I Couldn't Find The Point In "The Kid" By Sapphire [SPOILERS]
I remember some of my college literature and art classes, times professors would assign a book or work of some sort that I would swear they wanted us to discuss just to see what we’d manage to say -- not because there was anything grand about it or any particular point but just to see if in our self-important heads we could come up with something. The Kid by Sapphire really reminds me of those days.
I feel like I stepped into an avant garde art film or I’m staring a piece by Robert Mapplethorpe. It’s an uncomfortable book, and I’m ok with that. Before we read it, we were warned that "The Kid deals with mature and explicit subject matter that some readers may find offensive or disturbing.” I was prepared for that, and I don’t particularly have an issue with that in and of itself. My biggest issue was that there seemed to be no point. It felt as though it were explicit and shocking just for the sake of it. There was no great point made, no connection, no story arc, nothing that made me feel like I got something out of the book after slogging through it.
The Kid tells the story -- and I use that term loosely –- of Abdul Jamal Louis Jones, AKA Jamal AKA Abdul AKA JJ and more. It starts with him as a nine year old whose mother had just died of, we assume, AIDS. As with much of the book, nothing is directly said and we are left to sift through what is fact and fiction, dream and reality. The juxtaposition between his supposed intellectual intelligence and his incredible immaturity in attitude and language at that stage of the book was jarring to me, as my five year old comprehends things and has a better grasp of the English language than Abdul does at this point. Even early in this book, it is difficult to sort through what is happening when once he moves to his first foster home with Miss Lillie, a place I wouldn’t wish on anyone but am sure exists somewhere in the foster system.
Key points to the book, action that moves the story forward are left out of the book, leaving us to sift through bits and pieces in each section to figure out what is happening at the time in the book and to reassess our viewpoint of what had potentially happened earlier in the book. It is frustrating as a reader to have to work this hard, and having so much of the book happening inside the main character’s head -- some of it dreams, some of it (potentially inaccurate) memories, and some of it real -- makes it that much more difficult to grasp onto a thread of a story and connect with it.
Regardless, The Kid paints the life of Abdul in the starkest terms. He is physically and sexually abused throughout the book, frequently by the characters who should have been his caretakers. Not surprisingly, he also becomes an abuser, though he doesn’t recognize it as such. Also not a shock, Abdul has what in my mind are severe mental problems, though I debate whether they stemmed from his abuse or whether they were always present, as even at the very beginning of the book on his way to his mother’s funeral, he has full-on conversations with his dead mother. His life, quite frankly, sucks.
Eventually, he finds an outlet in a dance class he begins taking, against the express orders of the boys’ home he’s living in at the time. For whatever reason, dancing speaks to him, and he decides that dance will be his way out in life. At this point in the book, I settled down to get into the story about how he fights his way into an independent life where dance gives him meaning and he is able to become a productive member of society eventually. There is no such luck. While dancing gives his life meaning, it is not the great story you would expect it to be. He agrees to essentially be the whore of a dance instructor at the age of 13 in exchange for classes and a place to live. At 17, he moves out but even then he is not happy or healthy or figuring things out. He is just as messed up as before, and thus continues the book.
I’ve been left unsatisfied by books before where they haven’t given me the ending I’ve hoped for or expected, but The Kid goes so far above and beyond this. Beyond not knowing what is actually happening for a good portion of the book and having so much of it be dreams that may or may not be dreams and more, the writing is just painful to read. I could open the book to almost any page and find an example: “Whoosh whoosh, like my kaleidoscope pieces of glass falling into some kind of picture woosh the picture my mother the blood spurting life a geyser the nurse snatched the tube wrong out her hand.” It’s just a single sentence, but it is taken from a scene that had nothing to do with a flashback to his mother prior to that. We never were given any details of how his mother died, though bits and pieces like this make me think that perhaps there was a problem in the hospital where Abdul’s mother’s death was unexpected and possibly the fault of the hospital, but yet that’s not at all a part of the story, just a random detail that like so many is never further explained.
Near the end of the book, I felt like I was making some headway. I was finally breaking through the Woody Allen-ness of the book and beginning to understand it and even appreciate it. While it was still somewhat odd, I felt like there was a story actually happening and Abdul was finally getting his life together in some way. Book Four, the last sixty-plus pages of the book completely lose me again, however. At the risk of “spoiling” the book, Abdul has somehow ended up in a mental institution and appears to be being experimented upon and is kept heavily drugged -- until a doctor takes pity on him and essentially breaks him out of the hospital in the second to last sentence of the book. Oh, and he was in the hospital because of a case of mistaken identity? And he may or may not have molested a little boy? Or tried to commit suicide with a plastic knife at a party? Or … something?
I walked away from The Kid not feeling dirty, as I might have expected early on. I walked away feeling frustrated and confused and -- yes -- a little stupid, wondering if I am missing something in the grand scheme of things or if I’m just not smart enough to appreciate the book. After all Sapphire wrote another book that was turned into the movie Precious and has won all sorts of awards. Maybe it’s me and I’m back in that art appreciation class struggling and hoping that I get it at some point. Maybe. Or maybe not. Regardless, this is one book I’m glad to be done with.