Bonbon Me lives in an area of LA that used to be called "Dickens" before it was re-zoned out of existence. The novel follows Bonbon's attempts to restore Dickens as a postcode and to get people to take pride in their neighbourhood once again. His closest relationship is with a retired black actor called Hominy, who as a child achieved fame starring in a series of films about a gang called the Little Rascals. Hominy took great pride in the racially stereotyped black child the producers wanted him to play, and has spent the rest of his life trying to recapture that lost sense of identity. When Hominy proposes that Bonbon employ him as a slave Bonbon inadvertently discovers that in acting out his sense of oppression and injustice Hominy becomes happier and more sure of who he is. Bonbon takes the idea and starts to apply it to the town, putting up segregation notices on the public transport, painting a line around the neighbourhood's borders and erecting a fake 'whites only' school opposite the local high school. Little by little his provocative actions start to take effect.
The central character, "Bonbon" Me is hard to pin down. Even his name is unclear. He initially comes across as someone disruptive and repellent, it takes a while before we start to understand the motivations behind his actions and one of the interesting things about this novel is the way our sympathy towards the central character changes as it develops. The novel explores some classic psychological theory: by creating an 'out-group' the community become an 'in-group', united in their opposition and sense of feeling wronged, and the way Beatty weaves his story around this framework is pleasingly inventive.
We all found this a very hard novel to get into – it takes a while to understand the frames of reference, and probably the further you are from understanding the racially charged situation Beatty is exploring, the longer it takes to start to appreciate the irony and humour. Nonetheless all of us did find it funny, and we suspected that to people for whom this novel is closer to home, i.e., black Americans, there was probably much humour here that was lost on us (white, British middle-class Londoners). Many things in the novel are based on real things; the Little Rascals series, the farm where Bonbon lives (based on a real farm in Compton). Much else is obviously invented or exaggerated; in general we found it hard to suspend disbelief, but is Beatty asking us to? The novel feels more like an extended riff. It's not real-life, but there are truths in there.
We appreciated the references to Catch 22 and the homage to Joseph Heller. Does it matter that Beatty doesn't tie things up at the end? For some yes – the idea with Catch 22 was that there could never be a resolution, but with this Beatty sets up the idea of a Supreme Court case for which there ought to have been some kind of definitive judgement. For others the objective was to restore Dickens and to some extent the protagonist achieves his aims, so the novel is conclusive in that way.
A provocative and challenging read that overcomes the alienation many non-American readers may feel in understanding the social and policical framework to provide a warm and entertaining story that is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. The book also does an excellent job of making you look at the social groups that surround you with new eyes. Is everyone treated as equally as we assume?
I enjoyed it far more than I expected I would. It did make me laugh, to my surprise. Much was thought provoking. The depiction of a segregated America was quite shocking and vivid. But I did at time feel this would have been better as an hour's stand-up comedy rather than a whole book.
I enjoyed the last fifty pages a lot more than the rest. I found Beatty's ideas interesting and important but the delivery of them was quite trying at times. The surrealist gonzo fiction wasn't done in a way that allowed me to get carried away. But this did make me laugh sometimes, and I did like the central psychological idea, that you can unite people by giving them something to stand against.
I'm only halfway through but I am actually enjoying it at this point, although this is relative to the first fifty pages which I absolutely hated. I'm longing for some kind of structure and plot to hang things on. But it has made me laugh and I find myself increasingly drawn in.
I enjoyed this despite myself as I found it very slow to get into, and I can't remember the last time I've read a book I felt so alienated by. The turning point for me came when I realised the central character was generally acting out of a desire to help people and improve the community he lived in, thus transforming him into someone I could have sympathy with. The relationship with his father and the characters of Hominy and Marpesa also made him start to feel real and I loved the way it kept catching me by surprise and making me laugh. Most pleasing of all I found my thinking changed by the ideas within it. But for me it was really let down by the ending; I thought the author ducked it and it suddenly felt like a typically flawed Booker winner, although I've reflected on it more favourably since.
This Christmas book club took place on 16 December at Kate's. Members kindly helped out with the paper chains before enjoying a supper of a somewhat soupy fish pie with Brussels sprouts followed by trifle. We did the Christmas book club lucky dip; as usual everyone was pretty restrained and there was no book swapping. Looking forward to hearing what everyone thought of what they got next year.
Also discussed • Hip hop • how to cook Brussels sprouts • whether the Victorians had self-sticking paper chains • reading non-fiction to better understand the world • The Vegetarian, Han Kang • Hunter S. Thompson and 'gonzo' fiction •Tom Robbins • Joseph Heller's Catch 22