OCTOBER 4, 2015
EVERYONE I KNOW is reading, or means to read, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Elena Ferrante. These authors have very little in common, by the way such things are typically measured: they share neither genre, style, gender, race, nor nationality. What they do share is the sense of personal urgency, the hunger, they’ve created in readers. What does this response say about these writers, seemingly so different, and about all of us who have brought them together in our book bags, in mind and feeling? How have they arrested and occupied our attention?
Coates’s Between the World and Me appeals to readers’ desperation to see more clearly, feel more definitely, in a time of terrible racial violence. It resonates, too, with our doubts that justice is near, or possible, or even something much of the country wants. Ferrante’s novels — particularly her Neapolitan series, the final volume of which was just published — touch a nearer and quieter desperation. As Joanna Biggs wrote in a brilliant review essay, everyone she knows seems to have tumbled from Ferrante’s pages to some intense recollection of their own formative friendships and losses, their own most private and defining confusion and pain.
Yet in these books, both authors, seemingly knowing what readers have come asking of them, refuse to give it. They refuse on grounds that are formal, political, and, in a fashion, ethical. What joins these very different works is their refusal to be our books, to offer an easy connection, a place to rest that feels like clarity.
This is what makes the books documents of the moment. Their resistance to making connection and meaning co-exists with hunger for these. These authors argue, in their language as well as their stories and assertions, that you do not really know others, or yourself. They argue that all experience is violated and corrupted even before it happens. They claim that this condition is intolerable but also inescapable. The work of trying to escape it nonetheless and the desperate, inevitable frustration of that work are the books’ theme and also, simply, what these books are.
And so, in the ways that they belong to no one, they belong to everyone. They are representative work for a time when representation — politically, aesthetically — is at its most fraught, in speaking for others and also in putting forward one’s self.
Between the World and Me is styled as a letter to Coates’s teenage son, written in answer to the absence created when the boy disappears into his room — he says simply, “I have to go” — after a Missouri grand jury declined to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man just a few years older than Coates’s son. The book is an essay sometimes rendered as a prose poem. It moves through the themes of Coates’s journalism, notably “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic — the unyielding legacy of racism in economic, social, and institutional life, and the very concrete violence it does — while often blending in the voice of his earlier coming-of-age memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, whose perfectly shaped sentences, barbed with vernacular to pause the scanning eye, gave reading the feel of listening.
Throughout Between the World and Me, Coates labors to out-talk “the Dreamers,” blinkered people who imagine America an easy and untroubled home, by being more specific, more naked, in what he will say. Dreamers decorate their history with bunting and streamers. Coates answers in shadowed pictures of ubiquitous power, brightly visible only as it registers in struggling, suffering, and pleasurable bodies: above all, the son he loves and the friend, a golden college classmate, who is horribly and unaccountably gunned down by a plainclothes policeman — a black officer, in prosperous, majority-black Prince George’s County, Maryland. Dreaming is not a white monopoly, and this makes it even worse.
Coates seems to aim at nothing less than a reconstruction of language after a great deal of its abuse. His unsettling echo of Martin Luther King’s “Dream” in calling those lost in American myth “Dreamers” (always capitalized) acknowledges the endless appropriation of King as an all-American redeemer, often invoked to support the conservative ideal of a “color-blind society.” Seven years after Barack Obama promised, “We are the people we have been waiting for,” how else is there to write but carefully, specifically, with an emphasis on what keeps us apart and waiting? A soaring language of unity-yet-to-come is exhausted because it has proved too easy to use, has too recently roused too much feeling and too little action.
Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels form an autobiography of their narrator, Elena Greco, known as Lenu, and of the childhood friendship that remains a pivot of her life throughout. Lenu grows up in a mafia-dominated slum neighborhood in postwar Naples, a kind of village within the ancient city. A painstaking student, she makes it to university in Pisa, discovers that she can write, and becomes a recognized author and minor feminist icon. She marries a dutiful, cold academic, then leaves with their two daughters to become reluctant mistress to another success story from the neighborhood, a scintillatingly bright and charismatic married journalist. Although her friend — her “brilliant friend,” as the first novel’s title implies — Lila stays in the old neighborhood, the entanglement between the two women remains an anchor of the story through all of Lenu’s changes.
