If the Iliad were brand-new — if it were one of this summer’s beach-reading blockbusters — it wouldn’t be a swashbuckling saga of siege, slave girls, and slaughter. That stuff might be in there, sure, but just as adornments to the main bit, which would be Homer yakking about how it feels to be Ionian. And a poet. And blind. He would speculate about his dad. (Was he abusive? A prisoner of war?) He would mope about growing up in Chios, the silken tang of olive oil. He would skewer scholars who say he never existed. Homer would shriek I did! in italics, proffering some anecdote about puking or shoplifting to prove it. His book would be all about him.
Because that’s how it is now. Books are less about what folks do than what folks are. Not even who but what. Whether it’s a meditation on autism by an autistic (Kamran Nazeer’s Send in the Idiots), a history of Untouchables by an Untouchable (Narendra Jadhav’s Untouchables), a memoir by a female who spent eighteen months pretending to be male, not for kicks but to “infiltrate” (Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man), or novels whose narrators keep reminding you, in evidential slang or dialect, I’m adopted or I’m insane or I’m London’s best Ugandan-Indian private eye or I’m white in Africa or even I’m someone’s pet tortoise (Dana Reinhardt’s A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life, Clare Allan’s Poppy Shakespeare, Patrick Neate’s City of Tiny Lights, Tony D’Souza’s Whiteman, Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Timothy) — the gist is always, “Look at me because … I’m me.”
Not that it can’t be fun, but it says something about us that we’ll look even if these authors and their characters fall overboard or never tunnel out of prison camps. When and why did the open-and-shut matter of identity unseat adventure? Are we that remote from each other these days, that balkanized, paranoid, or pathologically shy?
You could say we’re just more curious. Or too overstimulated by real life for giant white whales. Yet under the slick, smooth, seeming passivity of today’s look-at-me books lies a subtle aggression, in that the identities they ply prick the privileged and the plain-living. Thus most readers emerge feeling guilt-racked or dull. Damn my lucky ancestors, millions seethe. I could’ve been an author!
But overlook the thumping, one-note, navel-gazing element in these books — accept it as an inescapable sign of the times the way medieval Europeans accepted leprosy — and, since you must be bashed over the head with identity, choose your bashers well. City of Tiny Lights is hilarious. In a whirl of mixed metaphors meant to evoke a crowded new England whose castles are owned by “voracious Japanese,” its narrator’s ex-mujahideen status (“Nobody can be as invisible as a Paki”) lets him get away with joshing about jihad and oozing casual, confident racisms — noting of a pouty black hooker: “You could have thrown her at a window and that mouth would’ve stuck fast.”
Transgressive observations — a floor-toilet has “logs of shit floating in it, the flies … clinging to the shit like black men on lifeboats” — also spring from the lips of an American aid worker whose African neighbors call him “whiteman” and accuse his kind of inventing AIDS in Peace Corps alum D’Souza’s Whiteman, a self-conscious venture into a bloody heart-of-darkness civil war that makes its narrator feel “alive and important for the first time.”
Reinhardt wields deft teenspeak in her assuredly funny debut about a high-schooler whose adoptee status “is this one thing that defines me, but there isn’t a club for it and I can’t tattoo it on my shoulder blade or on my ankle or the small of my back.” Allan, also a first-timer, also immerses herself dazzlingly in the alternate universe of her narrator: a mental hospital whose inmates — “dribblers” — bear nicknames based on their symptoms: Manic Polyanna, Verna the Vomit, Sue the Slasher, evoked in you-are-there idiom.
And Klinkenborg writes in the tour-de-force voice of an 18th-century tortoise “stolen from myself,” made a “slave” by men with walled gardens. One of this year’s marvels, Timothy‘s epic narration flings the notion of identity beyond the bounds of species, outside the human realm of “great soft tottering beasts. … That mass of body and brainpan to heat and cool with their internal fires. No tegument, no pelt to help them. … Uneconomic creatures.”
