The folks at the LitBlog Co-Op are discussing the “might have beens” after having announced their Read This selection last week. Yesterday, Matt Cheney posted on Our Napoleon in Rags by Kirby Gann. I found this interesting because for once they are discussing a book I have actually read (You can find my review of Napoleon in Rags here). In fact, Matt and I had similar reactions:
What makes Napoleon in Rags difficult to judge is deciding what the author was trying to accomplish. Was Gann trying to create a “scathing commentary on contemporary America” as the book’s back flap claims? What about the “hot button issues of mental illness, homosexuality, police violence, and racism?” To be honest, I don’t think Gann has achieved a particularly strong social commentary or critique of contemporary America. There isn’t a great deal of insight into the problems of urban blight or mental illness here.
No, I think what Gann was getting at was the interesting characters that make up this part of urban America. It seems to me that Gann is fascinated by the type of people who end up trapped in places like Old Towne and how they fight to bring meaning to their lives. The strength of Napoleon in Rags is its evocation of a community that shares little more than broken dreams and a bar where they can share them.
Once I figured out what the book actually was, and stopped measuring it against my expectations, I began to truly enjoy it. It is not so much a novel about one character — Haycraft is important, yes, but so are many other characters — as it is a novel about a milieu, and, we discover at the end, a novel about memory and impermanence. It is not nearly as comic as I originally expected it to be, though there are funny moments. It is more of an elegy than a ballad, more sketchbook than mural. It is not a grand and rollicking satire of America or Capitalism or Other Important Things, nor is it, as the publisher’s description ludicrously goes on to say, about “the hot button issues of mental illness, homosexuality, police violence, and racism”. Aside from the unfortunate linking of homosexuality to mental illness, police violence, and racism, this description is entirely inaccurate because while those “issues” are present in the book, they are there not to be commented on or parodied or have the imbrications of their ideoscapes problematized — they are there, instead, because the book portrays particular people in a particular place; it is a portrait of ways of living and dying, a portrait of how people pull joy and even moments of triumph from the general struggle of getting through each day.
LBC is planning a week long discussion of the book starting October 10. Should be an interesting discussion.