As these details suggest, Ferrante uses genre conventions, including the marriage comedy, the romance novel, and the bildungsroman, in an unashamed campaign to keep her readers attentive. The wonder of the novels, though, is that Ferrante infuses her plot with subtle portrayals of suffering and confusion rendered so precisely that reading them can be painful and compulsive together, like pressing a bruise to know the ache. On its surface, Ferrante’s world marches across a picturesque landscape of crises, resolutions, and new crises. Beneath it, not less or more actual, is a permanent sea of bewilderment, hurt, and desire, which gives the surface its meaning, but which the surface never quite equals.
The feel of Ferrante’s portraits of pain is palpable, but not in the manageable sense, as if you felt the texture of pain between your fingers, which you could spread open to let it drop. Ferrante has reflected that the impression of reality in her writing is a kind of field effect, a product of pacing, tone, and the sound-stack that can arise from the space between words, the hum of what they do not name. But Ferrante builds none of this at a safe distance, for contemplating until it loses interest for you. Instead, it is as if some of her narrators’ feeling had entered you, and now you must do something arduous and implicating with it: metabolize it, extrude it (where?), or find a place (where?) to keep it.
Yet Ferrante’s characters are in no way built to learn or teach lessons in feeling. Although the Neapolitan novels are thickly peopled, complete with rosters in the back to keep neighborhood families sorted, the names — Enzo, Adele, Rino — name elegantly drawn screens and shadows, accessible mostly by their effects on her narrator. If you have read the Neapolitan novels, ask yourself what you know of the inner lives of this roll call of characters. I think the answer will be that you do not, that these are no concern of the books. You know how Elena Greco, Lenu, has felt them. Or, more exactly, you know what Ferrante’s Lenu has been able to tell herself about them. Readers inhabit Lenu’s mind with sometimes claustrophobic intensity, no matter the scope of her movement, the number of her ties. By the end of the final novel, as Lenu approaches the close of middle age, we begin to see a bit more definition in other characters, but only because their pressure on Lenu’s experience has worn in grooves and cups, like decades of footsteps on soft stone steps. She knows them by the patterns they make on her, and by her guesses at how those might bespeak pain and appetite like hers.
There is an emblem of all Ferrante’s stories in an early novella, The Days of Abandonment, whose narrator, left by her husband for a younger woman, is trapped inside her apartment by a broken lock and struggles desperately to manage her young children and dog while doubting, to the point of unhinged terror, that she will touch the outside world again. Yet this entrapment comes of securing the only place with a chance at feeling safe for her, which is why she retreated there. It is a matter of a choice among fears, or, more precisely, of trying to keep some sense of choosing while being driven back and forth between fears.
Fear is a great theme of Coates’s: fear of others’ violence, fear of being vulnerable, fear of vulnerability in others that might prove catching — fear as the source and the symptom of isolation. He stays close to the feeling of vulnerability, the fear of those unlike him and those like him, and attentive to the ever-present anxiety that splits his consciousness, separates him from his own immediate experience. That is the double meaning of his title: the essay is a conversation between the world and him; its topic, the pervasive and incorrigible fear that inhabits a vulnerable body infused with the violent myth of race, is what comes between the world and him, blocks him from it. Race is the convenient name — which Coates deliberately avoids — for the effects of this fear, which is carried in structures but expresses itself in the instincts of bodies. He writes, “When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid” — of the police, of street violence, of addiction, of how these might claim the people they most loved, and of the cruelty they might enact themselves to keep it at bay: becoming hard, playing cold, beating children in the hope that the police will not.
Between the World and Me is committed to being a book not written “for” most of the people who will read it. This is not just because of the formal conceit that it is a letter to Coates’s son, but because Coates makes it a principle that he will not interpret your experience for you, or tell you what his experience means for you. As he cautions his son at the end of the book, “Do not struggle for the Dreamers.” The point of black lives cannot be “to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white […] has done to the world.” This would be to sacrifice real, brief life to a campaign against fantasy — a campaign that might out to be a fantasy itself.
Here the contrast between Coates’s new book and its model, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, is most telling. The interesting question is not, as some critics have insisted, whether Coates lives up to Baldwin’s standard, but rather why Coates diverges so sharply from an essay that intersects with his at dozens of points. Baldwin ended with a universalist political call: the meaning of race was the key to the meaning of America, and that made it the key to the human predicament generally. Only America could model universal human freedom and dignity, he insisted, and it could do so only if its white people, caught for now in a frigid and artificial identity, could embrace their black opposites and enter into full humanity. Race was a way of dividing human attributes, allowing white people to deny death and avoid love, while burdening blacks with imagined hyper-sensuality and perennial vulnerability. Baldwin’s vision was not of racial essentialism, but of a system of cultural symbols that divided a country and also fissured internal experience. Because black Americans were the key to overcoming this split, Baldwin wrote, “the Negro […] is the key figure in his country […]. The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks […]. [W]e […] need each other here if we are really to become a nation — […] to achieve our maturity as men and women.”
