Review of Getting Motherís Body, by Suzan-Lori Parks
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/30/05
Formula for praise in the PC World of literature (especially if a hack)- rip off the ideas of a better, deader writer, fill it with baggage from more modern times, & try to pass it off as an homage. While, in reality, itís a sure sign of creative bankruptcy, if youíre a woman or minority, you will be perversely praised as original, for doing something heroic to tweak your oppressive forebears. This is essentially the reason that Getting Motherís Body, by Suzan-Lori Parks (a black woman), got published, & got wildly overpraised, for this reverse premise rip off of William Faulknerís As I Lay Dying. The problem is that SLP is ripping off a vastly overrated source material to begin with.
Her book concerns a black Texas family in the early 1960s who travel to Arizona to dig up a womanís grave- singer Willa Mae Beede, thinking she was buried with valuable jewels that could come in handy now to them, especially the womanís daughter Billy Beede- a wild child teenager pregnant out of wedlock. SLP attempts to use Faulknerís bookís rotating 1st person narrative style. The major flaw in Faulknerís book was that, failing the difference in the chapter names, alerting the reader as to who was assuming the narrative, there was just not much real differentiation between the white trash Bundren clan on their quest to bury their matriarch. A similar problem infects GMB. The characters are all off-the-rack stereotypes- be it wild child Billy, her motherís jealous former lesbian lover Dill Smiles, or any of the other major characters. As for the minor characters- all are cardboard cutouts- especially some white redneck sheriffs that harass some male family members on their drive to LaJunta, Arizona.
Of course, this fact of the charactersí utter vapidity is hidden, or attempted, by SLPís overusage of Ďblack dialect. While the phonetically written dialect is not so bad in small doses it is way overused, depicting the Beede clan as the black trash equivalent of the Bundrens. SLP won a Pulitzer Prize for her play Topdog/Underdog which cast John Wilkes Booth & Abraham Lincoln as hip hop rappers. Ok, you can stop chuckling.
Hereís a brief summary of the tale. Willa Mae is a con artist & she & Billy never had a good relationship. After Willa Mae dies sheís buried behind the Pink Flamingo Motel in LaJunta. Billy is taken to the small Texas town of Lincoln to live with her maternal uncle Roosevelt Beede, a preacher, & his 1-legged wife June, by Dill. They are trailer trash & live behind a gas station. Billyís lover is married, she is impregnated, & wants an abortion at 16 But, she has no money, so thinks that by grave robbing her mother for a pearl necklace & diamond ring will solve her problems. Other members of her clan accompany her on her quest in Dillís stolen truck, all slavering for the paltry riches, & to make sure a supermarket is not built over Willa Maeís final resting spot. In the end Billy ends up with bupkus, for Dill had stolen her motherís possessions after death.
Thatís just the outer scaffolding of the tale. Of course, there must be something inside- no? No. Like most other contemporary fictionists SLP does not even attempt to infuse her characters with any depth. They do not muse on lifeís peculiarities & depths. In short, the novel lacks insight. Through her peregrinations Billy Beede does not grow- or, perhaps, she does, becoming a cynic. While Iíve touched upon the overuse of black dialect there is a greater flaw which plagues her dialogue- it simply has no wit nor crackle of genuineness. Good dialogue, contrary to what PC Elitists think, is not simply taking the banal speak that most people engage in & rendering it on the page, but fooling readers into thinking the planned, written word could be spoken extemporaneously by anyone, even while reading it, & upon reflection, you know it could not be. More than any other factor in the book it is the flatness & predictability of the dialogue which reveals the fact of the charactersí generic nature. Also to be factored in is the fact were a white writer to a) sketch such black characters as SLP does, & b) use such dialects, he/she would immediately be labeled a racist for reinforcing stereotypes.
Nowhere in the book is there an Aha! moment. Defenders of mediocrity would argue this proves SLP understands that real life is filled with dull, witless troglodytes. But, does 1 write a poem about boredom in a boring way? No. 1 can write of small, petty characters in a witty way. Oscar Wilde is the greatest example. Instead, we get a sort of bastard spawn between the worst of Faulkner & the worst of contemporary Ďadult drama fictioní. Is there ever a moment when Billyís adultery, her pending abortion, or racism, are fleshed out with depth? No. What really is surprising is that the soliloquy form of the book would seem suited for such. That SLP, instead, merely uses the shifting narrators as a way to liven up a dull tale is proof that itís merely a gimmick. Even though As I Lay Dying is not nearly the masterpiece its defenders claim, that book at least makes its soliloquies more than just a plot device. Its central theme is conducive to such, even if its main characters are social bottomfeeders. The tale in Getting Motherís Body lacks that, as well as being not particularly descriptive in terms of its setting. Perhaps this is a remnant of her playwriting roots. The scenery of the Southwest has probably never been put to so little use as this novel. It could as well have taken place anywhere in America, pre-1975, for the land is as bland as the characters.Not surprisingly the novel has been praised as original. How Ďunoriginalí a blurb is it when such unoriginal works of art are praised as original? About as unoriginal as aping the formula for a praiseworthy novel from an earlier better writer. Letís hope William Faulkner fares better in his hole than Willa Mae Beede or Addie Bundren.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Spring, 2005 Laura Hird website.]
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