Archive for November, 2018

James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” depicts the life of a young jazz musician and addict, as seen through the eyes of his older brother. The inciting incident—what prompts the older brother to tell Sonny’s story—is a police report in the newspaper, citing Sonny’s arrest the night before. Reading that brief story, one that reduces his brother to someone who “peddle[s] and us[es] heroin” (813), leads the older-brother-narrator to meditate on the events that led to Sonny’s incarceration. The news of his arrest—albeit a brief item in the paper—plays a critical role in the opening paragraph, providing not only the inciting incident but also a counterpoint for the improvisation that breathes life into Sonny’s character. Despite the narrator’s initial dislike of Sonny’s music, the structure of his own storytelling mimics the composition of jazz, underscoring the kinship of his nonlinear, polyphonic story and the piano playing of his brother.

In the second paragraph of the story, the narrator recounts how he thought about Sonny all day “while [he] taught [his] classes algebra” (813). Placing the narrator in the classroom gives Baldwin the opportunity both to show how the students remind the narrator of Sonny as a youth and how the narrator’s occupation further differentiates him from his younger brother. Unlike the algebra that the narrator teaches, Sonny’s music and his life are disjointed.

As the narrator continues to reflect on his brother’s disjointed life, his thoughts are punctuated with the sound of the school bell and a boy “whistling a tune, at once very complicated and very simple” (814). Those noises create the offbeat rhythms of syncopation, signature sounds of jazz. The story’s syncopation builds as it takes an unexpected turn when the narrator encounters an old neighborhood friend of Sonny’s, another heroin addict who engages him in a conversation about Sonny’s arrest. That dialogue between the narrator and the junkie leads the narrator’s story back to the newspaper report, while the juke box at a nearby bar “blast[s] away with something black and bouncy” (816).

Along with the story’s syncopation, its polyphony—another defining characteristic of jazz—builds, adding to the story’s voices the words of Sonny, himself, first in the pages of his letter and later in his face-to-face conversations with the narrator. Sonny’s return to New York after the war prompts the narrator to think back on the story of his father witnessing the death of his own brother, a young guitarist run over by a drunken carload of white men. That story, told to the narrator by his mother, introduces not only the voice of his mother but also his father’s voice, indirectly—as well as the scream of the dying brother, the narrator’s uncle, and the guitar strings “flying” (825) as the car rolls over him.

The sounds of the uncle’s gruesome death aren’t the only notes of tragedy sung as the story’s polyphony builds. The narrator’s two-year-old daughter, Grace—whose death makes Sonny’s trouble real—dies from polio: “[T]he reason she hadn’t screamed was that she couldn’t get her breath. And when she did scream, it was the worst sound, Isabel [the narrator’s wife] says, that she’d ever heard in all her life, and she still hears it sometimes in her dreams” (833).

Such tragedies leave little wonder why Sonny or anyone else might turn to music or drugs, or both, as a way, in Sonny’s words, “to keep from shaking to pieces” (837). The link between heroin and jazz is one that Baldwin first makes implicitly, when Sonny mentions Bird (Charlie Parker) to the narrator, who has no idea who Parker is (828). Though Sonny doesn’t refer to Parker’s heroin use, his addiction—as legendary as his musical genius and inextricably tied to it—is likely in the forefront of the minds of many readers who see the parallels between Parker and Sonny.

That implicit connection between music and heroin becomes explicit later in the story when Sonny reflects on the singing voice of the tambourine player at the street revival: “‘When she was singing before,’ said Sonny, abruptly, ‘her voice reminded me for a minute of what heroin feels like sometimes—when it’s in your veins. It makes you feel sort of warm and cool at the same time. And distant—and sure’” (836).

In the last pages of the story, the narrator accompanies Sonny to a jazz club downtown, where he listens to him perform. Finally, with that performance, Sonny’s piano and his bandmates’ bass, trumpet, and drums join the polyphonic voices of the narrative. For the narrator, the quartet’s jazz remains a foreign language. In the narrator’s words, “I had the feeling that something had happened, something I hadn’t heard” (843). Yet despite the alien quality of what he hears, the narrator experiences an epiphany in the night club—not about the particular notes he hears, but rather about their aim:

He [Creole] and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell. (843)

With those words, the narrator begins to make meaning—not of Sonny’s particular jazz stylings but of his striving to tell old stories in new ways. The climax of Sonny’s set is also the epiphany of the narrator’s own polyphonic, syncopated, narrative. As the narrator observes of Creole, Sonny’s bandleader, he “seemed to be saying, listen. Now these are Sonny’s blues” (843). And as Baldwin’s readers listen, they may say: These are his brother’s blues, too.

Work Cited

Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg, 2016, pp. 813-44.

In “Just One More Game . . . ,” journalist and critic Sam Anderson examines the appeal of hand-held video games—Tetris and its offspring—observing the concurrence of the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and Japanese game-maker Nintendo’s introduction of the Game Boy, the hand-held device that freed gamers to play wherever they chose. No longer were they confined to play within the walls of rec rooms and arcades.

