Earl Lovelace’s Is Just a Movie Is Just a Great Novel

Posted By Peter Vilbig on Dec 5, 2012 in Literature | 1 comment

Even when he’s being praised, it would seem, the Trinidadian novelist Earl Lovelace must suffer comparisons to his countryman V.S. Naipaul. On the back jacket copy of Lovelace’s latest novel, the fabulous Is Just a Movie, Junot Diaz writes that the novel “takes us on a wild loving absurdist journey to the heart of contemporary Trinidad, a Trinidad so ravishingly alive that the Naipauls of the world could never have imagined it or possessed the soul to write about it.” The temptation in a review of Lovelace to launch a gratuitous attack on Naipaul must feel almost irresistible. But it’s a bit unfair: Naipaul wrote at least one utterly exceptional novel—A House for Mr. Biswas. More amazing than the invidious comparison of the two writers is the recognition that two living Trinidadian novelist could have plumbed so deeply and brought to life so fully a Caribbean island only slightly larger than Rhode Island.

Yet here are two novels in essence examining the same patch of ground, that could not have presented more disparate pictures of a national culture. Nor could two writers have employed more widely differing tools: Naipaul writing in a style of high realism develops a classic story about a small man ground to pieces by—well, exactly by what is one of the large questions of the novel, but let’s simplify a bit and say the relentless conflict between his own large views of himself and the small way his society regards him. In keeping with the traditions of realism the novel intentionally avoids the overtly political, and indeed Naipaul has long insisted that true writers, and himself as an exemplar of the genus, see the world and write about it in a non-political way. (And one can certainly understand why Diaz would find this annoying, given that’s Naipaul’s novels, and especially the later ones, are steeped in the author’s sometimes-acknowledged and sometimes-not political views.)

Is Just a Movie operates, by contrast, on a wildly diverging set of registers: the novel veers from wild, bitter, funny satire to dithyrambs to nuanced character studies to direct political analysis—its politics freely tattooed on its sleeve—all delivered in a prose style that seems endlessly capable of matching invention to mood shift, as needed.

It’s no surprise, given the prejudice in the Anglo-American tradition against the introduction of ‘politics’ into a text (and granting this amounts most often to a pretense to the apolitical), that Naipaul’s novel has gained greater acceptance by many orders of magnitude. On the other hand, another way of looking at the difference between the two novels is to say that Naipaul’s book clearly petitions for acceptance by the guardians of high culture, while Lovelace’s book just as clearly pulls the noses of that perfumed and periwigged lot.

This ability to move among registers and shift techniques is perhaps the most impressive aspect of Lovelace’s success in Is Just a Movie. Naipaul was always careful to keep the voice of Trinidadian English out of his own narration. Characters might speak it—with wonderful success in his short story, “B. Wordsworth,” for example—but not him. Lovelace has no such hesitation. His narrator, one Kangkala, otherwise sometimes known as King Kala, is a calypso singer, poet, and observer of the people in the fictional town of Cascadu, a village far from the capital (unlike Lovelace’s own home in Cascade, a suburb of Port of Spain, the capital), who employs the full range of dropped verbs and prepositions, subject-verb agreement switches, and compressions that form the grace notes of Caribbean English. Yet in the same sentence these locutions, which are often dismissively described as patois, are juxtaposed with flights of high rhetoric.

You probably suspect by now that these notes have been meant to compare Lovelace’s and Naipaul’s work. But that’s not what I planned at all. My real goal was to point out certain writerly achievements in Lovelace’s novel. As a matter of fact, they will all contrast with Naipaul’s work. But to continuously point this out will get us nowhere.

So here is a brief compendium of what I see as the moments of what we might call technical grandeur in Lovelace’s novel. They involve on the first level his skillful use of satire, community portraiture, stream of conscious narration, and subtle and nuanced character analysis; and on the second, his virtuoso demonstration of how to successfully weave together these disparate elements.

