Friday, May 05, 2006

A Ship Made of Paper by Scott Spencer: Book Review

There's a moment fairly late in the book, when events and characters come to an unexpected, and shocking denouement—I remember this passage clearly, I was reading it on the metro, and I gasped out loud (startling the other metro riders). Such are the problems of reading characters that leap out of the pages with such intensity and power that the world around you disappears.

In a small, mostly white town of Leyden, New York, Daniel Emerson—who is himself involved in a serious relationship—is fiercely in love with another woman—a married, black woman named Iris Davenport. After a series of richly detailed, exquisitely written chapters, the two eventually have an affair whose consequences fracture both their lives. There’s nothing really special about this story when laid out in this way, but I am reluctant to say much more. So much of the joy in reading this book, is in discovering each new twist, and waiting for the inevitable which arrives in startling, unpreditable waves.

Deftly and elegantly, Spencer unpacks the racial and sexual implications of the relationship between Daniel and Iris in deliciously ambiguous ways. There’s a beautiful passage early on that describes Daniel’s torture when he imagines telling Iris that he moved back to Leyden from New York City because he has developed a fear of black people (due to being beaten up by a few). Similarly, Daniel’s girlfriend (practically wife), Kate Ellis's privilege and often brash intolerance makes for some palpably uncomfortable racially-tinted moments.

There’s also Hampton, Iris’s husband—a highly successful investment banker—a man whose racial pride and self-regard is so potent, so over-powering that little else matters when he enters the scene. Here’s a passage that describes Hampton’s reaction to a letter in which there’s an implied slight made against his wife, Iris, who has been taking years to finish up her doctoral studies.

Yet. His heart feels queer, as if it is suddenly circulating blood that is a little oily and a little cold. Hampton is vulnerable to the suggestion that Iris might not be in possession of a first-class mind. There is a vagueness to her, a lack of precision. Sometimes, he thinks this is a result of her profoundly feminine nature, yet in his line of work he meets dozens of women whose minds are scientific, logical, calculating, aggressive. Iris’s is not. Both she and Hampton have been explaining her long career in graduate school to themselves and to the world at large as somehow a result of an excess of intellectual curiosity, an unwillingness to be pigeon-holed, and the demands of motherhood, and Hampton is perfectly willing to stay within the confines of this official explanation. What he is not willing to say, except to himself…[is that..] because she is simply too confused to complete her work; that, in other words, the machinery of her mind is not quite up to the task.

In a lot of ways, Ship Made of Paper manages to do what movies like Crash only make half-baked attempts at—relate racial ambiguities without resorting to high-minded, yet cheap messaging and condescension. Instead, it offers up it's racially potent world in startlingly imaginative and sensitive ways.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home