BED-STUY IS BURNING
By Brian Platzer
326 pp. Atria Books. $26.
In an Op-Ed last year for The New York Times, the novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge posed the question: “Should everyone get to create the art they feel called to make?” This was written in response to the novelist Lionel Shriver’s keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival, in which she argued that charges of cultural appropriation were censorious and limiting to a writer’s imagination. Greenidge identified the problem with this line of thinking: It is mostly deployed as a request to be inoculated from criticism, while also failing to consider the power dynamics of a society invested in the dominance of whiteness. The question is not whether white artists can write nonwhite characters, but can they do so with the kind of empathy that comes only from reckoning with their own investment in whiteness?
“It can be really, really, hard to come up against your own blindness, when as a writer, you are supposed to be a great observer,” Greenidge goes on to say. “It can be terrifying to come to the realization that it is totally possible to write into this blind spot for years. Whole books, in fact whole genres of fiction, make their home in this blind spot.”
Unfortunately, “Bed-Stuy Is Burning,” a debut novel by Brian Platzer, makes its home in that blind spot, even if its author was trying to do otherwise. The story is ostensibly about the relationship between Aaron, an ex-rabbi turned investment manager with a gambling addiction and a diminished faith in the God he once served, and his girlfriend, Amelia, a freelance journalist and new mother who loves Aaron but has reservations about marrying him. This alone could make for a promising, if familiar, narrative. But Platzer has much grander aspirations. Aaron and Amelia have recently purchased a home in the historically black neighborhood…