Greenland: A Novel by David Santos Donaldson


Greenland is characterized by a mordant, erudite satire that I have come to associate with authors such as Zadie Smith, Deborah Levy, and Edward St. Aubyn. David Santos Donaldson’s insight into academia & creative burnout brought to mind the work of Weike Wang, Elaine Hsieh Chou, David Hoon Kim, and Jo Hamya. Similarly to these authors, Donaldson presents readers with a young(ish) main character who is in the midst of a bizarre existential crisis. There were elements of Donaldson’s storytelling that I rather appreciated as they reminded me of Helen Oyeyemi and Elif Batuman, in that Greenland is consistently absurd in its tone and in its engagement with its various subject matters so that we have many scenes which manage to be both surreal yet oddly realistic. Similarly to the protagonists of those authors, Kip makes for a hyperalert yet frustratingly naïve narrator whose inner monologue is rather navel-gazey, as he obsesses over himself & the perception others have of him and (over)-intellectualizes even the banalest and most fleeting of his ideas/opinions. Whereas Selin’s ruminations in The Idiot have to do with language and philosophy, central to Kip’s narrative are race, history, and books, which allow for an intertextual dimension which really enriches his story.

I think this novel had a lot of potential, sadly sometimes this potential was wasted so that the story came across as self-indulgent and too intent on being clever and satirical. Still, the narration has this playfulness to it that really works in the story’s favour and the author’s social commentary is very much on point, as it manages to be witty & razor-sharp. Donaldson’s exploration of his main character’s identity, his uneasy relationship with widely accepted ideals of masculinity & Blackness, and his experiences with racism in academia and in intimate relationships (with his partner and best friend), are some of the novel’s strongest aspects, and I admired how Donaldson was able to address serious and topical issues with both humor and depth.

The story has a rather freewheeling structure as much of the narrative takes place in a confined setting: a basement study in Brooklyn. Kip Starling is a gay man in his thirties who is convinced that the only way he can meet his prospective publisher’s deadline is by locking himself in his study. He needs to revise his book on the love affair between E.M. Forster and Mohammed el Adl, which he initially had written from Forster’s pov, but now has to write from Mohammed’s one. Kip’s reimaging of Mohammed’s life and affair are heavily influenced by his own personal experiences, and soon enough he struggles to distinguish fact from fiction, reality from fantasy.
The narrative switches from Kip in the basement and the story he is writing. As Kip writes about Mohammed we learn more about him: he lives with his older white partner, an American therapist named Ben, who just recently broke up with him; he had a big fight with Concha, his best-friend months prior and the two have not yet mended things; he is British and struggled a lot to fit in with his American peers at university; he is very much experiencing a major identity crisis. Kip’s speculations into philosophy and spirituality, into whiteness and queerness, are characterised by a wry millennial tone, one that was for the most part rather amusing. The sheer absurdity of the scenario and of Kip’s increasingly frenzied inner monologue result in an offbeat narrative, one that is often unapologetically weird and nonsensical.