I can’t think of a contemporary novel that moves more successfully between really excoriating satire and what I guess I’ll call, for lack of a better word, earnestness. (The earnestness takes the form of something very close to realism or in some cases Lovelace’s take on magical realism—in his version he very assiduously develops highly improbable events, such as the moment late in the novel when Dorlene, an important love interest of the narrator, is found to be alive in her coffin as she is lowered into her grave, while never stumbling over the trip wire of introducing verifiable magic into the text.)

Lovelace delivers a master course in how to develop satire in the modern novel. Early on, it is broad, funny, and obvious, as when a number of characters audition for roles in a movie that an American production company is shooting on the island, thinking that this is their chance for stardom, only to discover that they’re being cast to play the role of natives who will be killed off after only a few moments on the screen. When one of the characters, Sonnyboy, a would-be revolutionary and all around badjohn, insists on dying a dramatic death, he throws a wrench in the filmmakers’ plans. But as the novel progresses, partly because the characters involved have become more fully developed, the satire becomes more complex and multi-layered. For example, later when Dorlene is resurrected from the dead the prime minister seizes on the supposed miracle as the basis for a new economic and tourism plan. But the cut of the satire is all the sharper because we have begun to see Dorlene as a woman trapped in a culture that has no place for her intelligence and ambition, and we’ve seen the tragic effects of her failed efforts to connect both romantically and in her community. (And there are claws to this satire too: one character V.S. Rooplal—an obvious reference to you know who—emigrates to Canada where he holds himself out to be a prophet and is later found out to be no more than “a petty magician and gambler.”)

There is a remarkable restless energy at the heart of Is Just a Movie that keeps it from standing still on any of the pinnacles it reaches. For example, the novel might just have come to rest glorying in the contrast between Dorlene’s characterization and the bitter political satire that follows the response to her resurrection. But elsewhere the text just as easily and fearlessly slips into a mode of pure political commentary. Embedded in the novel is a canny, thoughtful, and deeply felt analysis of Trinidad’s postcolonial political history that acknowledges the way the Black Power movement of the 1970s went awry, and how colonialism arrived wearing a new mask and bearing the bland name of globalization. More tellingly and to its vast credit, Is Just a Movie is almost certainly the only novel in 2012 that directly addresses the 1983 U.S. led invasion of Grenada. Lovelace has nothing to gain from this, but the unwillingness to forget may be among the novelist’s most important responsibilities, and the sections on Grenada form part of this novel’s greatness.

Yet as lacerating and powerful as the satire is, Lovelace’s purely descriptive powers are what held me in thrall in Is Just a Movie. The chapter titled “Franklin Batting,” for example, might just be among the most successful panegyrics about sport (in this case cricket) you will ever read. I’ll give an extended excerpt that gives a feel for what Lovelace can accomplish with his prose:

Through the whole village it would go, Franklin batting, and before she go out her door, Miss Dolly would pull out the firewood from the fireside and add some water to the pot she cooking so it would bubble slow while the wood glowed to ashes, Rabbit and Jerry would get up off the bench in front the rum shop, people buying in the grocery would hurry up with their message and even down Eight-mile it would reach, Kenny slowing down his taxi to shout out as he passing to the people bathing by the spring, ‘Hey, all you, Franklin batting! You hear what I saying: Franklin. Franklin batting. Franklin batting,’ and would drive maybe another five minutes, making the announcement, before he turn around and pick up those who ready and carry them back up to the cricket ground.

Other highlights: the aforementioned Dorlene’s courtships, another romance involving the town constable famous because he has never arrested a single person, a character named Claude who each year shows up at Carnival only to find no one willing to join his steel band, the family whose life is changed by the arrival of a piano meant for a neighbor up the hill, who simply tells them to just keep it.

Much more could be said—a really good novel has that power to inspire a cascade of praise. But I’ll leave it here. Is Just a Movie is an extraordinary novel that as far as I know has not made any of the standard lists of Best Books of 2012. So now I’ll add my own invidious note: Is Just a Movie outshines any number of novels on those lists. As one who is not given to pronouncements, I will make one now: this is one of the best novels of the year. It deserves a wider audience.

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