Sapphire's The Kid Takes Us Inside the Mind of Abuse
Famed British editor Diana Athill wrote that fewer and fewer people seem willing to stick with a book when they meet resistance -- emotionally difficult material, certainly, but especially intellectually difficult writing. Sapphire's The Kid, the follow-up novel to her acclaimed Push, puts up all kinds of blockades that would prompt a lot of people to quit and not look back. It’s a tough book to swallow all round.
The Kid is written not merely from the perspective of Precious’s son, Abdul, but from inside his head. So-called “stream of consciousness” writing is notoriously daunting -- think James Joyce, for instance. Stream of consciousness writing from inside a disturbed or damaged mind is nearly impossible. Faulkner subjected us to some of the American novel’s most dense writing in The Sound and the Fury, which featured the interior narrative of a mentally disabled man as well as a disturbing plot line (in the moments when you could grab the plot and hold on for dear life, that is). What Sapphire has done, however, is opened a window into the mind of a boy born under the worst circumstances (to an HIV-positive, illiterate mother who was the victim of incest) and carries us through his maddeningly tragic life narrative.
Divided into four sections representing critical moments of flux in Abdul’s life, the novel leads us through the thoughts of a recently orphaned nine-year-old, on to the dreamlike perversions of a sexually abused teen, with a brief moment of what seemed to be reprieve when as a young man Abdul finds his calling, to the confusing and ultimately unhopeful rants of a mental patient.
For me, the section detailing Abdul’s abuse (and how he reacted to it) made me want to quit. Intellectually I accept that this is the kind of story that’s important to know and to be told, in spite of, or maybe because of, how unthinkably horrific it was. Emotionally, I had trouble empathizing -- fortunately for me. I instinctively attempt empathy for the characters when I read books, so it was difficult to understand Abdul’s thoughts and actions as someone who has never been the victim of abuse. I felt helplessness reading that section, knowing how many real children are out there being tortured, wondering how anyone could help them untangle the knots or do anything to ease the screamingly raw edges of their wounds.
The book’s final section was straight up confusing. If a boy grappling with sexual identity and self-image and self-worth confounded me, the adult Abdul’s drugged-up, screwed-up brain was nearly impenetrable. This was a portrait of a mind that, as J.D. Salinger put it, desperately attempted to keep its faculties from dropping off like luggage teetering on an overhead rack. As the book’s ending, this section frustrated me. I couldn’t make out what actually happened between the previous section and the last (nor could Abdul, apparently), and I hadn’t a clue where Abdul was headed.
As a reader, I appreciated what Sapphire did even if I struggled with it. As a human, I wish this story were different. Sadly, I don’t think it could have been.