By John Edgar Wideman
Houghton Mifflin. 229 pp. $24
At a moment when Barack Obama offers America a new possibility - a successful half-white, half-black American politician who resists angry, resentment-fueled racial politics - veteran writer John Edgar Wideman returns with a novel meant to honor Frantz Fanon (1925-61), the controversial Martinican psychiatrist and stalwart of the Algerian revolution who declared in
The Wretched of the Earth
(1961) that violence against oppressive enemies is a therapeutic "cleansing force."
It arrives just in time for Black History Month. Unfortunately, it delivers too little information about Fanon, and too much that we've heard and grieved over before - the litany of race cards that any African American can justly play against America's shameful history.
Wideman, the 66-year-old author of more than 20 books that often draw on the deteriorated Pittsburgh neighborhood where he grew up and on his family tragedies - most notably his brother Robert's life sentence for involvement in a robbery and murder - plainly reveres Fanon, who charged in his influential book
Black Skins, White Masks
(1952) that "the black soul is a white man's artifact."
Wideman dedicates the book to Fanon. In his acknowledgments, Wideman expresses his gratitude "to Grove Press for keeping Fanon's writing available in English" and "to scholars, critics, colleagues, and biographers of Fanon, who will not allow Fanon to be forgotten."
Oddly, then, Wideman disserves his icon, because this rambling, self-indulgent, oppressive novel - yes, novels can oppress, though not as brutally as imperialists abuse "subalterns" - refuses to moderate Wideman's rampant (and long-employed) literary modernism - confusing shifts in perspective, unquotable run-on sentences, and paragraphs that tumble on for a page or more, stream-of-consciousness rambling that's endlessly repetitive and boring.
It refuses to give us a blunt and provocative Fanon.
Let's be clear on one point. Wideman knows what he wants to do. Winner of two Penn/Faulkner awards (
Sent for You Yesterday
), a Ben Franklin scholar and Phi Beta Kappa 1963 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania (where he captained the championship basketball team), the second black Rhodes Scholar ever, and now a longtime professor who teaches at Brown University, Wideman rightly claims title to a brilliant career.
To the claim that
is infuriatingly undisciplined and aesthetically misconceived, Wideman might reply that readers unable to absorb the text's hundreds of questions without question marks, the convoluted thoughts that lead nowhere, simply lack the sophisticated literary intelligence to read modern "experimental" fiction.
As with Barack Obama, you get to decide. But if
is a failure, it's a failure of choice, not necessity.
Wideman's first misjudgment is the absence of a Fanon recognizable to anyone not familiar with him. That's a further oddity, since Wideman states his debt to David Macey, whose biography
(2000) provided a brilliant portrait of a man often forgotten outside radical circles today.
Macey wrote of Fanon, who grew up in a well-off family, that there "was nothing in his background to suggest . . . he would become a major icon of revolutionary Third Worldism." How, Macey asked, did Fanon come to be seen "as the apostle of violence, the prophet of a violent Third World revolution that posed an even greater threat to the West than Communism?"
To answer that, Macey traced how Fanon, in his journey from Martinique to military service in the French army, medical school in Lyons, France, and psychiatric and revolutionary work in Algeria, grew angrier about white colonialism and racism. By contrast, Wideman's Fanon is merely a figure in mind, an icon, whom Wideman, and, alternately, "Thomas" - a Wideman doppelganger in this novel who's trying to write a biography or novel of Fanon - addresses regularly, but never adequately describes.
For Wideman, whose anger about American racism flashes through many of his books, Fanon makes a predictable idol. Reading this novel feels at times like reading a delayed 1960s tirade by a black writer who's determined to mention every racial insult or crime the world has ever perpetrated against blacks: the brutal murder of Emmett Till, "lynchers in America," images of tar babies, apartheid, protests over Black Power salutes during the Olympics, the "cruelty of white gazes."
It's almost unfathomable, then, that Wideman marginalizes the historical Fanon by placing him as a kind of recurring thought among so many motley elements, seemingly stitched together from different manuscripts.
A Wideman-like narrator starts up a new romance with a French woman while waiting in line to see a movie in Paris. Wideman takes us back to Pittsburgh, where he and his wheelchair-bound mother visit brother Robert, who tries to make sense of his life. (These are the most - the only - moving scenes in the book.)
Thoughts about an uncompleted novel involving a head delivered in a box share space with passages about a script on Wideman's Pittsburgh 'hood for legendary director Jean-Luc Godard. We're asked to imagine (despite the chronological impossibility) that Wideman's mother wound up in the same hospital as Fanon, who ironically died of leukemia in a Maryland hospital with the U.S. government paying the medical bills.
Wideman plainly declined to curtail his literary affectations even for a memorial project like this.
Fanon, whether you respect his philosophical bent or not, sacrificed much for his beliefs. Wideman, expressing solidarity from the safety of an Ivy League professorship, comes across as less selfless. To glimpse so little of Fanon in a book bearing his name ends up a lost opportunity. If it's true, as the internal narrative of
implies, that Wideman wrestled with a Fanon book for years, the elimination of its subject from center stage suggests that Wideman lost the match.
J.E. Wideman Appearances
John Edgar Wideman will participate in two events in Philadelphia this week and next:
Today, 2 p.m.
Black Ink: Celebrating Writers of the African Diaspora, Robin's Bookstore, 108 S. 13th St. Information: 215-735-9600
Feb. 26, 8 p.m.
Central Library, 1901 Vine St. Tickets: $14, students $7. Information: 215-567-4341 or
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