Thursday, February 2, 2017

Black History Month Books: A sharp social satire of the 1960s.

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Demijohn, Thom (Thomas Disch & John Sladek), Black Alice (Doubleday/Book Club ed., 1968). LOC 68-22503. The authors take the concept of Alice falling down the rabbit hole into a totally unfamiliar world and apply it to race relations in the United States in the fraught Sixties. Blonde-haired heiress Alice is kidnapped and held for a million-dollar ransom; to make sure no one will find her, the kidnappers brown her skin, treat her hair, and turn her into Black Alice, parked in Bessie McKay’s Norfolk whorehouse. A period piece of “moustache turning satire and melodrama,” one reviewer called it. Hardcover, unclipped dust jacket, good condition, though with some chips in the dust jacket. A rare and unusual find, even as a book club reprint. 8.75” x 5.75”, 224 pp. HBB price: $40.

Sladek (1937-2000) and Disch collaborated on two books; the other, The House That Fear Built (pulished as Cassandra Nye), was a 1966 Gothic horror pastiche.

Though born in Iowa, Sladek spent decades in the UK, becoming a leader in the New Wave in scifi, which often mocked the fusty conventions and gee-whiz gadgetry of the old school. He had a parodist’s bent, publishing successful mockeries of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. Another of his pseudonymous novels, Arachne Rising, treated the notion that people will believe anything dressed as a conspiracy, this time when the scientific community is charged with suppressing the discovery of a thirteenth zodiac sign. His articles in skepticist magazines filleted dowsing, homeopathy, parapsychology, perpetual motion and Ufology.

Tom Disch (1940-2008) was a Hugo Award-winning scifi author and poet. He freelanced as a theater and opera critic for The Nation, The Weekly Standard, Harper’s, The Washington Post, the LA Times and The New York Times after having worked as an extra at the Metropolitan Opera and a theater cloakroom attendant after he arrived in Manhattan as a penniless gay teenager in the late Fifties.

Plagued by depression much of his life, Disch finally found his footing- like Shadek- in the New Wave genre, and published lots of stories in Michael Moorcock’s magazine, New Worlds. He came to feel stereotyped in scifi despite academic residencies and awards for his other work. It didn’t help that Philip K. Dick denounced him as writing stories containing coded messages in a paranoid letter to the FBI. Later in life he got involved with computer game design and kept an early blog.

Though many feel a visceral reaction to Disch and Sladek’s 1968 novel, Black Alice, it is a remarkable- and remarkably overlooked- addition to the protest literature of the 1960s. Set in Richmond, Virginia, the story revolves around Little Alice Raleigh, eleven years and blonde like corn, and heiress of an immense fortune. Kidnapped from her Baltimore home, Alice is held for a ransom of a million dollars.

Kirkus Reviews enthused,

Black Alice is black suspense with elements of black comedy -- actually a modern satire twirling a mustache of villainous melodrama . . . . Black Alice will inherit a fortune if she can survive the attempts of her father Roderick Raleigh (Rodipoo to her ailing mother Delphinia) to take it away from her if he drives her insane. For a time Alice does become disordered with her imaginary playmate ""Dinah"" and when cured, Roderick arranges her kidnapping. He deposits her in a former colored cathouse (now yclept Green Pastures Funeral Home) where a pill does turn her black under the care of dusky Bessy. Well between her kinfolk and Klansmen of all kinds and some rampageous events (including murder) this stomps through Southern areas of prejudice where Negroes are still Nigras but sometimes ""not Niggers. . . . . It's just appearances that are against us."" A lively, campy caper.

The central conceit of the book is that no one can see what is right in front of them because all they can see is social constructs. The grieving father couldn’t possibly be using his own child to steal money; the cops can’t see Alice when she screams at them from a bus because they're after a blonde white kid, not a crazy black one.

The Nameless Zine’s review, decades later, praise the work for turning logic upside down in the manner of American racial politics (and Lewis Carroll’s books):

Fortunately, the satirical nature of the piece means that we can't ever be too safe in our expectations of where Disch and Sladek are going to take both us and their characters. Both writers were known for their unconventional works in the science fiction New Wave, so we really can't expect them to suddenly turn conventional when setting up a thriller.

What really matters is that the very white Roderick Raleigh and his wife, Delphinia Duquesne [Alice’s parents, kept on a tight allowance by Alice’s grandfather, who manages her fortune], are, in actuality, written almost exactly how white folk saw black folk at the time. Roderick is lazy and has no intention of working for a living, but expects money to be showered on him anyway. When he doesn't get what he wants, he resorts to crime. Delphinia is even lazier, confined to bed by mysterious and non-existent illnesses…

With no parenting coming from her parents, Alice cares instead most for her governess, Miss Godwin, who fits all the normal aspects of the traditional, almost always white, governess, while just happening to be black. She also connects with Bessy, the old, fat, black madam who runs the Green Pastures brothel outside of Norfolk and who becomes her parental substitute during her time as a hostage.

In other words, Disch and Sladek created characters that are almost stereotypical but with their races reversed to shake up the whole story and get us thinking. I liked this approach a lot, which is a good thing because it's what drives the piece in the absence of a suspenseful story. In fact, even though it's very much rooted in its time, a product of the counterculture and a reflection on the civil rights movement, I'd suggest it's very much worth reading today.

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