Thomas Meinecke says of himself that he's a male fag-hag. A gay friend of mine is a Thomas Meinecke-hag. His gender-bending novel Tomboy was apparently a very big deal for my friend. So I decided to read the other of his novels that has been translated into English, Pale Blue. Because I didn't want the pressure of wanting to like a novel because a friend of mine adores it so strongly. I can't explain my choice any better than that.
Pale Blue I can like on my own terms. It's sort of about a German man called Tillmann, a.k.a. Venus, who is writing a theoretical something about music and politics in North Carolina and gets together with a Jewish-American woman called Vermillion, who is writing a theoretical something about ultra-orthodox Jews in New York and femininity. I think. And there's a woman in Berlin called Cordula, who is co-writing the thing with Tillmann and likes deep-sea diving, and is his ex but is now with Heinrich, who is doing something else academic. And then there's Yolanda in Chicago, who's friends with them all and is sort of involved in a three-way exchange of music and discussion with the other two places. And the music is techno but also jazz, and sometimes the musicians are Black and sometimes they're Jewish and sometimes they're "Jewish white Negroes" and sometimes they're Mariah Carey who is Black but isn't. Some of the techno music is radically political underground techno and I don't understand very well how that works other than it's not on major labels and it has messages scratched into the vinyl. One of the jazz musicians is Slim Gaillard, who wrote a dictionary of jive language. My dad met him once. And there are lots of old German submarines sunk off the coast of North Carolina, which divers like to explore. And Ford employed forced labourers in Nazi Germany and ought to pay them compensation; those that survived.
That's what happens. Tillmann and Cordula and Yolanda do their thing and exchange emails and talk about cultural phenomena and Tillmann wears an African tunic that looks like a dress and there's a big storm and they go to visit Williamsburg and look at Jewish people and Cordula comes to visit and then George W. Bush probably gets elected and that's the end. It's hard to tell their voices apart and there's no tension whatsoever and I understood very little of the techno stuff, except for the part when a major label re-records a track in identical form using different musicians and tries to sell it and everyone gets angry. But I found the book totally absorbing. I dipped in most nights and even found I could read it a little bit drunk, which doesn't usually work, because there was no need to remember the plot. I read it very slowly indeed but it still worked.
It worked because I was really interested in the three-way conversation. I was fascinated by the concept of the "Jewish white Negro" in jazz, by white people – well, not "passing" but assimilating themselves into Black culture through music, and by the idea that after WWII, it was no longer Jews but other working-class white boys like Elvis and the Beatles who emulated Black music. And I enjoyed the gentle gender fun between Tillmann and Vermillion, who does his hair and gives him a girl's name and thinks about orthodox Jewish men who can't work because they're studying the Torah so their wives earn the family's living, wearing wigs.
And it worked because we have the internet. Because I could pick up the characters' leads and follow them and look up the music and listen to it at the same time as they did, in my head. Because I could look up the political subjects and see what's happened since 1999, when the book is set. That makes it dated; the characters are sending scans of articles and CDs and letters between each other, which feels almost archaic. I'd like the book to be electronic itself, with links to further reading and with the quotes – there are many, and they're long – highlighted more clearly, and with a soundtrack and pictures of submarines and beaches and New York and the Love Parade and the Robert Taylor Homes. I'd like to imagine the translator, Daniel Bowles, as the central point of an impossible circle of material, all those artefacts splayed out around him in mid-air as he researches the novel. Like a scene out of Matrix with that frozen time effect, only the other way around so that all the months of hard work are visualized in a single moment. I think he did a great job; the English feels fluid but never dull, never stilted but still non-conformist.
And I like the title, the way it resonates with Lou Reed and Rudolf Virchow's plain-speaking scientific proof of the 1880s that there are no differences between non-Jewish and Jewish Germans in terms of skin, hair and eye colour. And at the same time with the colour of Vermillion's jacket and the colour of the sea. And I like the way it picks up or maybe negates a lot of the novel's obsessions with skin colour and identity, making "race" a movable, subtle thing, a thing without a plot of its own, like gender seems to be here too at times. I remember a boy in my class at school whose parents came from Pakistan, and he had pale blue eyes, the very palest I've seen, and very long eyelashes.
So it's not, you know, a well-constructed novel. You don't want to give it to your auntie for Christmas. But you might like to read it yourself, the way you'd spend a rainy day moving from one thing to the next on the internet, coasting. You'd like that.