Coates writes that the fate of America, its meaning for anyone who does not live through what Coates has, is not his job to sort or resolve. His burden, living in a body marked as black by American history, institutions, and ways of seeing, is not to redeem anyone else. It is to survive and love, and help others do the same: to struggle. As “required reading,” in Toni Morrison’s apt phrase, the book has universal significance, which it achieves partly by disowning universal significance. America is his problem; realizing its universalist potential, if that phrase even means anything anymore, is not.
And so this generation’s most urgent book about race in America is the book that declines to speak to “America.” And so, too, Ferrante’s books about narrators who hardly see others, and doubt whether they can even see themselves, have made readers feel so astonishingly seen that they lay special, passionate claim to Ferrante. All that these books lay claim to is the authors’ own intimacy with the most basic experiences: fear, vulnerability, susceptibility to fantasy and its disappointments, unillusioned moments bought with disillusionment, and the incorrigible, ambivalent impulse to connect. What is it in this intimate treatment of disconnection that hails us now?
When Baldwin wrote, in the early 1960s, black people were cast — by allies on the left! — as white America’s other self: mythic repository of its disowned sensuality and aggression, suspected of magical powers, perennially accused of the violence, criminality, and depravity that were just beneath the surface of official white history. This was the picture Baldwin used when he wrote that white Americans must face black Americans to face themselves and become whole.
No one writes like that anymore. No one finds the key to history in a single paradigm of human relationship, takes a dark mirror and says what must change so that we can see each other face to face. That old way of writing was connected with a political picture in which Martin Luther King could redeem America from its original sin of slavery and make it a genuine democracy at last — a conceit that was vital even before his murder made him, after Lincoln, the country’s second secular Christ. If I read Coates correctly, he argues that it is terrible, it is obscene, to burden a people with that role. Allegedly dignifying, it is actually psycho-symbolic insult to material-historical injury: we have no justice, or not enough justice, to offer you, but you can be our redemption. The honor is only the dignity of the sacrificial offering. Coates refuses all of this when he withdraws his story from candidacy for The Meaning of America.
And so the politics — in both these authors — is all in the detail. Much of the detail goes back to thwarted connection, frustrated self-understanding, and the concessions and sacrifices, the misidentifications and outright violence, that these can elicit. Ferrante’s books, for their part, are keenly alert to the ways that class and gender shape their protagonists, impinging on them and making them who they are, implanting experiences, desires, frustrations that feel organic but are, in some senses, foreign and mandatory. The explicit irruptions of politics are fleeting and obscure, even in the later books, when Lenu and Lila are grown women with experience of political organizing and the endless arguments of the 1970s. But the presence of politics is acute, most of all, in My Brilliant Friend, whose child heroines have no words for gender or class but carry them anyway. As a friend put it to me, “You see gender just happening there.” It isn’t a program or a concept, but a force, and a name for many forces, one part gravity, one part phlogiston.
Race is like that in Coates, in his intense concern with what blackness means for a body marked by it. Race happens. It happens in the way a person moves, what he feels before he knows he feels it, how he navigates the safe and unsafe spaces of a city or a conversation, what flips him into rage (a white woman pushing his son aside on an escalator) as fast as seeing. It is this experience that Coates details at the core of his book, and which he refuses to cast as the answer to anyone else’s need for identity or meaning. The essay is also a conduit, an attempt to build a circuit — but not between him and the whole wide world. Between him and himself, his son and his own self, would do.
Both authors, then, are meditating on connection, but in the clear, irreversible recognition that America’s implicit mandate to “only connect” is a useless slogan: an unspecific exhortation, an accidental taunt at those who cannot find the way to do it, a screen against all the ways our history, language, and institutions — who we are, and also where — make connection difficult, dangerous, as frightening as isolation, and riskier too. The work is to pass through the difficulty, to attend to it rather than to a fantasy of unity and clarity on the other side. Along the way, surprising and extraordinary things come alive.
