If you have any interest in a world beyond American borders, where colonialism still bares its teeth, where the fantastical still so perfectly illustrates the mundane, and where the rawness of everyday life still exquisitely cracks open the human experience, then Kei Miller’s Augustown is an immediate must-read.
Augustown (May 2017)
239 pages/ $17.64 (Amazon)
I am somehow simultaneously ashamed and proud that most of my knowledge of Jamaican culture comes from John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “The Last Wailer”–an excellent piece published in GQ in 2011 which I first encountered in the incredible essay collection Pulphead (2011). In it, Sullivan explains the roots of reggae through Bob Marley’s original band, The Wailers, but, more importantly, he specifically focuses upon the life of Bunny Wailer as a medium for exploring the larger cultural problems that have defined Jamaica over the past fifty years.
It was here, of all places, that I first learned about the modern governmental oppression occurring in Jamaica, the civil unrest, and the “rude boy” culture that opposes such corruption. I learned about the complexities of the rebels themselves, of the 2010 Tivoli Incursion, of the warring gangs and unending violence. The knowledge itself was heartbreaking and invigorating, both at the same time.
For me, Sullivan’s essay constituted one of those moments in life wherein I turned my mind just slightly to the periphery and found a dark, empty void where there should have been knowledge and experience. Instead, there was only ignorance. It was like glitching through a wall in a video game and finding that there existed an entire other section of the known world that contained no assets, no physics, no design. It was nothing where substance should be.
Despite my admittedly odd introduction to Jamaican history and culture (GQ of all places!), I don’t believe I could have consciously chosen a better primer for Kei Miller’s excellent new novel, Augustown, released earlier this month. Miller’s story is slightly magical realist in nature, and it focuses upon the lives of a small family, often connected by necessity more than blood, in a run-down slum known as Augustown, which the author notes (with a slight wryness) has only a passing relationship to the actual August Town in Jamaica proper. Drenched with imagery and symbolism that wets to the core of the human condition, Augustown is powerful novel that weeps for the poor and disenfranchised in Jamaica, but moreover, it succeeds at illustrating the emotional and social complexities of the people who live there.
In a manner similar to Joyce’s Portrait or Ulysses, Miller’s novel is about flights and falls, risings and lowerings, ascensions and depressions across personalities, landscapes, politics, and religious experiences, both literal and figurative. And, Miller charts these journeys and changes across a number of episodes that are so beautifully, so tightly constructed that at times I felt as though I were reading a collection of artfully sutured short stories, rather than a sprawling novel.
It is particularly in the histories, the backstories of characters, communities, and families that the novel shines. From the half-imagined, half-true story of Alexander Bedward to the same for Augustown itself, Miller demonstrates his literary prowess through his ability to give weight to narrative moments through history, both national and personal. Similarly, the story of the Rastas Ian and Clarky is absolute perfection, not simply in the way it portrays their relationship, but moreso in how it doubles the image of flight between them in unexpected ways. Or again, in the history of Mrs. G and Ms. G, the way they reflect one another and how their experiences define the margins of the unbridgeable gap between rich and poor fully articulates the “shape of the hurt” that is central to the Jamaican cultural experience. Miller weaves such stories deftly and artfully with skill that points to his greatness as a storyteller.
As my readers can probably tell from what I have written so far, Augustown is a novel that, in many ways, defies definition. As I mentioned earlier, it dabbles in magical realism, but to categorize this novel as such misses the greater impact of Miller’s prose and the overall structure of his story. Many reviewers, even those listed on the back cover, paint Miller as fable writer in the tradition of Márquez, but Miller’s narrator (whose identity is revealed by the novel’s end) resists such classification in one of the book’s most poignant passages:
“Call it what you will–“history,” or just another “old-time story”–there really was a time in Jamaica, 1920 to be precise, when a great thing was about to happen but did not happen. Though people across the length and breadth of the island believed it was going to happen, though they desperately needed it to happen, it did not. But the story as it is recorded, and as it is still whispered today, is only one version. It is the story as told by people like William Grant-Stanley, by journalists, by governors, by people who sat on wide verandahs overlooking the city, by people who were determined that the great thing should not happen.
Look, this isn’t magical realism. This is not another story about superstitious island people and their primitive beliefs. No. You don’t get off that easy. This is a story about people as real as you are, and as a real as I once was before I became a bodiless thing floating up here in the sky. You may as well stop to consider a more urgent question; not whether you believe in this story or not, but whether this story is about the kinds of people you have never taken the time to believe in.”
At the end of the day, Kei Miller’s Augustown is an achievement, not simply as a Jamaican novel or a novel about Jamaica or however those monikers tend to appear, but instead as a example of artful, impressive storytelling of its own accord. If you have any interest in a world beyond American borders, where colonialism still bares its teeth, where the fantastical still so perfectly illustrates the mundane, and where the rawness of everyday life still exquisitely cracks open the human experience, then Kei Miller’s Augustown is not to be overlooked.
*The publisher, Pantheon, provided The Contemporary Clerk with a review copy of Augustown, which was used in writing this review.*