In the latter part of the novel we follow Kip as he embarks on a physical and possibly mystical journey, one that sees him confronting his relationship with whiteness, literature, and history. Here the story takes even more of a fantastical turn as the line between Kip’s story and Mohammed’s disappears almost completely, and it is very much left to the readers’ interpretation to ascertain how unreliable a narrator Kip is.
Sure, at times Kip’s intellectualizing grated on me, as it resulted in some verbose & florid passages that really added little to his story. The satire too sometimes feels too heavy-handed so that the characters and scenarios appear cartoonish, crass even, and in this way, I was reminded of Version Control by Dexter Palmer & My Education by Susan Choi.
The female characters, from the way they were described to the way their personalities were portrayed, left a lot to be desired. And at times it seemed that the story minimises Kip’s sexism because he’s not straight, but that didn’t quite sit right with me. One of the worst offenders is Concha, not because she is intentionally unlikeable (the way she fetishes and eroticises Blackness is schifo) but because she is the kind of Mediterranean character that I usually associate with English & American authors. They are passionate & hot-blooded, and often over-sexualised and prone to expressing quaint opinions about life, marriage, love, and sex. Concha is the type of character that I would expect to encounter in a book by Wilkie Collins or Agatha Christie, not in a book published in 2022 and that has a contemporary setting. Of course, when speaking about her Kip has to mention flamenco or emphasize how she goes on about men’s virility and whatnot. She is supposedly in love with Kip, and he knows this and doesn’t exactly do anything about it which leads him to feel guilty about the way he handled their relationship but I for one questioned the validity of their friendship. I just didn’t believe in it. Not because all friendships have to be nice and easy (i quite like the slightly competitive and peculiar bond between selin and svetlana in batuman’s books) but they have to be credible, and because Concha is such a cartoonish character who spouts the kind of ‘opinions’ that reek of scientific racism, I questioned what Kip saw in her. The narrative makes it seem like she’s funny purely because she’s Spanish, and has eccentric Spanish ways/views…le sigh. I was very much over her. She has no redeeming qualities nor is she horribly toxic in a particularly memorable or credible way.
Kip’s partner also was rather one-dimensional, and I didn’t like that the narrative tries to paint him in an ultimately ‘he-is-not-so-bad’ light when again his microaggressions are of the scientific racist variety. Yeah, he’s white so inevitably he will make remarks that reek of his white privilege but the stuff he says are of the there-is-no-going-back variety. And to be honest he doesn’t really have much of a personality, other than being kind of pathetic and ignorant. I just found him rather unpleasant and icky. Once again, I struggled to believe in their relationship, as I did not really get what drew these two men together, nor did the glimpses into their relationship make their romantic and sexual relationship more convincing. As I said, I can find complicated and fcked up relationships affecting, which is why I love authors like Brandon Taylor and Donna Tartt.
But I could have easily looked past Kip’s relationship with these two characters whose presence in the book is after all mostly relegated to flashbacks (i think we hear their disembodied voices while kip is in his self-imposed imprisonment). This story is mainly about Kip and the existential clusterfck he experiences. The author presents us with an experimental character study, one that is playfully surrealistic yet surprisingly touching and insightful. The narrative’s intertextuality enriches the text, as Kip often refers to the lives and works of other authors (for example kip refers to W. E. B. Du Bois’ double consciousness, Walt Whitman, Toni Morrison, and Fyodor Dostoevsky) as we read of Kip’s experiences in white-dominated places as well as his struggle to ‘acclimatize’ to American culture. As a Black gay man, Kip feels and is made to feel othered, and much of the narrative explores this notion of otherness and there are many awkward instances, of him not fitting in or attempting to connect to others, that brought to mind cringe-comedy shows like Fleabag & Chewing Gum. Sure, I would have liked to learn more about his family and his childhood but by focusing almost exclusively on his adulthood Donaldson still achieves a compelling character analysis.

What I struggled to look past was the story within the story, that is the sections we get from Kip’s book. While I love reading books centred on characters who are aspiring or established authors, for example Writers & Lovers, if said books include sections of writing from these fictional authors…these are of questionable quality. And the chapters from Kip’s book…were, how shall I put it, not good. Words like pitiful, bad, and ridiculous come to mind when I think back to them. Atrocious even. The writing was laboured, the storytelling sensationalistic, and the characters, who are supposedly existing in 1919 Egypt, possessed rather modern sensibilities. Sure, you could say this was intentionally pointing to Kip’s over-identifying with his protagonist…yet, having these sections from his book made the parallels between his story and Mohammed’s one seem forced, gimmicky even. Personally, I would have preferred if we’d just gotten a quote from his book at the begging of each chapter or something, but having to read Kip’s book bogged down Kip’s own narrative and made me feel less engaged in what I was reading. I also really didn’t like Kip’s Forster, a generically effete Edwardian man who lacks a moral backbone. Again, was I meant to believe that he was in love with Mohammed? And vice versa? It seemed that Mohammed was mostly revolted by him, and while I can appreciate books that have very toxic relationships or unromantic love stories, here I just didn’t buy into them.

The trajectory of Kip’s journey also risked being a bit too Eat Pray Love with Kip having an ‘awakening’ in Greenland. Sure, he isn’t a blonde straight woman, but the way his narrative portrays Aguta, an Inuit woman, yeah…it wasn’t great. In Greenland, he comes across someone who shares his very traumatic experiences and the narrative is very flippant about the whole thing, which didn’t sit right with me in that it felt gratuitous and exaggerated.
Quite a few things would have been more effective or amusing if they hadn’t been stretched out so long, for instance, I would have enjoyed that chapter on Idris Elba if that information had been given us over the course of a paragraph or two (as opposed to pages). I also failed to get those asides on the body electric (i think it was the body electric).

All in all, I have rather conflicted feelings about Greenland. On the one hand, it was inventive and amusive, on the other, it was sometimes tasteless and it had a lot of cartoonish elements that just struck me as unfunny and self-indulgent. The verbose intellectualism at play here lacked the precise dry humor of Batuman’s The Idiot and instead were more inaccessible and trying too hard to be clever & mean, bringing to mind Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi & Cho’s My Education (which may very well appeal to some readers, just not me at this point in my life).
Nevertheless, the writing could also be frothy and fun, Kip’s shrewd reflections on race, belonging, class, and history made me think of one of my favourite authors, Danzy Senna. Additionally, the narrative made me add An African in Greenland to my tbr-pile.

Considering this is a debut novel, I have to say it is a surprisingly memorable one (sadly i find a lot of debut novels to be a bit too vanilla-ey for my taste) and it has definitely succeeded in making me interested in checking out Donaldson’s future work.

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆


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