The lifelong bond at the center of the Neapolitan novels is Lenu’s tie to Rafaella Cerullo, or Lila, the “brilliant friend” who provides the first of the four novels its title. As Lenu moves from the girls’ childhood slum to academic and literary success, she mostly experiences her writing as pained and clotted, her thinking as fragile and derivative, her learning as rote and obtuse or patchy and desperate. She feels herself hardly a self at all, but a series of urgent, half-convincing improvisations conducted under almost intolerable pressure — without which she might simply dissolve. In Lila, her brilliant friend, she sees the opposite of all of this: clarity, strength of will, intellectual gifts. Lila learns, writes, designs shoes, eventually programs computers, with a spooky effortlessness that makes it easy to impute magic to her. And so Lenu does, in the novels’ only departure from realism, when a force from within Lila seems to shatter nearby objects on her wedding day — and, in Lenu’s dark-magic imagination, induces miscarriage of an unwanted child in Lila’s first pregnancy. At the heart of Lila’s gifts, as far as Lenu is concerned, is storytelling: in elementary school, she writes a “novel,” The Blue Fairy, which the girls’ teacher dismisses, and Lila then disowns. Elena keeps it, and later claims that it is somehow the source material for her successful first novel, an erotic coming-of-age story written in a rare stream of inspiration.
Readers learn almost nothing of what either of these novels-within-the-novel contain. Ferrante does nothing to spell out what is, on a little reflection, actually kind of hard to imagine: that a fairy story written early in elementary school was the source material for a university student’s sexy bildungsroman. It is as if Ferrante were daring us to call nonsense on Lenu. But we don’t, because the force of the conceit works in its emotional meaning. We become ourselves by wanting other people: not only wanting to have them, but wanting sometimes more urgently to become them, to feel as we imagine they feel, to think or create or whatever else we wish to do as naturally as we imagine they do. We take assignments in being by adopting as our ideals the things other people never were, or failed to become, and then never stop doubting whether what we are is theirs or ours. Obsession — Ferrante is a novelist of obsession — is a starving, often abortive form of self-knowledge that may, for all that, be the only way. So Lila, too, remains opaque, but in the strange way that her darkness seems to Elena to contain the possibility of becoming a writer, an intellectual, a person at all.
A rush of self-disclosure that is unique in the four novels comes when the friends, now perhaps close to 40 and again living close together in the old neighborhood, are shaken by the Irpinia earthquake, which, in historical fact, killed nearly 3,000 people in 1980. Seemingly hysterical, sitting in a car that will not start as other Neapolitans stream by in panic, Lila tries to explain her terror to Lenu:
She cried out that [a passing] car’s boundaries were dissolving, the boundaries of Marcello, too, at the wheel were dissolving, the thing and the person were gushing out of themselves, mixing liquid metal and flesh. […] [S]he wanted me to understand what the dissolution of boundaries meant, and how much it frightened her. […] [F]or her it had always been that way, an object lost its edges and poured into another, into a solution of heterogeneous materials […]. [S]he had always had to struggle to believe that life had firm boundaries, for she had known since she was a child that it was not like that — it was absolutely not like that […]. She muttered that she mustn’t ever be distracted: if she became distracted real things, which, with their violent, painful contortions, terrified her, would gain the upper hand over the unreal ones, which, with their physical and moral solidity, pacified her.
So Lila’s demiurgic, force-of-nature powers turn out to be a quietly feverish anti-nature, a relentless assertion of “the unreal” things: above all, words and stories shored against formless ruin. These “unreal” things falsify and reveal us at the same time. The elements we know to be false give others the means to become themselves, to the point where “real” and “unreal” cease to mean anything, and merge into what is just the world. Through Lenu and Lila, Ferrante peels back layers of this world-making activity — the making of stories that become selves — to lay bare the effort it takes, again and again, and the desire for one another, matched by the fear of one another, that powers it.
It wasn’t until I read Joanna Biggs’s essay, mentioned above, that I realized I’d had my own brilliant friend, who is part — no one is all — of how I knew the feeling of childhood friendship. Tommy killed himself with a rifle when he was 14, two years after his family moved away from where we grew up. For six years before that, we were together for days on end, sometimes with my sister or his four siblings, often by ourselves. The inexhaustible fluidity of his imagination was the medium in which we played: he became a character — a lizard-man, a soldier — and an afternoon and evening pivoted around this new being, which the rest of us had to test ourselves against, explore, understand. He was protean and had the gift of disappearing. He was, like Lila for Lenu, a constant goad to me, a “smart” rule-follower who made me feel that, in reading and writing, I was urgently learning codes, not spinning out something from within. Tommy was about eight when he composed a song while digging potatoes: “What was I said I wanted to be, Even before the day I was born? A hill-hill-billy, a hill-hill-billy.” Like Lenu, I felt beaten and spurred, and wrote a brass-and-laminate answer, which I named for the refrain “West Virginia Free.” It was easy to pick up civic dross and bang it to make it rhyme. But where had he found that idea, the thing he wanted to be before the day he was born? Where could I find that for myself? The memory of this question, which I hadn’t thought about in years, was what Lenu’s friendship with Lila set echoing in me.
