takes my breath away in his presentation of the universe. One says to oneself: Either this guy is literally crazy or I'm in the presence of a real writer. I think that both possibilities should be entertained.
Diving into James' swamp, I was charmed, horrified, exasperated by the excess of morbid details, dazzled by the sort of manic energy upholding the book from beginning to end, fascinated by the number of cultural winks to the reader scattered just about everywhere, and often annoyed by James' Russian-doll technique: a description of a living object but also a description of each component part making up the object. He uses a camera for the long shot and a microscope to describe the infinitely small. His electronic eye seizes everything, without, let us call it, human feeling. The description of the objects of daily life defines America.
As far as technique is concerned, James has been the student of horror films and grade-B science- fiction movies that appear on cable on off hours. In these movies full of monsters, of sordid clowns, of mad twists, of nightmarish situations that don't even succeed in scaring us, James sees the truth of America. Because in the United States, nothing is merely suggested. Everything is always under a mental lighting that is too harsh. Of this James is definitely aware. His goal is to show American mediocrity in all its horror, and, most especially, through horror.
As to essence, I see a definite connection to Dante's "Inferno." Even the concentric circles are there. The same descent. And as in Dante (the comparison stops here), one can find in hell the characters that inhabit James' delirium: J.F.K. side-by-side with Elvis, Lincoln's speech intertwined with that of Martin Luther King, Kipling, Elijah Muhammad, Norman Rockwell, Spike Lee, and the most horrible of all--the prince of darkness, the King of Kitsch, the Hitler of childhood--Walt Disney.
But I have noticed in James, much more than Dante's influence, the influence of Voltaire and St. John. Candide, the character in Voltaire who lives "in the best of possible worlds," travels through St. John's Apocalypse without even noticing that he does so. And Candide is Bubbles Brazil, over whom all the Negro vermin merely slide off because her skin is illuminated like a light bulb, and her blond hair protects her from the world of filth, misery and humiliations without end. The Negro world. "The Rocky-Horror Negro Show." Like Alice, Bubbles has gone through the looking glass (with the help of a little marijuana, of course) to find herself in the land of absurd things. In America.
While I was reading, something kept me from entering completely into James' universe: the problem of identity at the bottom of this fable. The problem does not exist for me. Haiti faces all the dramas imaginable but not that one. I stayed a spectator and could not follow James in his swamp. I nonetheless suspect that something very serious has occurred to the American psyche, and that this thing is tied to racism, and that Darius James' delirium was necessary to explain it.
Despite its weaknesses--repetitious descriptions that tend to put the reader to sleep, sudden changes of tone that show that these texts were written at different periods--"Negrophobia" remains the courageous effort of a young writer to understand his time, and a mad attempt to renew the genre of the novel. That is already a great deal for one person to do. And with only one book.