Born with cerebral palsy, Ruben Gallego was abandoned to a Soviet orphanage by his high-ranking Spanish communist family. In institutions too poor for wheelchairs, Gallego grew up crawling down corridors, told he wasn’t worth teaching. “I’m a retard,” he declares in his searing memoir White on Black, the story of a soul who wants so badly to be a boy-who-can-stand rather than a boy-who-cannot-stand that this longing “bubbles up spontaneously, from deep in my animal core” and sometimes gives him “a very strong urge to pick up a sharp knife in my right hand and shove the blade” into a teacher. “Imagine,” he urges, “a paralyzed little person.”
If you’re inclined to make an academic discipline out of Hello-my-name-is, Jadhav packs facts and feelings into his history of India’s lowest caste. Activists in a mid-20th-century Untouchable-liberation movement, the author’s parents became Buddhists to both flee and reject the Hindu religion that barred them not only from attaining education and prestige but also from entering the temples of their own gods. It’s a long-overdue account, though Jadhav sometimes trips over his struggle to deliver it in three different voices.
Educational and true too, if a tad dry in the telling, is Brian McGinty’s The Oatman Massacre, about a thirteen-year-old Mormon girl captured by Native Americans who slaughtered her pioneer parents. Traded to another tribe with whom she dwelt for five years, Olive Oatman became a celebrity after her 1856 rescue. Tribal chin-tattoos and rumors of a Mojave husband fueled her identity crisis in an age when mixing was considered suspect, not exotic.
Chronic fatigue syndrome transformed busy mom Dorothy Wall into a bedridden invalid overnight. Encounters with the Invisible charts her transit movingly: “For someone who has had a lifelong antipathy to acknowledging or talking about weakness, ‘coming out’ as a seriously ill person has been a process laden with ambivalence,” writes Wall, whose friends and family had to acquaint themselves with a brand-new prone version of her. Riding a wave of new books about autism, Nazeer’s Send in the Idiots introduces his tantrum-throwing, puppet-wielding, computer-programming, political-speechwriting, suicidal ex-classmates via compassionate anecdotes, with occasional jabs at Israel and George W. Bush.
Science writer Deborah Rudacille — born female, still female, intrigued by a friend’s surgery — interviewed transgendered scholars and activists about their multifaceted senses of self. “I have learned from transmen,” she notes in The Riddle of Gender, “just how painful and shocking it is suddenly to be perceived as a threatening figure, purely by virtue of one’s maleness.” Where Rudacille is evenhanded, Norah Vincent undertook Self-Made Man with a Hummer’s subtlety. Her stint as stubbly, necktied “Ned” revealed maleness as a — guess what — “hateful” and “degraded” “straitjacket” seamed with rage, control-freakishness, and lies about penis size. A hard man is good to find? Nooo, they’re “stiff,” “wooden,” “blocked,” and “ossified” while sobbing inside. Men need “healing,” i.e. tenderizing, vulnerablizing, to be made more girlish and pastel. Only this can save them, Vincent warns, though it will be “like bulldozers learning the ballet.”
Surveying “how individuality became the new conformity,” poking philosophical fun at hipsters, protesters, Canadian Idol hopefuls, and other “pseudo-individuals” sadly deluded into believing they’re unique, Hal Niedzviecki’s Hello I’m Special oozes agenda too, but at least he lets you laugh before he plunges into despair. Slashing a corporate, pop-culture-driven “system,” invoking Foucault, Niedzviecki fails — on purpose? — to accurately nail a self-esteem industry bent on busting the idea of meritocracy as it inflates every schoolchild with a supersized sense of entitlement.
But what is individuality, really? Using that word interchangeably with “dissent,” “rebellion,” the “articulation of anger,” and “revolution redux,” Niedzviecki bares his personal bias. But of course he does. Everyone does these days, from historians to linguists to news anchors to novelists — though it has always been expected of novelists. Fiction is forever a looking glass into which readers tumble, seeking ourselves consciously or not, reading about imaginary folks who resemble us or whose lack of resemblance still teaches us about us. But even among the gleaming nuts and bolts of nonfiction, objectivity went out with legwarmers. Read about gods and gonads and war, but be warned: It’s all a game of smoke and mirrors now, without the smoke.