O, Africa! is the story of two brothers: Micah and Izzy Grand. The brothers, Jewish twins from New York, have been making comedies for years. With no one to depend on, the orphans have grown into very different, but co-dependent personalities. Micah has embraced a life of debauchery. By contrast, Izzy lives like an ascetic. Set in the late 1920s, the brothers have made it into the movies. Micah directs and Izzy films movies for Imperial Productions, a b-list movie production company that is sticking firmly to the silent movies, refusing to embrace the new talkies that are taking over the filming business.
Imperial Productions is failing. In a last ditch attempt to save the company, they beg the brothers to go and take stock footage to sell to other companies, specifically, they’re to be sent to Africa. At first, they refuse. Micah does not wish to leave the comfort of New York and his mistress, a black woman named Rose. But, Micah is caught up with a ring of gamblers and is over his head in debt. They give him a choice: go to Africa and film a side project for them (a film to be titled O, Africa!) or come up with the multiple thousands of dollars that Micah simply does not have.
O, Africa! has been marketed as a book for Kavalier and Clay lovers (review here), and I can see the influence. First generation American Jews in New York making a living in art that’s been considered by their contemporaries as pretty low-rent. There’s self-destruction and discussion of homosexuality and it’s implications for a man living in the macho years surrounding the World Wars. Conn even tosses in some race discussion for an added twist. However, I didn’t like it nearly as much as Chabon’s work.
One of the most interesting things this book presents is the discussion of race. It’s prevalent throughout the book and one of the main plot motivators. Conn does a good job of including race and interracial dynamics in pre-Civil Rights era America in a way that isn’t overwhelming or overly-hokey/overly-used. Please keep in mind, that I say this knowing that my own perception of history, race, and interracial dynamics is, of course, limited. I am, after all, a white female in a Midwestern suburb with a predominantly white, middle-class population.
Conn doesn’t present Micah’s relationship with the African-American community as one of either companionship or hostility. Instead, Micah is fascinated. He’s interested in a population that he views as parallel to the rest of the world but also very other. He’s portrayed as being condescending, self-deluded, and unkind in the way he approaches blacks. He is indebted to a black man who runs a gambling ring, and Conn says that Micah views the gambling losses as a kind of admission to the zoo.
Rose, Micah’s black mistress, is described as passably white, and, though she is proudly and actively invested in black empowerment groups, she is in a kind of in-between because she is light-skinned. Interestingly, Conn chooses not to make the fact that she is black a terribly scandalous aspect of their affair. Micah’s brother’s and coworkers know about the affair and, on the rare occasion that they say anything about it, really only bring up Rose’s race as an impediment to claiming her in public.
Izzy is the artful brother. He does all of the camera work and most of the editing. He’s someone who is supposed to see things, but is very withdrawn and self-denying. Izzy is gay, and despite encouragement from his brother (who has surprisingly little to say about his brother’s sexual orientation and is, in fact, quite accepting) Izzy has never acted on these impulses. Without saying anything about what happens to Izzy over the course of the book, I was surprised with some of the reactions that Conn ascribes to him. Izzy becomes quite reckless and emotional. For someone who has spent the vast majority of his life using extreme restraint and who seems to be able to distance himself from the chaos around him, Izzy goes down a surprisingly chaotic path.
Aside from some of the strange character traits, I was turned off by the writing style. Conn uses more adjectives and modifiers than are needed. He often writes trailing lists of synonyms or rewordings that are over six units long. It made for a long read. The writing was pretty purple-prosey to begin with. It was tiring and did not let up.
I would give this book a 3. It’s got a lot of the bones of a great work, but some of the characterizations and writing style choices just didn’t do it for me.
This book was received for free in exchange for an honest review from bloggingforbooks.com