Sag Harbor: Chapters 7 and 8, Plus Colson Whitehead

Hi, fellow readers!

Here is the last post for Sag Harbor. Ann McGinty and VaniSan (and anyone who might have felt similarly), thank you for your comments! I’m genuinely encouraged and grateful that you connected with this novel in your own ways.

So to begin my thoughts on Chapter 7, I’d like to note Benji’s guilty pleasure of listening to WLNG, a radio station that played songs “savored in private while tickling invisible ivories or fondling a phantom microphone.” Ha! What would be such songs for you? I think, for me, that “Take My Breath Away,” by Berlin, is a serious contender. I love how Benji equates listening to these songs as shameful as being caught in a moment of, um, self-gratification: “Sometimes I forgot to clean up after myself and hours later I’d hear ‘Who’s been listening to WLNG?’ from the living room, whereupon I’d walk out and declare ‘I hate that station!’ like a proper citizen.” I can just picture Benji walking out of his room very mechanically and exclaiming, “I hate that station!” Can’t you?

Like a lot of us (or just me), Benji is an awkward romantic: “In the logic of my affection, those who would love or kinda like me could see beyond the Iron Maiden embracing my teeth, my incompetent presentation and chronic galoot-ness.” I don’t know about you, but I guess I can’t help but love Benji in these moments. Am I saying too much about myself? Hmm.

There is another reminder in this chapter of Sag Harbor the Symbol. Benji comments, “Getting rid of your Sag house, that was unforgivable.” Are there similar lines that cannot be crossed in your own communities? Being Korean American and the child of immigrants, I can’t think of an object like a house that would be comparable, but I do think that in my own community, pursuing an occupation that isn’t as stable as medicine or law tends to raise a few eyebrows. (I wouldn’t say doing so would be unforgivable, but it would definitely raise eyebrows.) Selling a Sag house and “bucking the bourgie system,” like Uncle Nelson does, are two ways of breaking the rules of this community.

Later, Melanie and Benji briefly connect over Nick’s dissertation on “Funky Beat.” Melanie just for a second rolls her eyes to Benji. It is a fleeting moment; Benji thinks, “But I saw her.” I think this is a quiet moment in which Benji learns so much about girls—why and how they date and what they might be thinking about him.

There is a subtle change in Benji in this chapter. One night, his parents return to the house, fighting. Benji says, “I hadn’t made any plans. But I did what I normally did not do. I left the house. It was funny—as soon as the door closed, I couldn’t hear it.” Benji realizes that no one looks at you like you think they do. He also learns that he doesn’t need to be there to fix the problem or contain it. He has his own life to live.

Benji thinks about his sister, Elena, who sounds really cool to me as she listens to 45s of Mission of Burma, another one of my favorite bands. (Brief tangent: I tried to win a Mission of Burma 45 on eBay about five years ago. But it went for about $45!!! Maybe even $50! For a 45!!!) When Benji runs into Elena in Sag Harbor, she tells him to get out of the house as soon as he can. He says, “I don’t understand.” She says, “Yes, you do.” I think this interaction, combined with Benji’s leaving the house while his parents are fighting, is one more way in which Colson Whitehead shows how Benji changes without merely telling it. Benji does understand but doesn’t realize yet that he does. Isn’t that how life works? We often can’t articulate things until after the fact.

The trip down memory lane between Melanie and Benji is really sweet, when she tells him that she kissed him when they were five and he ran away screaming. She says he had “that Planet of the Apes pajama top you like to wear as a shirt even though it was the daytime.” That’s our Benji! Melanie indicates that she remembers a young, carefree Benji.

Benji can’t recall any of this. He thinks, “It seemed impossible not to remember something like that. The first time a girl put her lips on yours. What kind of chump forgot being a five-year-old mack?” A five-year-old mack! The image makes me laugh. But why did he forget? Was it the old house? Is that the event that precipitates the decline of Benji’s family? Does he block out everything that happened there?

Benji says this about certain songs: “People you’d never meet offered the words you were unable to shove past your lips, saying what you felt about someone once, or might become capable of feeling one day.” I know he’s mostly talking about cheesy songs, but it’s really true for everything. I think it’s true of this book.

The kiss is hilarious. Melanie purses her lips, and there is this long paragraph of overthinking, which she breaks by asking, “‘Uh?’” Then Benji says, “All this thinking! You understand the impediments I faced back then.” I don’t know about you, but I am often amazed by how much I can ruminate in mere seconds. So I found this long paragraph completely relatable and funny. But then Benji remembers a day at the old house with CB radios and Elena painting her nails, and the recollection is quite heartbreaking.

