O Africa - Andrew Lewis Conn
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The biggest thing that stands out about this book is the language. Conn throws industry jargon around like it's bird seed in the backyard. I'm a word-for-word reader but I had to suspend my preferred style in order to get through even the first paragraph. I felt like I do when my nine year old talks to me about Pokémon cards - he may as well be speaking a foreign language. I've got a college degree and I'm tri-lingual. I've worked as an author and an editor - thank goodness not on this book! At times it felt like the poems I see in the Sunday paper and think, "Who reads this crap?" It's so symbolic, so laden with metaphors and allegories that it is not at all relaxing. I notice that the places that lauded his last book were publications he had also written for! Even the praises on the back cover are 50% not so much praise.
It is not in my nature to quit books mid-read, but I seriously considered quitting this one. The main thing that kept me going was that I was provided a free copy of the book with the expectation that I would submit a review. Well, they may never invite me to do that again - because I don't have very much that is nice to say about this book. Thankfully it is divided into sections, subsections, chapters, and even within the chapters there are breaks. That is what kept me moving to the next break or chapter.
When you peer through the curtain of words you see that there are a few interesting characters but you may not see anyone that you really care about. The central characters are Micah and Isidor Grand - twin brothers who were orphaned at 18. The parents died of natural causes and since 18 is official adulthood the mention of them being orphans did nothing to increase my sympathy for them. Around half-way through the book I realized that I wasn't routing for anybody to achieve anything. I like world travel and foreign culture, so I was interested - but the book lacks a hook. Micah is a louse who cheats on his wife and can't manage his money. His brother Izzy seems content enough to just plod along behind his brother. The potential for drama and suspense is high - they are living among a back woods African tribe, for goodness sakes! But nobody gets captured or lost - it's just page after page of words about characters I don't care about. In some areas I just read the first line of each paragraph.
Late in the book there is a tragedy that occurs, very quickly. It seemed unjust because of all the words he spent on everything ordinary and the big event that causes a radical shift in a major character gets barely two pages.
I often wondered if I was just not in the right niche to appreciate this book. Perhaps it would read better to men, particularly men in the film industry. Maybe Jack Nicholson or Stephen King could appreciate this book. I understand there are people out there who like shows like Justified and Breaking Bad - and call it entertainment. (I'm married to one such person.) I'm not saying I want everything to be like the Walton's. (Frankly, I find them boring.) I've read Diana Gabaldon's love scenes and loved them. I've read John Irving (Widow for One Year, Cider House Rules) and was fine with those stories. But I was turned off on this book as early as page 16 when Conn has the young Micah whacking off in the alley behind the temple during their bar mitzvah with his brother watching. Unnecessary! I already got that Micah was a louse without that scene. If I hadn't got it, I would have got it a few pages later when Micah tried to explain that his affairs were just a hobby and that just as he supported his wife's hobbies of needlework, etc. so should she support his. "Besides, everyone knows the movies are all about sex. In very real ways, we owe our professional livelihood to the continued investigation of my hobby." (p. 29)
I also felt out-of-niche when things like the film Birth of a Nation were referenced like I was supposed to understand the significance of it. Once I looked it up on Wikipedia - the references had a lot more
meaning to them. Maybe the publisher should have sent me some Cliff or Spark Notes along with the book. Or they could have at least included an appendix or footnotes. At times it seemed like this was more historical fiction than fiction.
The book may be trying to entertain, but there is only a bit of comedy in the whole story, and by a bit I mean page 100. That's it - anything funny in the entire book lives on one page. The book may be trying to make some social statements about a variety of topics (racism, homosexuality) but it says nothing clear enough and strong enough to further any causes. On page 146 it finally becomes clear that Izzy actually does want to find himself, and maybe Micah too. Izzy makes great strides towards self-discovery for the rest of the book, and I was genuinely glad for him. Micah took a couple of steps in that direction, but he never really got it figured out, so he earned no redemption in my eyes. Part of Izzy finding out who he is involves admitting his homosexuality. There may have been a few hints before but it becomes clear on p. 176 that this is who Izzy is. Conn does handle this sometimes sensitive subject quite well - as well as he handles any other subject. Izzy's first romantic encounter with another man is no more or less tasteful than Micah in the alley. During one of Izzy's romantic scenes, his parents visit him in the form of ghosts and he gauges their reactions and contemplates how much their approval means to him, even after all these years. (p. 195) Thus Izzy continues to make progress in finding himself.
I felt that Izzy also showed much more remorse for having affected the African tribe and he tried a lot harder to right the wrong. After having been returned from Africa for many weeks, the guilt of what had occurred there was still eating him up inside, so he returned to Africa and tried to use film to set everything right. It was interesting that the place that the villagers went nightly to see Izzy's new edition of film was called "dahtkam". It is supposed to be a Malwiki word for a place that is essentially a junkyard. I wondered if it was supposed to be social commentary on the internet (dot com). He uses a "net" for a screen and refers to the films shown in the dahtkam as "A new kind of vision, it didn't describe, it was. It asked not for interpretation but absorption. The stories we tell each other, the dreams that paid nightly visit, stretched before them all in unanimous agreement. The rest was delirium and soul-sickness. Once they had drunk from the fantastic well of images, the tribespeople were forever thirsty." (p. 335) Izzy is able to manipulate their minds through these films. Being Izzy he does not manipulate with malice but with a big-hearted intent to heal and help the people make sense of what happened in their village so that they can move forward into a secure future. But it gets to the point where the films become like a drug to the villagers and Micah and others tell Izzy he must put an end to it.
Just as I was starting to settle into the flow of the book, Part III opens with Section I on pages 225 - 228 of the 373 page book. This section is nothing but a film summary and Micah's obituary. Then Section II continues and Micah is very much alive and it is nowhere near the end of his life. Which left me saying "What the heck?" and wondering who thought THAT spot was the best location to place the obituary. Like the editor fell asleep on the job (which I can believe given the storyline). Wham! Here's an obituary and now we're going to continue on as if you never saw it and we're never going to mention it again. Weird!
Maybe it was to reassure us that when we got to the part where Micah was in bed with his mistress, and her husband came home and caught them, he wasn't going to die. In fact, the husband sits down and watches and tells him to take his time and finish! Like I said - weird!
Finally on page 294 I was rewarded for my reading with a gem that I will carry with me and ponder for years to come. Izzy writes, "The thing you fear most is the thing that will happen." (That "thing" being "death".) Soon after that were a couple of other fun things to ponder. Like the ventriloquist's dummy on page 308 that Micah explained, "Just because he's fake doesn't mean he isn't real." Then on the next page the ideas of "What happens to a place when you leave? Does it go on without you or continue in your imagination unabated?"
Twenty pages from the end, it is finally Micah's true moment to shine. For a moment I thought he might actually do the right thing and discover his true self. He didn't make the choice I hoped he would. He did what society would dictate. I guess it's up to the reader to decide if it was the best choice. This was not a book that I ended with a sigh and fond memories. It was more of a, "whew, thank goodness that's done with."