The Selfless Act of Breathing by JJ Bola review – an existential roadtrip

1 year ago 120

The premise of JJ Bola’s 2nd caller is an arresting one. Michael Kabongo, a young British-Congolese teacher successful London, sets disconnected to question astir the United States with his beingness savings of $9,021, having decided that erstwhile his funds tally out, helium volition permission down “the increasing value of burdens accumulating successful [his] life” and termination himself.

From this explosive opening, Bola traces 2 interwoven communicative strands. One is preoccupied with the familial, societal and idiosyncratic pressures that person led Michael to the despairing decision that helium “doesn’t beryllium anywhere”. We are introduced to his troubled and profoundly susceptible students; Michael feels a noble consciousness of responsibility, yet finds connecting with them and keeping them retired of harm’s mode astir impossible. We besides glimpse Michael’s trying home concern – helium lives astatine location with his spiritual mother, and struggle arises from his ain ambivalence towards faith. We conscionable his adjacent person Jalil, whose banter moves betwixt post-colonial sermon and the absurdities of modern dating.

The 2nd strand follows Michael connected his fateful American sojourn, from California to Dallas and Chicago and yet to New York. Here, Bola’s filmic snapshots – of portion clubs, frat parties, brushes with the instrumentality and romanticist trysts – are a vivid counterpoint to the mournful protagonist’s travel towards fulfilling his acheronian “pact”.

The novel’s conceptual interest with the constricted routes disposable for achromatic radical to find meaningful merchandise from systemic racism is, without question, important and emotive. (These ideas were precocious approached with freshness and unit successful Natasha Brown’s Assembly.) Additionally, the novel’s strength and earnestness are engrossing, and the scholar is drawn on by a grim curiosity astir whether Michael volition spot his program through. However, the publication struggles successful immoderate respects. Mental wellness challenges for achromatic men are worthy terrain for the modern novelist, arsenic Brandon Taylor and Caleb Azumah Nelson are showing us. But this novel, nevertheless heartfelt, seldom offers new, insightful oregon affecting probe into the turmoil of suicidal ideation.

Largely, this is simply a effect of stylistic choices. Though determination are moving passages successful which Michael’s distress is laid bare successful powerfully earthy presumption – particularly towards the extremity of the novel, wherever helium astir confides successful a workfellow – this directness and sensitivity is mostly absent. More often, determination is simply a somewhat grandiose, ponderous and yet distancing code to scenes successful which Bola gives Michael “the connection of melancholia” to dependable interior demons. In this mode, Michael repeatedly wonders: “Is determination nary mode out? No mode retired of the mind? Out of this prison, this hell, this purgatory – this wasteland of nothing? Where thing lives, wherever thing breathes […] I privation to locomotion into the oblivion of my being, the disintegration of my beingness from this world.”

Equally, Michael’s unexpected and seemingly revelatory narration with an exotic dancer, Belle, successful New York is presented successful overblown phrases. Belle’s “smell [is] similar a tract of unnamed flowers, her interaction similar a shaman healing an afflicted soul”. Elsewhere, Michael wishes helium could seizure Belle’s grin successful a jar “and instrumentality it with him wherever helium goes; possibly multiply that grin by the thousands and merchandise it into prisons, into drug-infested thoroughfare corners, into places of struggle and war, into abusive homes, and different places successful request of anticipation […] her bosom is simply a lighthouse and helium is simply a mislaid vessel successful the ocean”. This novel’s large imaginable to uncover caller truths astir the intersectional minefields that achromatic men negociate is compromised by a marque of lyricism that distracts alternatively than illuminates.

The Selfless Act of Breathing is published by Dialogue (£14.99). To enactment the Guardian and Observer, bid your transcript astatine guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges whitethorn apply.

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans tin beryllium contacted connected 116 123 oregon by emailing [email protected] oregon [email protected]. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the situation enactment work Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other planetary helplines tin beryllium recovered astatine befrienders.org.