Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Blogging the Caine: Chinelo Okparanta's "America"

"America" is a really good story.

I could talk about that, I guess. I've certainly had enough training to write a couple thousand words, pulling exemplary quotes and talking about the structure. If this was a different context I could talk about its discursive positioning, stuff like that. Maybe even emotional content or something. I don't really know.

Before I finish this thought -- because, if you can't tell already, this thought is very much an ending thought, and this very much an excuse of a post -- though, there's one thing that I think the story does really wrong. By which I mean that it is far and away my favorite thing about the story, the one thing that gets under my skin; the fact that, for a moment at least, it seems that the story suddenly reveals itself to have been entirely a setup for a retelling of the story of Jack and the Beanstalk.

When Okparanta writes,
A person wishes for something so long that when it finally happens, she should be nothing but grateful. What sympathy can we have for someone who, after wanting something so badly for three long years, realizes, almost as soon as she’s gotten it, that perhaps she’s been wrong in wanting it all that time?
And then launches into the retelling, I was very excited. And when this diversion ends with,
And I think that even when all the gold is gone, there will always be the hens to produce more gold. But what happens when all the hens are gone, when they have either run away or have been destroyed? Then what?
I was still pretty excited. Mostly because I have no idea what the hell this moral is intended to convey, honestly. Unlike "The Whispering Trees," or even "Miracles," where the didacticism at the end forced me to basically ignore the awkwardly inserted message to keep the story as something productive and interesting rather than just illustrative, this is a moral that wraps back in on itself through it's confusion and doesn't really provide closure, unless I'm just not particularly capable of grasping it.

Maybe part of that has to do with the particular story being told; I actually kind of have no idea what the moral of Jack and the Beanstalk is actually supposed to be. I hadn't ever really thought of that before; I know it, I grew up with it, but I couldn't tell you with any honesty that I ever learned anything from it, or even knew what it was I was supposed to learn. It almost seems like an anti-Odyssey, where cunning is valued at almost nothing against persistent naiveté, which leads to a lot of peril that doesn't really get rewarded, but neither is it punished.

That aside: there's something really interesting about taking this very straightforward, well written story, and derailing it into this weird retelling of a folk tale with no real discernible spin and to no concrete didactic or discursive end.

But then, the story itself is just so good, so much a story, that I can't really do much with it. I'd like for it to win, I guess.