OK by KOOL A.D.
Sorry House, 2016; 250 pp
Reviewed by Bobby Fischer
Victor Vazquez, who raps and writes under the pseudonym Kool A.D., made his name as part of Das Racist—a hip hop group who didn’t just balance postcolonial theory, anxiety about capitalism, and race relations in America with pop culture and humor—they posited that they were all part of the same engine. As a rapper, Kool A.D. uses postmodern techniques such as repetition and nonsequitors to reveal the tense connections between disparate aspects of American life and plays on those tensions while disarming the listener with a punchline delivered in a relaxed cadence. The message is often politically or spiritually radical but its delivery is matter-of-fact, his point being that these radical ideas are no big deal: their benefits and obvious truth should be plain.
OK, Vazquez’s first novel, follows in the same manner. It’s a postmodern book about consuming art and drugs—page after page rattles off lists of what Mohammed X, our protagonist is eating, what he’s listening to, what substances he’s ingesting to expand his consciousness—and refocusing that consumption into metaphysical realization. It’s a largely plotless journey that begins with Mohammed X’s meeting his wife and converting to Islam after which point it walks us slowly through his life. Mohammed X and Khadija X have children, who grow immediately within the context of the novel to be geniuses at building machines and international gamblers. There is no real drama at any point. It’s all low stakes drug taking and listening to music as he goes on cosmic journeys in machines his infant daughter built. The machines have names like Fatimah 2: The Golden Eagle, Rosa 2: The Rosegold Falcon, and Guadalupe 2: The White Gold Hawk. There’s a lowkey metaphor here for our daughters being the point of access to infinite knowledge and wisdom, but Vasquez never presses too hard, so it seems like another absurdist tract in a novel that is equal parts Jack Kerouac and Steve Englehardt by way of Silver Surfer. He embraces the same techniques he does as a musician: repetition, nonsequitor, plagiarism, rhyme, and structure. The novel takes an Oulipian approach to structure, carving out 100 chapters in 250 pages, the clean edges erecting a façade within which the narrative can be messy. Most impressively each chapter has a corresponding song, part of Kool A.D.’s 100 track mix tape, also titled OK. These songs relationships to the chapters themselves are sometimes a lot more clear than others.
The book is tied into the rhythms of hip hop and beat literature, dialectal in a way that few contemporary novels have the guts to be without ever feeling inaccessible. Large sections include the repetition of various religious, political, and pop culture phrases typed in all caps, presented as a freestyle: ALLAH TRUTH / SWEET EXSTASY / TRUTH PEACE ALLAH / JAH JAH / U KNOW HOW WE DO / TRUTH INFINITE / INFINITE JEST / JUST DO IT / THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS ME / L’CHAIM / SMOKE WEED / HAIL SATAN / ALI BUMBAYE / CIAO BELLA, and so on. The interweaving of all these concepts as part of one central consciousness is thematic, even if the immediate meaning is opaque.
The novel has transgressive politics even within its pop metaphysics and religious sampling. Its title, OK invokes I’m OK—You’re OK by Thomas A. Harris, a practical guide to transactional analysis that was wildly popular in the ‘70s, a book that attempted to ground consciousness in the observable reality of states of emotional being. By removing the personal pronouns, Vazquez divorces us from the concept of the self and the other, placing us at the center of a possibly nonobservable cosmic truth. Or maybe the title is meant to address the casual approach the novel takes to the radical and to the self. It could be either. It’s probably both.