O, Africa!

O, Africa!

by Andrew Lewis Conn


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A rollicking and ambitious novel that recalls Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, O, Africa! follows two filmmakers on an unlikely journey, while exploring the complexities of race, class, sexuality, and success in early twentieth century America.
In the summer of 1928, twin brothers Micah and Izzy Grand are at the pinnacle of their movie-making careers. From their roots as sons of Brooklyn immigrants, they have risen to become kings of silent comedy – with the brash, bloviating Micah directing and calling the shots, while his retreating brother skillfully works behind the lens. But when Micah’s penchant for gambling, and his interracial affair with Rose, a sharp-witted, light-skinned black woman from Harlem, combine to threaten his livelihood and his life, he finds himself in need of a quick escape.
As the ascent of the talkies looms on the horizon, the brothers’ producer offers them an opportunity that couldn’t be better timed: travel to Africa to compile stock footage of the exotic locales, as well as filming a new comedy in the jungle. Together with an unlikely crew of producers, stars and hangers-on, the Grands set out for Malwiki, where among the tribesmen they each discover unforeseen truths about themselves, their lovers, and the meaning of the movies.
Moving from the piers of Coney Island to Africa’s veld, and further to the glitter of early Hollywood, O, Africa! is an epic tale of self-discovery, the constraints of history and prejudice, and the stubborn resolve of family and friendship in the face of tragedy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804138284
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 06/10/2014
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Andrew Lewis Conn has written essays, short fiction, and reviews for The Believer, Film Comment, The Village Voice, Time Out New York, and the Indiana Review among others and attended writers residencies at Yaddo and Ledig House in Hudson, NY. Conn’s previous novel, P, was chosen as a best book of the summer of 2003 by Salon, Time Out New York, The Oregonian, and Nerve; one of the best books of the year by the Village Voice and the Austin Chronicle; and long-listed as “one of the best books of the millennium (so far!)” by The Millions.

