Book Review

Native Son by Richard Wright

surprisingly good protest novel; thoughts on UK election result

Content warning: sexualised violence (mentioned when describing plot of the novel)

Regardless of what the date displayed above/below/wherever on this post is, I’m typing this blog on Friday 13th December, 2019, the day the UK elected a wildly right wing Tory government.

The UK electorate is like a terrible friend: I know that, whatever happens, they will almost certainly do the worst thing possible and display, again, their utterly contemptible opinions and personality in a disgracefully public manner, but every time they have the chance to make themselves heard, even though I’m not surprised, I still feel fucking disappointed. Because, as much as I wish it weren’t true, by virtue of where the arbitrary metrics of existence happened to spew out the beginning of my confused and confusing existence, I am tarred with their brush.

Obviously, almost everyone I know voted Labour (except for a few people who can afford private healthcare and choose to not care that tens of millions of their countryfolk cannot), but that doesn’t make me feel any less secure in the clear identity of the UK.

The UK is a racist fucking hellhole.

The majority of the country is comprised of morons and/or arseholes: there is massive poverty, huge inequality, the health service is collapsing and the fucking popular newspapers push a narrative that stands up to ZERO FUCKING SCRUTINY that “blames” all this on “immigration”, rather than on the obscene tax loopholes and the lack of meaningful change following the massive recession a decade ago.

As my lover pointed out to me as the results rolled in, for this to have happened, there are people whose lives have been terribly impacted by Tory policy who have voted for them.

The racism, the insularity, the self-important colonialist bullshit, that is the driver, that is what people prefer to the wellbeing of themselves and everyone else they fucking know.

Morons. Morons and fucking arseholes.

///

Richard Wright’s Native Son is a 1940 American classic, and a book I’ve read about a few times before, most recently in James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son.

In Baldwin’s essay (written a couple of decades after Wright’s novel), he almost dismisses it entirely, writing about its status as a protest novel preventing it from being “true art”.

Baldwin discusses how the novel’s combination of hyperviolence and preachiness makes for a cloying readerly experience, and though I understand the validity of that perspective in the midst of the (on paper) most successful decade for the advancement of civil rights, Native Son has aged surprisingly well.

This is, perhaps, less a testament to the book on its own terms that it is a comment on the success it has found as an influential cultural object: Baldwin writes about Wright’s failure with this text as a novelist (and so too does a bizarrely (offensively?) included afterword in this battered 1961 edition), but I’m not certain that’s fair. Let’s look at it in more detail, as I try and block out the reality of my own native country’s disgraceful fucking accelerated self-destruction.

The protagonist of Native Son is Bigger Thomas, a twenty year old petty criminal living in squalor in 1930s Chicago. He lives in a one-room, rat-infested apartment with his mother and two younger siblings, and the novel opens with him being offered a job as a chauffeur for a rich white man.

Bigger doesn’t want the job, and he goes out and tries to persuade his similarly young, unemployed, friends to help him rob a newsagent instead, but this plan fizzles out. He accepts the job, and then the first night he works for the white family – who turn out to be (through a complex series of holding companies) the slum landlords of the very building his family lives in – things escalate.

The rich white family’s student daughter is a communist, and Bigger drives her out to meet her communist boyfriend. The lovers get smashed on cheap booze in the back of the limo, fool around a bit and the lad gets dropped off at a tram stop, so he can go party with some other communist buddies. Bigger drives the woman home, but she’s too plastered to walk up her own front steps, so Bigger picks her up and carries her to her bedroom. He feels a flicker of sexual desire but just as he’s about to – and he probably was about to – act on it, the rich, white, mother, who is blind, enters the room. Bigger panics, knowing the consequences of a poor, black, man being found in the bedroom of a wasted, young, rich, white woman at three in the morning, so – terrified of being caught – when he hears the daughter starting to wake up, he grabs her pillow and smothers her to a silent death while the blind mother smells the booze on her daughter’s body and disapprovingly leaves.

Bigger panics again, and takes the dead body down to the family’s furnace and chops her up and burns her body to cover his tracks. The next day, journalists descend on the house and soon the charred human remains are found in the furnace, so Bigger runs away into the Chicago night, finds his girlfriend and confesses. He regrets this confession, so then murders his girlfriend, runs away some more but is then caught. He is tried and executed. That is the novel.

Maybe I shouldn’t have explained the plot in so much detail, but it is here that the novel tends to receive most of its disapproval. The violence is sudden and bloody, but it’s the kind of novelistic violence that feels unpleasantly reminiscent of eighties and nineties lad novelists like Bret Easton Ellis and Martin Amis.

The violence, yes, is jarring and unpleasant, but it is a device that became pretty standard in the literature and cinema of that century, and obviously persists now.

The final third of Native Son is largely interactions (and courtroom monologues) between Bigger and the old man lawyer that the local Communists hire for him. These tend to function as long-form essays on race in America, but essayistic digressions about politics is, now, a staple of popular novels, so it seems churlish to also chastise Wright for this. It’s not really a surprise or a massive disappointment [nowadays] when a novel slides into essay, especially if the subject matter is treated thoughtfully, which it here is.

Novels aren’t apolitical things, and definitely weren’t considered so in the 19th century. It was the bourgeois conceit of the modernist novel that first gave us the idea that novels must exist outside of “reality”, as a reflection of, not a comment on, the world.

If something is “apolitical”, it is inherently supportive of the status quo. And, of course, most art of most disciplines is NOT seeking to be radical, but Native Son was, so the fact that it doesn’t pretend the opposite is a positive, not a negative.

Baldwin disapproved of Native Son because its agenda is too obvious, too forthright. But why shouldn’t it have been?

The USA of 1940 was not a hopeful place for a young black intellectual like Wright: he writes about a Chicago he had seen, he writes about a racism and a culture he had experienced.

Wright was angry, of course he was, but he was also educated and articulate. With his murderous, violent, cornered-and-trapped-from-birth protagonist, he is able to express and (in fiction) enact that anger, and in the lawyer of the final section, he is able to express an erudition and analysis based on lived experience.

///

In some ways, yes, Native Son is a disjointed novel, but it’s a debut novel and it’s both chilling and affecting and thought-provoking. The problems of slum landlords and inequality and racism and access to healthcare and education have not gone away, and my own country has today decided to ramp up those problems.

Wright’s anger and his need “to protest” in a novel are justified and understandable, and far from being a failure in literary terms, this reads as a glorious triumph.

Native Son is an exciting and intriguing novel: the reader feels a confused sympathy with Bigger, despite his inherently unforgivable actions. It is the power of Wright’s writing that allows us to see the humanity and the fallibility of someone who murders, twice, cold-bloodedly, without expecting or cajoling us into forgiveness. This is not a novel that expects us to “root for” the murderer, it instead asks us to see a man as more than just one thing.

Wright seeks to explain, without justifying, societal violence. He explores why poverty leads to criminality and why assertions of physical strength (of which murder is a heavy example) become markers of selfhood in an oppressed people.

It’s far from an impulsive, lazy, or misguided novel.

It’s evocative of place and time, it contains some pertinent and moving speeches/essays about oppression and it’s written with a lot more skill than James Baldwin had led me to expect.

It’s not an easy read, due to its subject matter, but I think in terms of its influence and on its own terms as a novel, it’s something that anyone with a keen interest in writing, particularly writing about race, should really engage with.

Well worth a look. Unlike fucking England.

1 comment on “Native Son by Richard Wright

  1. Pingback: New Model Island by Alex Niven – Triumph Of The Now

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