The Grey Album riffs on Langston Hughes and Jay-Z, Tiger Woods and Elizabeth Bishop.
Sometimes the appropriation brings something fresh out of him. There's a well-argued passage about the usefulness of lying in an old Alice Walker essay about Zora Neale Hurston, in which Walker's lucidity makes him lucid. But she makes his point much more entertainingly than he does, and unlike Young, you know what she's up to in her essay.
Young has a rushed writer’s weakness for a one-word gush about the quality of a work: The Big Sea, he writes, is "stunning." But the case he makes for the book and for Hughes's bifurcated self-communication is kind of stunning in itself. Hughes, he argues, wasn't hiding, as some scholars have asserted. He was engaged in what Young calls the art of dissembling, telling white readers one thing while implying another for a knowing, attuned, presumably black audience. Daniel Defoe and Jean-Jacques Rousseau turned the misleading confessional into literary sport. Young reads Hughes's approach as more practically canny. He offered an official story to keep the real, personal one to himself.
Ironically, Young seems conflicted about how much of himself to mix into the proceedings. (We do learn that as a boy he wanted to be one of Gladys Knight's Pips.) As an aside, Young writes that The Big Sea changed his life, but telling us it changed your life only makes us want to know how. His most evocative, detailed, and sustained writing is saved for a chapter on Bob Kaufman, a lesser-known Beat and one of Young's heroes. It's the perfect combination of remembrance and cultural critique. Kaufman changed his life, and, for once, we can feel how. We sense the potential of what Young is trying to achieve. This book actually is personal. All of this culture? It’s in him. It is him.
But for Young living as a child of that culture is a lot of pressure. Earlier, in recounting Hughes's remembrance of that great jettisoning, of his rejection of "book learnin'," Young tries to throw himself off the boat, too:
I am tired of ideas. Tonight, I prefer lives, especially lies. I am sick of confession, thought, analysis. Throw the books into the sea, and let them swim for it, like Shine, the mythic black porter who refused to stay on the sinking Titanic.
Whoa, but there's, like, 200 pages left, and they're not at all devoted to that intensely human, intellectual urge to shut off your brain. They're full of the very analysis and thought Young wishes he could help himself from committing. So, in a sense, The Grey Album is a neurotic product, a book of intellectual compulsion that Young couldn't stop himself from writing, a book containing dozens of possible other books and personal essays.
That compulsion is both the discrete drama of this smart and achy but exasperatingly freeform book and the collective sense, among a class and generation of black artists, of where blackness now is: How can Young simultaneously undress black culture and undress himself? How can he do that without giving away too much of himself, without agitating anyone or over-turning anything? For the moment, there's no more acting out or acting up. There is only acting in.
We're past James Baldwin's seething recriminations and Amiri Baraka’s calls for racial insurgency. There’s no collective will to start a riot. In one sense, Barack Obama has put black American culture on its best behavior. It’s at a new place of cultural, historical, and personal ultrasensitivity, where every upheaval, every book, every song, every exchange provokes an almost involuntary need to peacefully critique and process and synthesize. The recriminations can wait. These writers, artists, and musicians are taking this moment to reassess blackness—not against the backdrop of wider mainstream American culture, or even in opposition to whiteness. They’re standing before the monolith of black cultural identity and trying to carve out a shape they understand. Introspection is now a superpower to be harnessed. When Young gets his under control, look out. He’s going to need a cape.
See all the pieces in the new Slate Book Review.
Wesley Morris is a staff writer at Grantland.