The fire this time (1)

I wrote yesterday about the cultural phenomenon of Ta-Nehesi Coates and his hot new book Between the World and Me, published last week under an imprint of Random House. I want to explore the book in a series of (mostly brief, I hope) posts, of which this is the introduction. I need a series to explore the book in all its awfulness. I am afraid that this is important because culture matters.

This is a dreadful book, both deeply hateful and incredibly pretentious. These defects do not begin to exhaust the book’s failings, but they are among them, and they give the book its leading qualities.

It is not simply a dreadful book, but that it certainly is. It is easily one of the worst books I have ever read. I can’t offhand come up with one worse, but as Eisenhower said when asked for “a major idea” Nixon had contributed to his administration, “if you give me a week I might think of one.”

Coates styles himself the successor to James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time. Baldwin framed that book’s opening essay as a letter to his nephew. Coates frames his new book as a letter to his son in three sections. For readers who might otherwise miss Coates’s claim to Baldwin’s mantle, Coates offers Toni Morrison’s endorsement on the back cover; Morrison salutes Coates as the man to fill the “intellectual void” left by Baldwin’s death.

The Baldwin motif is suggestive of the book’s (overstuffed) retrograde element as well. Although the book is padded to fill its 152 numbered pages, Coates reiterates every racial shtick of the past 50 years up to and including those of the moment. Black power, black is beautiful, Malcolm X (Coates takes up Malcolm X’s case agains the nonviolent civil rights movement), the Black Panthers, “mass incarceration,” the leading cases of Black Lives Matter — they’re all recycled here as though time has stood still and nothing has been learned. Even “pigs” returns for another workout, though with an important variation that we will come to later.

The book is so overwritten that it is a continuous annoyance. Coates is full of himself. He is drunk on the sound of his own voice. He makes understanding needlessly difficult. Even so, one can rarely miss the gist of his words. His thought is not exactly subtle.

Coates aspires to Baldwin’s literary quality in the overwrought prose that makes the book almost unreadable. Coates fancies himself something of a poet. He describes himself as a bad poet during his college years, but notes later that he worked on his craft. He seems to think he has become a good poet. He badly needed an intervention by a friend or an editor during the writing of this book.

Coates infrequently makes his points directly or attempts to formulate an argument. I take it, for example, that he did not get good grades as a student at Howard University. This is how he puts it: “I wanted to know things, but I could not match the means of knowing that came naturally to me with the expectations of my professors.” No further explanation is offered.

Although the book is short, Coates is both verbose and repetitious. He must speak of the “breaking” of the black “body” more than a hundred times. The repetition is incessant. The text of the book begins on page 5 (“Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body” — the question remains unanswered at page 152). By page 12, I felt like a broken man myself. Coates made his name arguing “The case for reparations.” If he would only quit yammering, I thought to myself, I would get out my own checkbook and try to make a deal.

I will continue with Coates’s theme of the “breaking” of the “body” in part 2.