Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Review: A World of Contradictions

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Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor has a premise that just seems too entertaining to pass up. 

It’s 1985, and fifteen-year-old Benji Cooper spends most of his year as one of the few black students at an Upper East Side prep school, attending bar mitzvahs and the roller-disco. But during the summer months, he and his brother Reggie spend three glorious months of freedom in Sag Harbor, a nook of Long Island where affluential African-Americans have built their own beach community.
Contrasts define the foundation of this novel, summed up in an early statement by Benji:

“According to the world, we were the definition of paradox: black boys with beach houses.” 

Benji’s life seems to be full of contradicting elements. Sag Harbor versus Manhattan; white versus black; childhood versus adulthood; social acceptance versus…well, the guilty pleasures that Benji can’t seem to let go. Benji is a conflicted character but has decided that this summer is going to be different, because everything will fall into place and go according to plan.
Colson Whitehead is one of those authors that reviewers can’t wait to read, because his style of language fosters such a unique brand of novel. He is incredibly descriptive, often using pop culture references to liken a certain mood or tone (ie: “We were a Cosby family, good on paper”). His writing is dappled with declarative statements that explain a much bigger phenomenon, like, “Binoculars: a device that facilitates looking down on people.” His vantage point covers past, present, and future, as he gives the reader just a bit more of the picture by adding retrospective comments about how things ended up after the summer of ’85. 
Each chapter of Sag Harbor is almost like its own, self-contained story that chronicles one aspect of Benji’s summer lifestyle — a feature that gives the reader an intimate portrait of Benji and the people around him. For me, the lack of a distinct plot caused the novel to drag at parts to where my only motivation to keep reading was curiosity at what Whitehead would say next, but it is definitely worth it to keep going. 
Sag Harbor is a witty and affectionate coming-of-age novel about a kid that is having a hard time figuring out where he fits in. It is both hilarious and heart-breaking as Whitehead follows the teenage psyche in the unique setting he created. This book is by no means theme-less, as he carefully addresses the topics of family, friendship, race, and adolescence. I suggest reading this book in as large of chunks as possible, so you can really settle into the groove of Whitehead’s writing and enjoy it.
Colson Whitehead’s other books have been finalists for the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and have won numerous other awards.  Visit his website.

2 comments:

Salvatore said…

Do the simple either/or's – the straightforward dichotomies – reduce this novel at all?

Otherwise it sounds kind of lyrical.

Kari said…

Not at all, and they are not presented as straightforward in the novel as I summarized them in my review.

I would in fact say that the dichotomies are the most interesting part of the book, because the way he illustrates the contrasts are so entertaining to read.