And so Elena Ferrante becomes everybody’s Lila, a circuit with a half-realized self. It is one’s own experience that one meets by way of the elusive Lenu. That circuit creates the sense of improbable conjuring in Ferrante’s stories, the almost universal identification, whose form is the opposite of universality: Lenu’s obscure individuality in an opaque and untrustworthy world, refracted through each reader’s sight.
To disagree over the quality of a Ferrante passage is often to run up against what you cannot answer or digest. My mother and I could not see eye to eye on the end of the third Neapolitan novel, when Lenu leaves her two children and dull academic husband for a childhood love, now a charismatic scholar and radical journalist. I found these passages lifeless; they resisted me. She found them as alive as anything in the books. She said something implying that I might not be able to understand them.
Months later, it hit me. My mother left her first husband and their son, under emotional pressure that must have been intolerable. My sister and I grew up knowing this but not understanding it, just aware she could disappear if staying became unbearable, with no way of being sure what that would mean. What I had come up against was not that stereotype of “identity literature,” an unavailable experience of womanhood, but something hard for me to enter into because I had long ago imagined it too thoroughly, and found it — then — too much. The limits of Ferrante’s meaning are not what you do not know, but what you have not yet admitted.
Where is the politics in all this? It begins by confronting people with what they have not yet admitted. The complaints about Coates’s book, sometimes explicitly contrasted with Baldwin, have resembled the objections to Black Lives Matter: particularistic, negative, lacking a unifying vision or program. These complaints, whether about political platform or prose style, are equally inapt.
Anyway, there are reasons no one writes like Baldwin anymore. Language has changed. Baldwin, promising that we could learn to love by facing death, worked in the heroic humanist culture of Erich Fromm and Albert Camus. Coates’s shadowed pictures of ubiquitous power, brightly visible only as it registers in struggling, suffering, and pleasurable bodies, writes in the aftermath of the antihumanist revolt that Michel Foucault exemplified, whose virtue is suspicion, its ethic a careful economy of general refusal and specific affirmation. This is a world not of luminous human personality but of opaque institutions that emit startling violence with stunning/numbing regularity.
The radicalism that suits Coates’s posture is not programmatic, but it is not despairing, either. One of its signatures is the negative utopia, whose demand says, simply, This is intolerable, with its corollary, We must press toward another world. But for the moment, at the start, “we” and “world” are too grand, the kinds of words that collapse a call with their weight. “Black lives matter” is a downbeat phrase, as flat as a motionless civil disobedient’s body in a policeman’s hands, because its affirmation is a steady negation: Not this. No more of this.
It would be naive to say no constructive politics could begin from that kind of call. The gay rights movement did just that, and now its No more of this is constitutional law. These refusals set tasks for more recognizably constructive politics. They work to move the minimum tolerable conditions for shared life. Any country that is forced to absorb them will be changed.
These writers render, at arrestingly high resolution, the distance of our minds from one another, and the gaps and barriers between a person and the world. What unifies their writing is refusal to indulge the wish that language — the language of unity, universality, even sympathetic imagination — can rejoin what living sunders. What motivates it, nonetheless, is the conviction that this sundering is intolerable, the intolerable condition where we must begin, and which we have no good reason to expect to escape. This makes their work praise, protest, and lament, all at once, and the only kind of universal voice for a fragmented and duly suspicious life.
Maybe connect. Connecting, sometimes in terrible conditions, is the precondition of politics. To make connecting less dangerous — less fraught with confused and half-denied identity, less scored with justified fear of one another — is one of any radical politics’ goals. And to do it — to connect by enumerating all that makes connecting difficult, leaving the reader still frightened and baffled, but less alone for understanding it — is to succeed at writing.
Jedediah S. Purdy lives in Carrboro, North Carolina, and teaches law and political thought at Duke. He is the author of five books, most recently After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, which has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. You can follow him on twitter.