Friday, June 7, 2013

Blogging the Caine: Pede Hollist's "Foreign Aid"

I'm having a lot of trouble thinking about Pede Hollist's "Foreign Aid," the second Caine Prize shortlisted story in this roundabout.

Part of that is that I get the impression that I would have been head-over-heels for it at one point in my life. Currently, I'm not quite so. Reading the other posts on it has helped sharpen some of the things I find alternatively interesting and alienating about it; neither, unfortunately, in sufficient force to develop a compulsion to argue for a particular reading.

From Aaron's title, I began thinking about the objects in the story; the (missing) suitcases, the referenced but never represented construction vehicles, the fanny pack. Here was a way, I thought, to talk about how the story uses a human frame to tell a systemic story, represented metonymically through the absent & absented objects. It might be possible to do this; I can't quite formulate it though.

One of the major sticking points for me is in the language. As Beverly Nambozo Nsengiyunva points out, it is a story that is "riddled with similes," and they seemed to me egregious, empty words that impeded the story in a way that was totally unproductive, and which detracted from what I was trying to get out of it. I initially misread Kola Tubosun as suggesting that these might be an incursion of Logan/Balogun's voice into the narrative, which I found incredibly interesting and possibly productive. I thought immediately of Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s discussion of Zora Neale Hurston's use of free indirect discourse in Their Eyes Were Watching God (in his book The Signifying Monkey). As a "third, mediating term," (208) these similes might be doing an interesting work I had completely overlooked. Then I didn't really have any more thoughts and realized I had misunderstood the point being made, entirely of my own fault. Maybe though?

I remain convinced, however tepidly, that the story has a particular relationship between the individual/humanistic and the systemic. Each person continues to seem to me to be more a position than a character; and yet the great bulk of the 10,000 or so words are specifically there to develop one character or another. And it's not that the development is poorly done, or the story is just an exercise in plot at the expense of character; it feels very much like, for all the pushing towards the humanist story that is attempted, the systems inevitably encroach & annihilate. The story, for instance, of Logan/Balogun's sister Ayo's pregnancy immediately transforms from being about relationships between people to one about the relationship between a people and a state. The story of our protagonist, however we might feel about him, becoming an uncle immediately fades from view and is replaced with an implication of political corruption; which itself is slowly revealed not to simply be not just an excuse to moralize about "them," but literally the reason our protagonist has a roof over his head at all.

There were two moments in the story that suggest to me that its point is structural. The first is the consequence of Logan/Balogun's meeting with Ali Sayyar, the politician who impregnated Logan/Balogun's Ayo and is revealed to be his family's benefactor; Logan/Balogun responds to this by deciding, to paraphrase, that the way to smash the state is not to face it head on, but to undermine its foundation: the family. That he fails at this immediately and catastrophically isn't surprising: he expects that simply making transparent the ways in which the family is dependent on the state (as metonymically represented by the corrupt politician) will create sufficient moral uproar to divorce the two. Of course he completely ignores the material conditions and so just breeds a lot of contempt and infighting.

The other moment (and here I reveal myself a boring pedant for absolutely sure, as though that weren't clear enough already) is the conversation at the party between Logan/Balogun and the unnamed schoolteacher who argues for a redistribution of wealth in the United States. More than the content, though, its how this conversation takes place: the teaher is characterized as surly and a little drunk, Logan/Balogun is getting pissed off but never quite snaps, and we are told that the conversation must take place in short bursts interrupted by people leaving and Logan/Balogun feeling socially obligated to leave and give them a small parting gift (of cash) throughout. It's the perfect scene for representing the immutable structural encroachment on the personal; a situation in which the philanthropic humanitarianism of the story (cf the title) should be the focus is completely derailed, and not even by an individalist critique of that humanitarianism, but by a critique of the structural problems that it occludes altogether.

That's about all I can manage on the story at this point; a bunch of somewhat related threads of thought that don't really lead anywhere.