The superstar singer Beyoncé is popping up everywhere. She sang (okay, lip-synced) at President Obama’s inaugural. She starred in the halftime show at last Sunday’s Super Bowl. And she is mentioned and seen but not given thoughts or dialog—in Ben Fountain’s novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a National Book Award finalist. That’s something to think about.
In an interview, Beyoncé once stated that her sexy performance character (seasoned by girlfriend-sister smiles) isn’t her. She sells an image. Like an actress who plays Lady Macbeth but who may be a tenderhearted polar opposite. Or a raunchy comedian who may be good-natured and mild-mannered offstage.
As a novelist, I get it. My characters reflect diverse aspects of human nature, not necessarily me. I’m not as greedy as Sheik Yusuf and the Ambassador in Slick! Nor as egocentric as Jesús Garcia-Vega and Adella Rozen in San Café. (Not that that’s saying all that much for me.) The Beyoncé factor—the adoption of a persona to meet specific objectives—comes into play.
Alas, Americans—as the rest of the world, because this is a human phenomenon—tend to mash up reality and fantasy. Politicians, artists, CEOs, athletes—anyone in the spotlight—profess the highest ideals then mock them by word and deed.
Mass shootings take place with horrible regularity? Let’s arm ourselves to the teeth—no weapon left behind. Abortions kill the innocent? Let’s kill people who perform them and muzzle those who counsel women to make their own decisions. Democracy’s threatened overseas? Let’s send American military forces anywhere, anytime—multiple deployments are just a fact of life—and run the table on our national budget. Congress is deadlocked? Let’s keep poor and minority Americans away from the polls. They vote for the wrong candidates.
As to Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: The Army brings home from Iraq the survivors of a heroic squad. They engage in a two-week tour of the U.S. to be lauded and applauded. And raise support for the war. The tour concludes—and this constitutes the novel’s setting and time frame—at the Dallas Cowboys’ old Texas Stadium for a Thanksgiving Day game against the Chicago Bears.
Admiration drenches the squad like the sleet penetrating the opening in the stadium’s roof. Team officials, their guests and fans continually ask, “We’re winning, aren’t we?” But these young kids—their squad leader is twenty-two—have no strategic view. All they know is blood, death and lingering fear. They’re being sent back to Iraq.
Beyoncé’s appearance represents a cultural reference as do the Barbie Doll-style Cowboys cheerleaders—controlled sexual imagery in a repressed, evangelical milieu. Fountain peels away the Beyoncé factor from the big shots and ordinary folks surrounding his confused protagonists, unmasking the pretensions with which we seek to disguise ourselves.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is serious stuff. That’s why Pleasant utilizes satire loaded with humor. And doubtless why he includes references to Beyoncé—whoever she may be.
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