Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Review of Slumberland by Paul Beatty (Oneworld, 2008)

Ferguson Sowell is a LA DJ in search of a perfect beat. He thinks he’s found it, stitched together from an eclectic set of sound samples and music, but it’ll only be perfect if the Schwa – an elusive jazz genius accompanies it. The Schwa, however, has disappeared leaving only a handful of recordings. Sowell mysteriously receives a couple of clues which leads him to believe his potential muse might be in West Berlin and manages to wrangle a job as a ‘jukebox sommelier’, charged with creating a perfect set of tunes for a Berlin bar, Slumberland. The bar is a place where German women pick up black men and Sowell joins their ranks, sleeping with a succession of women between working in the bar and DJ-ing around the city. Being black in white city, one with a potent Nazi past but also a vibrant cosmopolitanism at the time when the Berlin Wall falls is unsettling and invigorating. There’s little sign of the Schwa, however.

In Slumberland Paul Beatty tells the story of a musically inventive DJ who is obsessed with sounds, beats, riffs, and music, who travels to Berlin to search for an elusive, virtuoso jazzman. The telling somewhat mimics the sensibilities of the lead character, with Beatty creating verbal riffs, spurts of free-form, scatting prose, and a densely multi-layered narrative. Set in pre- and post-fall of the Berlin Wall the tale is a rumination on music, race, sex and culture, as experienced and considered by the lead character, perhaps one of the most reflexive people on the planet, spending half the time riffing on his own inner-voice. At times shocking and bombastic, often clever and knowing with some interesting observations, the story also has a dark humour running throughout. Some of the passages were a joy to read. At the same time, while enjoyable, ultimately the story doesn’t really seem to go anywhere – there’s no epiphany or sense of closure beyond Sowell fulfilling his ambition. If you like your fiction like a DJ mix of freeform jazz, then you’ll probably enjoy this literary equivalent.

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