In Chapter 8 (the final chapter), we get a better understanding of how Benji comes of age. He begins to see how the various characters in Sag Harbor come in cycles.

Benji calls that disco number “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” the black national anthem. The song again signals how important this community is as it is living proof of building something from nothing. I also think Benji describes the Labor Day party very well, showing various aspects of the community. People pay their respects to the elders as the races and the fashion show take place.

Benji reflects on the cycle of life: “Every summer this shifting-over took place in small degrees as you moved closer to the person who was waiting for you to catch up and some younger version of yourself elbowed you out of the way.” That is a very poignant way of putting it, especially for Benji, in the sense that he shows he knows more than he thinks he does but he’ll realize it later.

Barry David, the misfit, leaves his mark on the proceedings. Benji notes, “Something about this day was off.” It’s again interesting that during the bonfire, only the kids are around. Why are the adults so absent? Do they need time away from the kids to have cocktails as much as the kids need to stare at a fire once in a while? Or is there more than that? I love how we go back to the beginning with NP’s comment: “That’s one patio set–burnin’ motherf***er.”

For Benji and the others of his gang watching the fire, he says, “As if we weren’t jealous of someone who just didn’t give a f***.” Do they know they have something to lose so they let someone else act out for them?

Having already made a mental note of the fact that he had to get his rightful three hidden beers, Benji returns to the stash and says, “I’d already had my three. I took another and gave Reggie one.” This could be a different Benji!

Well, different and same. Even though Benji changes in some ways, he also stays the same, which I find lovable. The last, long paragraph is typical Benji. I related to Benji’s belief in the promise of reinvention as portrayed in this last paragraph. I think it’s something we, or at least I, do still. With some newfound confidence after kissing Melanie, Benji plans to make out with at least three girls a semester. Our endearingly neurotic Benji has a ready comeback for someone saying, “Hey, look at Benji’s right arm, it’s bigger than his left because he jerks off so much.” Benji thinks, “I could say, No, that’s from scooping ice cream.” Good one, Benji. “You have no idea what a reli
ef it was to have an excuse for a question no one would ever ask.” So self-conscious and so self-aware.

I love the last bit of the paragraph. Benji thinks to himself, “I was definitely more together than I was at the start of the summer. It didn’t seem like that much time has passed, but I had to be a bit smarter. Just a little. Look at the way I was last Labor Day. An idiot! Fifteen looks at fourteen and says, That guy was an idiot. And fifteen looks at eight and says, That guy knew so little. Why can’t fifteen and three-quarters look back at fifteen and a half and say, That guy didn’t know anything. Because it was true.” Who doesn’t feel this way?

And then, suddenly: “Two a semester. But it had to be two different girls. Or not. No need to go crazy.” Benji’s hyperactive mind is still at work. I wonder if it still is. “Lay off the Cokes.” Yes, Benji, do so. “It was going to be a great year. I was sure of it.” I said that to myself every summer in high school.

Without getting into mind-numbingly boring detail, I think that the past year of my own life has been chock-full of ridiculous growing pains and important lessons. And I can’t believe that there is still even more to learn. Just when I think I have a handle on this thing called life, something else smacks me in the face and reminds me of how little I know. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

A teacher of mine once agreed with a student who said, “Underneath it all, we are all the same.” Angsty, cynical-in-a-callow-way younger me thought to herself, “God, I hope not.” I’ve since realized it’s true. Like Ann McGinty wrote in her comment for the previous post, each community has many things in common. We’re just trying to figure out where we fit, how to make this life work. Like Benji at 15 and probably Benji now.

Benji ends, “Isn’t it funny? The way the mind works?” Yes!

So, phew, what a long post. Thanks for reading that. Really, thanks! I sincerely appreciate it.

VaniSan and all interested parties, Colson Whitehead has agreed to answer our questions! Here are some that I’ve come up with. Please do post your own.

* So after having written your previous novels (such as The Intuitionist, which is, very briefly, about an elevator inspector), why did you decide to do a semiautobiographical novel now?

* Do you still go to Sag Harbor? Did you ever stop? If so, what made you return?

* Why were the kids left so unsupervised? Do you think it was a different time back then?

* Some readers weren’t used to the pacing of the story, that there aren’t really obvious plot points. What was your reasoning behind that?

* How would you describe Benji now?

Readers, thank you again!

—Janet Kim