Ferguson Sowell is a man on a mission to transcend himself. In
his guise as DJ Darky, he's looking to lay down the perfect beat, "the
confluence of melody and groove that transcends mood and time." But his
quest is motivated as much by a need to obliterate sound as to create it. DJ
Darky has a phonographic memory. "I remember everything I've ever heard. Every
dropped nickel, raindrop drip-drop, sneaker squeak, and sheep bleat," he
tells us. "It's like my entire life is a song I can't get out of my head."
And so he painstakingly composes a two-minute-and-forty-seven-second piece, a
song to pause sound and broadcast his individuality, made up out of "Brando's
creaking leather jacket in The Wild One, a shopping cart tumbling down
the concrete banks of the L.A. River, Mothers of Invention, a stone skimming
across Diamond Lake, the flutter of Paul Newman's eyelashes amplified ten
" And so on.
All he needs now is someone to ratify it, approve it by playing over it, and the only one who will do is an unknown, avant-garde jazz musician named Charles Stone, a.k.a. the Schwa, because "his sound, like the indeterminate vowel, is unstressed, upside-down, and backward." The Schwa hasn't been seen in decades, and DJ Darky's quest takes him into a conspiratorial labyrinth when a porn tape leads him to Berlin, a Stasi officer, and a bar called the Slumberland, where American black men are draped with blond Germanic women. While waiting for the Schwa to pass through the bar, DJ Darky takes a job programming the Slumberland's jukebox with "Goddamn, get off your ass and jam' eclecticism".
DJ Darky's art, though, is not confined to arcane musical subcultures. He views his creative output as intensely politicalor rather post-political. Blackness is passè, he informs us at the beginning. The American black man (and he only discusses black men, not women) is no longer an object of violent envy, lust, and denigration, merely a historical actor like any other. DJ Darky wants to commemorate his freedom from symbolic entrapment with the radical sampling of his piece. But he's haunted by an eccentric black man who wants to rebuild the Berlin Wall and return to the days of racial stratification. He frequents the Slumberland wearing a sign that says, "HOW CAN WE READ THE WRITING ON THE WALL, IF THERE IS NO WALL." Anyone who doesn't contribute a brick to his effort to rebuild the wall gets a grimy finger stuck in his drink. As the novel progresses, DJ Darky zeroes in on the Schwa. The question that remains is whether the music they'll make together will erase or reinscribe blackness in its essentialized form.
Beatty's own style is Ishmael Reed laid down on a track of Thomas Pynchon. From the moment that DJ Darky steps out of his tanning bed and onto the streets of Berlin (tanning being the black person's prerogative in a post-racial society), he commences a sardonic scat about everything in sightthe myth of the exclusivity of Negro expression, the relationship between slavery and jazz improvisation, the emperor penguins in the Berlin zoo. He is restless and unstoppable, a jukebox for cultural commentary with an edge. But it doesn't always work: "Thirty more seconds of her impeccable drum work caused my ego to slide off an inverted ratamacue in the obstinate voice as if it were a wet, slippery, moss-covered river rock in an Appalachian class-five rapid. Barely able to keep my head above water, I gave myself up to the current." Passages like this make it impossible for the reader to give herself up to the current of Beatty's language. He's trying far too hard.
Beatty is clearly not aiming for realism, though, and most of the time his brash, hopped-up riffs are electric. DJ Darky finally finds the Schwa and witnesses his first live performance in several decades: "The Schwa ruffled the pages of the book over his pant seam, and the resulting sound rivaled that of the best Max Roach brushwork. I nearly fainted. He lifted the book to his mouth and played chapter seven like a diatonic harmonica; blowing and drawing on the pages like leaves of grass in the hands of Pan. Who knew a Signet paperback was in the key of D?" And what book did the Schwa play? The Sound and the Fury, of course.
If you prefer fleshed-out, psychologically rich characters and a gratifying plot, this is not the book for you. Slumberland is, rather, a book of ideas in fictional form. It is intensely thought-provoking and never has time to be dull as it races through itself. It makes you work to wrap your mind around racial politics in post-unification Berlin and the relationship between race and aesthetic form. And it ends on a note that even DJ Darky, with his phonographic memory, could not have anticipated.
This review was originally published in July 2008, and has been updated for the August 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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