Thursday, November 09, 2006

A novel about Baltimore?

This is the second time I've read through the novel and both times something disturbed me about it. The way it is written seems to put off outsiders, as if the author has a kind of inside knowledge into understanding her own story that anyone outside of the city has to have patiently explained. But Tess doesn't really understand Baltimore herself. Sure she can rattle off the different neighborhoods and the heirarchies and stereotypes associated with them, inserting random bits of trivia, but her intimate knowledge of the city is somewhat off.

I agree with the other posts which suggest that the character of Tess is interested primarily in drawing distinctions within the city. Herself and the poor, herself and the black, herself and the unsafe while also asserting that she can be part of that 'other' city. However, she is never comfortable there. She doens't fit in and she doesn't understand it. I think that's what makes the attitude of superior knowledge of Baltimore so frustrating. Tess is a stranger in the city too, and the constant winding in of facts and name dropping becomes a pretentious effort in over compensation.

Finally, I think the characterization of Baltimore is wrong. I agree with Sarah completely in that Baltimore has always seemed to me the ultimate checkerboard city. There have been times where I've made two wrong turns and ended up in a pretty unsafe area only blocks from large estates. My constant advice to friends and family coming to visit is to never take a road unless you know where it's going. This is not speculation, but experience. Lippman's description of Baltimore as a place where things are either good or bad seems to be an oversimplification and at best a stretch in the truth. The Baltimore I know can go from 'good' to 'bad' in a matter of minutes. Occasionally, details like this disrupted the novel for me because I had to stop and think about how many other differences in perspective there were between me and a native. Is it just because I'm new to Baltimore? Or is Lippman trying to change her own city to better meet an ideal?