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O, Africa!: A Novel 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
RWordplay More than 1 year ago
"Africa? Says Rose, lying naked on her side, the copper penny smell of semen flowering fragrant in the room. "What do you know about Africa?" O, AFRICA! is not a quick read. It is not a page-turner. Nor is it really a historical novel. What it is, is a fine book, an almost fully realized book. To whom do I recommend O, AFRICA! First, Lovers of Lovers and doomed romances. Then, lovers of fiction, rich prose, and stylistic twists, turns and caresses. If you like magic tricks, trompe l'oeil, or are a Cinephile, a master or student of media, or if you believes the imagination should be allowed to run wild, go out today and order or pick up this book. O, AFRICA! is a book that offers many gifts. Gifts such as an introduction to a dozen memorable, multidimensional characters. Gifts like a complex plot, which is sometimes as easy to follow as the path from the entrance to the exit of an amusement park, and, sometimes, when the mood shifts, to a depth of feeling that one experiences visiting hallowed ground. Gifts by a man who loves language, and who understands the connotative, denotative and unpredictable, unreliable, unfaithful meanings of words. Conn is as able to create fabulous Rube Goldberg fabrications with strings of sentences, as he can use words with the delicacy and precision of a surgeon, scalpel raised. "Flat as Nebraskan badlands, for miles and miles the dahtkam stretched. As Mtabi described, the territory is a trash heap, a repository, a junkyard, a world of things made, unmade, an underworld living on the very surface of the village. Scattered across this Whitman's Sampler of things unloved and unnecessary are stacks of tablets with outmoded stories from yesteryear; idols usurped by shinier, more brilliant gods; broken brooms and unraveled mats; punctured water bottles and leaky pots; grubby furnishings, bedding, and birth mats; heaps of smashed and irregularly shaped beads and ornaments; cracked flutes, crushed drums, and busted string instruments that look like undiscovered letters of the alphabet." In O, AFRICA! we meet the brothers Grand, Micah and Isidore (Izzy), twin sons of an indulgent, Eastern European Jewish Doctor, whose grip on the old world loosened along with his grip on his sons. Twins to the glancing eye, but as O, AFRICA! shows, the eye may be the least reliable of organs. Micah is east to Izzy's west, wet to his brother's dry, gut to Izzy's eye. Think of the brothers as a Coney Island fun house reflections of each other. Cinephiles since boyhood--struck by the beauties and horrors of BIRTH OF A NATION--the boys graduate into the silent film industry. Extroverted Micah, a wunderkind director, introverted Izzy, the ace cameraman. Taken in hand, mentored and fathered by massive Arthur Marblestone, President of Imperial Pictures, and described by Conn as "equal parts Falstaff and Shylock." The boys have gone a long way from Brooklyn, but neither brother anticipates the distances they'll travel, from "darkest Africa" to the dark night of the soul and then back again. Along the way Conn investigates major themes of 20th-century America. In particular, the perceived and often necessary need to assimilate. He compares the relative ease with which Jews might cross into the mainstream with the impossibility of Blacks really passing, let alone being welcomed into society. He acknowledges the open and closed life of gay men, the irony of Izzy the eye, being invisible, desires that can be satisfied only in the dark. So secrets abound: from Izzy's closeted existence and the mask-wearing, shape-shifting American Blacks, to Micah's attempts not only to live in, but also dominate, parallel worlds--Fifth Avenue, Hollywood, Harlem. But Conn shows no secrets can be kept: Whether it's Rose, Micah's beautiful High Yellow lover, learning she can't step out in the sun, or the fact that Micah and Izzy will die Grombatzs and not Grand. 1920s "America the Beautiful" is inching toward deserving that cognomen, but She "..has miles to go before She sleeps." In the book, true loves are thwarted, trains leave the station just as you arrive, champagne loses its pop, and the Brothers with one foot in the present and another in the past are punished for their sins of commission and sins of omission. Conns' generosity is such they land on their feet, but not before he gives them a little taste of Hell. A gambling debt to Harlem gangsters, occurring simultaneously with Marblestone's order for the Brothers to shoot lions and tigers for B-Roll and stock photography, leads them to a God-forsaken village in Central Africa, which the boys, at first, think can be managed as easily as a studio back lot, and actors wearing black face. The boys and their crew include their comedic star, Henry Till, described by Conn whose passion for film rivals his love of fiction: "If Henry Till displayed neither the precision-instrument bearing of Keaton nor the poetic lyricism of Chaplin, neither could he be counted as one of the goons and grotesques supporting the comic pantheon's second tier, baby beasts like Fatty Arbuckle and Harry Langdon. The secret of Till's appeal was his very ordinariness." Conn also uses O, AFRICA! to deliver a "Film 101" course to his readers. History, both in the form of a mockumentary, and in detailed descriptions of the camera, the lens, the mechanics and the men who use them to improve on or distort reality. Conn is conversant with Marshall McLuhan and Susan Sontag and a host of media and film theorists. Other members of their party include: Oscar Spiros, a pugnacious dwarf brought up in a perverse Coney Island universe featuring an all-dwarf society, an alcoholic American scriptwriter/doctor, one real African--the thoughtful and reliable guide, Mtabi, who literally saves the show. They are aided and abetted in their adventures and misadventures by a gaggle of dubious entrepreneurs and cunning survivors. Together they entered Africa and left death and devastation behind. Nothing was as they expected, nothing quite worked out, yet they found strength and wisdom in ill-fated King Mishi; love in his star-crossed son, Cri. They came to conquer and left vanquished. Compelled to return, they arrived broken, and left reborn. The novel is more complex than this, starting with the fact that O, AFRICA!, the book, takes its name from the title of a film conceived and written by two of Conn's Black gangsters. In payment for Micah's debt, they want the Brothers to make their film, which will tell the "true" history of African Americans. O, AFRICA is a lament, an exclamation, a moan that accompanies an orgasm, a cry that announces a birth. Told by Conn, it all comes together with no mere sleight of hand. The tale is the tale, and the tale is the thing. Whether Conn pulls his punches, or throws a roundhouse, they land. Conn does miss on occasion; after all, he aims high. What he describes as "The first Academy Awards musical number," featuring fearsome Harlem thugs, falls flat, while an unpleasant encounter with an unfortunate Colonel Blimp in London fails as either history or caricature. The scene yanks the Grand Brothers out of character. For a moment, Conn breaks the spell he cast. But these are minor blips, found in the best novels and films. His instincts alert, Conn quickly puts the reader back on track, a track that continues to gain momentum until it touches the horizon and his story is told. Like the collective dream the Grand Brothers gave their audience, Conn promised and delivered a spectacular, if uncanny dream to his readers: "The three of them stand and watch the projector booth's beam cleave the dark, light baptizing the audience, whirring machinery music, the sound of memory itself. ... They would never grow tired of this processing of enchantment: a lightstorm of imagery flooding from behind that unearths the hidden and unimagined as from an archaeological dig."
RaymondForsythe More than 1 year ago
Andrew Conn was written a wonderful, wonderful novel. The characters are interesting, fun, very funny, human and, when appropriate, heartbreaking. The plot is wide-ranging, touching, humorous, quick-moving, zooming off down unexpected avenues. The language is..........arms and big fists full of words, creative, I-can-see-it-in-my-mind's-eye images. Truly a wonderful work. I finished it the day after I picked it up. Do yourself a favor and read this book.