Field Notes: The Possessed, Yes Yes Y’all

THE POSSESSED: ADVENTURES WITH RUSSIAN BOOKS AND THE PEOPLE WHO READ THEM

SYNOPSIS: Elif Batuman’s 2010 non-fiction account of her experience with all things Russian: the novels, the language, the culture, the territory, and the fanatics who obsess over any or all of the above.

CONDITION: Paperback original, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Bought new from Powell’s.

THOUGHTS: The first time Batuman really grabbed my attention in this, her debut book, was nearly a third of the way in. On page 94, she describes a theory of the novel she came up while writing her dissertation: “The novel form is ‘about’ the protagonist’s struggle to transform his arbitrary, fragmented, given experience into a narrative as meaningful as his favourite books.”

What a great idea. And that’s kind of how I read The Possessed, too—as a memoir-of-sorts that pulls both energy and inspiration from the Russian classics surrounding her. In this case the protagonist is Elif herself, who, like all of us, also has nothing but her own “arbitrary, fragmented, given” experience to work with.

Actually, that’s a pretty good question: how much of non-fiction as a whole could also fit into Batuman’s definition of the novel?

For whatever reason, though, the parts of The Possessed I responded to the most were those that hewed pretty closely to straight-ahead literary studies. Batuman’s intelligence and passion completely animate these nutshell biographies; whether it’s the battle over Tolstoy’s will, Isaac Babel’s pleading with Stalin’s secret police to let him finish his work, or Dostoevsky’s perplexing late novel Demons, the prose glides.

It’s those sections that lean too heavily on Batuman’s own life that seem more disposable. In particular, the three-part “Summer in Samarkand”, which details the summer she spent as a grad student in small-town Uzbekistan, is only peripherally related to Russia at all. The inclusion of this long section makes sense—it is part of Batuman’s “given” experience, after all, and it’s so very close to Russia—but I kept finding myself daydreaming about the chapter she could’ve instead written about Gogol, or finally explaining what all the fuss about Pushkin is.

Or maybe I was just put off the memoir stuff right from the introduction, where Batuman makes a show of comparing creative writing courses to lit theory, and explains why she chose the latter—only to then discover that it wasn’t as classy as she thought it’d be! This section is funny, I suppose, but it’s a straw man you can smell from a mile away.

Despite all this, I have a sneaking feeling that I’ll have this book on the brain for quite a long time. Batuman has written some fine journalism as well—at one point she casually mentions her very first piece was published in The New Yorker, the jerk—and she emerges from the book as an elegant, thoughtful narrator.

My knowledge of the great Russians is not much, and most of what I do know stems from a course I took as an undergraduate, taught by an excellent professor. When Batuman really gets rolling, I felt like I was back in that 5th-floor classroom, the sharp morning light hitting us students square in the eyes, and getting excited all over again to watch a rickety slideshow about the Neva River.

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YES YES Y’ALL:  THE EXPERIENCE MUSIC PROJECT’S ORAL HISTORY OF HIP-HOP’S FIRST DECADE

SYNOPSIS: A lavishly illustrated oral history from 2002, curated by Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn, recapping the very beginnings of hip-hop in New York City, from the early ’70s to the early ’80s, as told by dozens of the MCs, DJs, graffiti artists, and b-boys who were there.

CONDITION: Paperback, Da Capo Press. A lightly used leftover from ~2006.

THOUGHTS: So there’s this bootleg I have. It’s a 20-minute clip of a show the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff did live at Union Square, back in 1986. (A still-shorter clip of this is included on their album He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper.) The whole bootleg is pretty great. At one point, though, the Fresh Prince asks the crowd to give it up for the MCs he listened to growing up, “Grandmaster Caz and Melle Mel.”

These names meant nothing to me. Like most people, the earliest hip-hop artists I could think of were people like Rakim, Run-D.M.C., and Fresh Prince himself—guys who hit the charts in the mid-’80s. I knew the music itself predated this, but not by how much, or to what degree.

If you’re at all curious about the entire decade that preceded this second wave of hip-hop artists, Yes Yes Y’all is as great a primer as you could ask for. It’s an oral history that features quotes from, as far as I can tell, all of the major players, from the graffiti artists to club promoters to the dozens of teenaged MCs and DJs who made it all up as they went along. There are at least a hundred photos and reproduced show flyers included. One of the editors is Charlie Ahearn, whose 1982 film Wild Style is another seminal look at this fledgling culture.

The links between the nascent form and the commercial behemoth we now know are many, and not even all that buried. Hip-hop grew out of gang warfare and territoriality, with which it has since kept a tidal relationship, waxing and waning over the years. And the values of sex, virtuosity, and a general sense of triumph were there right at the beginning, in nearly every rhyme.

One thing that wasn’t originally in the mix was money. Original DJs like Kool Herc (owner of the first massive sound system), Afrika Bambaataa (a proto-Madlib, who found beats in the weirdest of records), and Grandmaster Flash (who figured out how to stretch the “break” in R&B and disco tracks out for minutes at a time) made their money from live parties, not records. Not coincidentally, it wasn’t any of the established groups who made the first hit record, 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight”—none of them could see the potential in crossing over to radio. They just wanted to rock the house, as it were.

One curious absence I noticed was any significant discussion about the artists’ relation to the police. Obviously part of the reason hip-hop was able to flourish is because the law was largely absent from these poor neighbourhoods, but aside from a few brief mentions of stabbings in clubs or noise complaints, the general economic and racial tensions are never really addressed. Even during the blackout of 1977, where seemingly every store in the Bronx was looted—and which some believe allowed the number of DJ crews to double overnight—nobody talks about getting arrested, or even reprimanded by the shop owners afterwards.

Contrast that with, say, the video for early hip-hop hit “The Message,” which ends with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five getting arrested for no reason. I have no idea what to make of this.

It can be tricky (no pun intended) to keep all of the nearly identical group names straight. And once the MCs became the focal point of the shows, they started switching around from group to group, too, compounding the reader’s mental flowchart. But Yes Yes Y’all is a thrilling, beautiful book to flip through, or to gobble up all at once. It’s smart, and thorough, and gives essential context to the music we hear today—plus you’ll be able to figure out that line about the Cold Crush in “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).”

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