The theme of walls that Anderson introduces in his opening paragraph is one he returns to with considerable effect. So effective is his thematic approach that readers who first encountered his essay in The New York Times Magazine were unlikely to notice the apparent absence of a thesis. However, for students and teachers who are introduced to Anderson’s essay in the pages of The Norton Field Guide to Writing, the choice to present it as a model textual analysis is a puzzling one. In the commentary that follows Anderson’s essay, the textbook’s authors note that “[h]e interprets the ‘gamification’ of American culture positively and provides evidence from experts as well as the games themselves” (110), but what the authors cite as textual evidence from experts are in fact alternate takes on an obsession for which Anderson is clearly ambivalent.

Early in his essay, when Anderson first applies the term “stupid games” to Tetris and its progeny, he notes that he uses that moniker “half descriptively, half out of revenge for all the hours I’ve lost to them” (106). Evidence of Anderson’s love-hate relationship with so-called stupid games recurs in the paragraphs that follow, where he deftly places hand-held games in cultural and historical context, turning to Monopoly, Risk, and Twister as the products of the Great Depression, the Cold War, and the Sexual Revolution, respectively. From those popular, pre-digital games, Anderson shifts his attention back to Tetris, observing that “[i]t was invented exactly when and where you would expect—in a Soviet computer lab in 1984—and its game play reflects this origin” (106). Thus, Anderson illustrates how Tetris, too, is a product of its time and place. But his close examination of Tetris that follows does not function solely to provide more cultural and historical context, it also serves as an opportunity for Anderson to return to his theme of wall-building and to vent the frustration that serves as his refrain:

The enemy in Tetris is not some identifiable villain [. . .] but a faceless, ceaseless, reasonless force that threatens constantly to overwhelm you, a churning production of blocks against which your only defense is a repetitive, meaningless sorting. It is a bureaucracy in pure form, busywork with no aim or end, impossible to avoid or escape. And the game’s final insult is that it annihilates free will. Despite its obvious futility, somehow we can’t make ourselves stop rotating blocks. Tetris, like all the stupid games it spawned, forces us to choose to punish ourselves. (106)

In the second part of his essay, Anderson turns away from the cultural and historical context of games to the perspectives of game designers, not to provide textual evidence for his thesis—which still isn’t clear—but instead to offer points of contrast. In response to game designer Jane McGonigal’s claim that games are “a gateway to our ideal psychological state” (108), Anderson writes that “[a]lthough there is a certain utopian appeal to McGonigal’s ‘games for change’ model, I worry about the dystopic potential of gamification” (109). Anderson contrasts his concerns with the observations of a second game designer, Frank Lantz, noting that he “seem[s] undisturbed by the dark side of stupid games” (109), and pronounces them “far too fragile and complex to be engineered by corporations” (109).

In the final paragraph of his essay, Anderson cites a third game designer, not to support his thesis but, instead, finally, to introduce it. He follows Sid Meier’s definition of a game—“‘a series of interesting choices’” (110)—with his response: “Maybe that’s the secret genius of stupid games: they force us to make a series of interesting choices about what matters most, moment to moment, in our lives” (110). And so he ends his essay with his thesis. Game over.

Fig. 1: Graphic representation of textual analyses (W.W. Norton)

Presenting an additional perspective on games, responding to it, and returning to the theme of wall-building are all effective moves to make in a conclusion and are ones that frequently appear in lists of rhetorical strategies for closure. For that reason, Anderson’s conclusion stands as a valuable model. Yet the essay’s inclusion in The Norton Field Guide to Writing as a model for textual analysis remains troublesome, especially considering the graphic representation for organization that follows. In the graphic for a thematically organized textual analysis (fig. 1, row 1), the thesis appears in the first part of the three-part structure, not in the third part—and certainly not in the last lines of the essay, as Anderson’s does.

His essay is better suited for one of the textbook chapters devoted to mixed-genre writing. There, in Chapter Twenty-one or Sixty-nine, “Just One More Game . . .” could serve an example of an essay that blends the textual analysis essential to many arguments, with the questioning, speculative tone that’s a key feature of reflection. Anderson reflects on stupid games, in his conclusion, realizing that they “are also about a more subtle and mysterious form of wall-building: the internal walls we build to compartmentalize our time, our attention, our lives” (110). Relegating writing to a category, as textbooks do, is another form of wall-building. Pointing out the misplacement of Anderson’s “Just One More Game . . . ” isn’t a call to tear them down but rather an argument for launching Anderson over the wall, angry bird that he is.

Works Cited

Anderson, Sam. “Just One More Game . . . : Angry Birds, Farmville, and Other Hyperaddictive Stupid Games.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg. Norton, 2016, pp. 105-110.

Bullock, Richard, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg. Commentary. “Just One More Game . . . : Angry Birds, Farmville, and Other Hyperaddictive Stupid Games” by Sam Anderson. The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg. Norton, 2016, p. 110.

—. Ways of Organizing a Textual Analysis: A Graphic Representation. The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed. Norton, 2016, p. 123.