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What Just Happened: Notes on a Long Year by Charles Finch

by Venky

(Image Courtesy: Publishers Weekly)

“North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, who dies about three or four times a year, may be dead again, according to Reuters”, reads an entry made in the month of August 2020 in Charles Finch’s part polemical and part philosophical ruminations, constituting his upcoming book. “What Just Happened” is a poignant yet scathing account of the first full year of the COVID-19 pandemic, as viewed from the perspective of an author and a critic living in the United States, one of the most severely affected countries, courtesy COVID.

Incessantly smoking pot and lampooning a “doofus” administration headed by Donald Trump, in an irreverent vein, American author and literary critic, Charles Finch’s “What Just Happened” is a miscegenation of Marta Gepe’s “Quarantine Diaries” and “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole. Juxtaposing anxiety and anger, Finch illustrates the floundering state of affairs in America as an intransigent Government refused to acknowledge both the import and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Finch conveys to his readers a cathartic state of mind that racks and ravages him – a state of mind that also traumatized millions of his fellow citizens, physically and mentally – during the entire twelve months in the year 2020.

Converging at regular intervals on the video platform Zoom (social distancing and other Standard Operating Procedures putting paid to any hopes of face-to-face interactions), Finch deliberates, deplores and dwells on a whole range of topics with his closest friends. Nathan is an indefatigably overworked, yet optimistic doctor who keeps feeding the group the latest advances and setbacks in medicine’s fight against the virus. Wulf, of Austrian accent, and an eternally bright screenwriter posits that he is impermeable to the advances of the pandemic, while Rachel provides a ringside view of juggling with children attending classes online while their parents struggle to adopt and adapt to the new norms of working from home.

When not meditatively engaging his buddies, Finch finds tremendous solace in the power of music. The passages detailing the musical preferences of Finch and the circumstances that led to those choices form the apotheosis of the book, in my personal opinion. The words transcend meaning, assume proportions of dizzying beatitude and take on a remarkable relevance both contextually and aurally. For example, Finch’s incorrigible obsession with the Beatles has at its core, an inconvenient (medically) childhood with insufficient means and an incredibly musical minded Uncle expatiating about every exploit of the Beatles, both professional and personal. Finch’s absorption with music results in an  eclectic mix of partialities. From an almost aleatory melody of The Doors to the paradigm altering rock of Led Zeppelin and much more in between, Finch’s collection of music is for the refined and the rustic alike. Even though it is  Kacey Musgraves and Taylor Swift, at whose altar the maximum benedictions are offered by Finch – in fact Finch himself is pleasantly surprised to learn that Spotify bands him in the category of the top listeners who are inextricably possessed by a Taylor Swift fervour – he also allows himself to be transported into the soothing, lyrical and rhythmical world of American Blues, popularized initially by the likes of Bessie Smith. In fact, Finch devotes appreciable space to chronicling the contribution made by African Americans to the world of Blues and Jazz.

The year 2020 also saw the prolific permeation of many seminal public movements such as Black Lives Matter. The brutal and inhuman killing of George Floyd, when Derek Chauvin, a police officer pressed down his knee on the throat of a struggling, suffocating and squealing Floyd for an interminably long period of eight minutes forty six seconds sent shock waves amongst outraged populace not just in the United States but across a chagrined world. Displaying solidarity, people staged marches in various countries. In the United States a few protests turned violent with protestors clashing with the police. Finch reflects on the alarming state of affairs by sitting on the lawn of his friend Wulf (restrictions on shelter at home being removed) and watching a procession of fire trucks racing along with alarms blaring, while a few helicopters swirl above reconnoitering, with their rotor blades reverberating.

Finch reserves his most pungent diatribes however for a select few in the Trump administration. Rand Paul, in addition to being the ‘tiniest’ Senator of Kentucky is also a ‘cosseted princeling’ plying his wares solely in the shadows of his more famous father; the postmaster general Louis DeJoy is a man ‘whose head looks like reconstituted pig parts were molded into a crude ovoid respiration tank, then installed with the eyes from the dumbest dog-species and hi-tech, blindingly white porcelain teeth’. When Trump himself is afflicted with the COVID-19 virus, after flouting every possible Standard Operating Procedure, Finch engages in a quasi- soliloquy on the value (or a lack of it) of Trump surviving the virus.

The most arresting part of the book interestingly involves books. Finch during the course of his reveries and reflections, takes recourse to anecdotes and quotes forming part of various books. These provide the reader with not just an insight into the prolific reading habits of the author, but also the very heterogenous nature of the books themselves. Historian Leon Litwack’s ‘crushing magisterial book’, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow leads Finch, and his readers, back in time – even before the defiance of Rosa Parks – to a woman named Pauli Murray. When she was just a child, Murray witnessed the murdered body of a man named John Henry Corniggin, “lying out in the field, where he had been shot to death”. Corniggin’s folly: walking across a white man’s watermelon patch. Murray went on to become an activist extraordinaire and a highly successful academic and now has a school in Yale University named after her. Similarly the pathbreaking book by anthropologist and structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques is discussed in an elegantly poignant manner.

Finch ends his book (by which time Joe Biden has successfully wrested the US Presidency out the hands of the irascible Donald Trump), with a stirring homage to his late grandmother and one of the pioneers in the art of Minimalism, Anne Truitt.

Hoping that Finch continues to write with a fervour that is undiminished. But here’s also wishing that he kicks the undesirable habit of continually puffing pot and subjecting himself o racking and wheezy bouts of painful coughs!

(What Just Happened: Notes on a Long Year by Charles Finch is published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, and will be on sale beginning 9th of November 2021)

Thank You Net Galley for the Advance Reviewer Copy

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