In my latest review at Splice, I conclude that John Edgar Wideman’s American Histories might be the best book I’ve read so far this year. That’s due in no small part to Wideman’s unflinching analysis of the ethical dilemma at the heart of his writing practice as a relatively privileged member of an underprivileged minority group:
Broadly considered, Wideman’s body of work reveals a lifelong interest in African American experiences over the last two or three hundred years. Fair enough, and unsurprising in light of the author’s background. But American Histories zeroes in on a more specific and more recent sort of experience, an experience of falling outside the cultural logic that determines the experiences of many others. The logic runs like this. Historically, most African Americans have been at least disenfranchised, and more often outright abused, by white people in positions of power. Currently, many if not most African Americans remain effectively disempowered by political and economic forces that maintain the systemic structures of white privilege. Relative to white Americans, throughout the history of the United States, the majority of African Americans have been and continue to be disproportionately disempowered: by slavery, by segregation, and more latterly by a criminal justice system that upends African American lives as effectively as those prior historical forces. But —
But social statistics can’t reckon with the stuff of individual being. While they may be symptomatic of the forces that colour the majority experience of a particular demographic, they’re not able to speak to the demographic in its totality. What troubles Wideman’s conscience in American Histories is the firmness of his claim to a social identity in light of his status as a statistical outlier. Relative to other African Americans, and especially to other African American men, John Edgar Wideman enjoys a social and economic position of enviable privilege. By what logic can he assert a right to speak for African Americans less privileged than himself? Indeed, by what logic can he assert a right even to speak of them?
I had an ambivalent response to Jesse Ball’s latest novel, Census, in part because of my closeness to its implied subject matter: being the caretaker of a child with a disability. In my review of the book, available now at Splice, I try to articulate this ambivalence with some reference to my own experiences:
There’s a gentle poignancy to Census which makes the book at once enlivening and yet strangely disappointing. Both its conceptual foundations and the assuredness of its style are the work of a rare creative intellect, but for some reason it doesn’t strive for the more ambitious, more profound things inherent in its premise. This isn’t a criticism meant to dismiss offhand the novel’s poignancy. It’s to wonder why Ball is content to do no more than prolong the poignancy, once it has been evoked, in a way that feels like a plateauing of the aspirations of a novel that has the potential to evoke so many other things. As beautiful and bewitching as it is, Census has been constructed atop a vast reservoir of promise which, beyond a certain point, remains untapped. Perhaps its sense of having been curtailed comes, bluntly, from opportunities overlooked or squandered, but there’s also the possibility that this sense has been created purposefully, that it is a structural expression of the narrator’s inwardness and reserve. Both of those scenarios seem equally plausible to me. I’m genuinely unable to draw a conclusion either way.
I should mention, however, that I’ve arrived at this ambivalent view of Census even though I suspect I’m closer to its base elements than many readers will be. In saying this, I mean to be on guard against the accusation that I’ve responded to the novel as an aesthete when I should be more attuned to its sentimental provocations: the helplessness of the child and the father’s unflagging dedication to his son, even or especially when confronted with the hostilities of others. But I, too, am the father of a child with a disability that affects every aspect of daily life. While my daughter does not have the same cognitive dimensions as Down’s Syndrome, it certainly does erect a wall between her and the world at large, and a large portion of my days — my years — have been spent chipping away at the invisible bricks and mortar around her.
New on Splice today, I have a long, ruminative essay on the humanist politics of Marilynne Robinson (and the work of Zadie Smith, Susan Sontag, and J.M. Coetzee) with a particular focus on Robinson’s most recent collection of essays, What Are We Doing Here?:
Humanism is, for Robinson, the greatest good, the ultimate end of a life whose necessary foundation is productive labour, and it is also absolutely inseparable from serious theology. Robinson’s religious view of humanism thus lends itself to at least a defence, if not a practice, of the liberal arts: the arts and humanities, after all, are an expression of human potential, of the plenitude of the human imagination, and are thereby an implicit indication of the nature and values of a superior being. Insofar as theology aims to understand the divine through the observable world, the arts and humanities are evidence of the capabilities of the creatures at the pinnacle of everything created by divine power: “a powerful testimony to human capacities, human grandeur, the divine in the human”.
This is actually the second long essay I’ve written about Robinson’s essays; the last, written upon the publication of The Givenness of Things, is available at Medium.
Alas, I didn’t win this year’s Observer critic’s prize — the rather ostentatiously titled Observer/Anthony Burgess Foundation Prize for Arts Journalism — but I it was an honour to be on the shortlist and I had a wonderful time at last night’s ceremony. Now that the results are out in the open and Felicity James has taken the gong for her review of Nigella Lawson’s At My Table, I’m going to post here my entry: a review of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. Continue reading →
It’s the use of language, and the conscious, purposeful exploitation of the unique capabilities of language, that distinguishes literary fiction from genre fiction. That’s an article of faith for me. The distinction has nothing to do with the material of the story. Which is why The Left Hand of Darkness, in particular, is an outstanding work of literary fiction. Not because it proves that science fiction can rival conventional literary fiction by telling complex stories with equal sensitivity, but because it does mindbending things with language, specifically the use of gender pronouns, with all their implications. That, above all else, is what makes the novel unadaptable, unfilmable, irreducibly literary. Extract the story from the language and you have a compelling, philosophically provocative science fiction tale, but you don’t have literary fiction. It’s the language that makes the difference; it’s in the language that LeGuin’s genius resides.