By John Edgar Wideman
229 pages, $24
Is it high tribute or snarky takedown to say that a novelist’s prose reads like verse? The “poetry of imagination,” scolded Hegel in his Lectures on Aesthetics, precedes the “prose of thought.” Does that notion console the reader of John Edgar Wideman’s Fanon as he struggles through five-page thickets of rather disconnected words, praying for the arrival of a period, an inner copy editor demanding the liberal placement of ¶’s in the margins.
“As he turns back,” begins one of Mr. Wideman’s verse-worthy performances, “he widens his eyes and nods, his gaze brushing hers, letting her share if she chooses the information his eyes carry about how rapidly the crowd’s growing for this matinee performance in dismal weather and somewhere in there between glances and glances away he says hi or hello, an English greeting in France, and she responds with the same English word and he repeats it, the echoing maybe a bit too cute, more playful than cute he hopes, aren’t adults allowed to be playful, though there’s a chance someone standing in this line or in the crowd streaming by on the boulevard would, if given the opportunity, torture you, chop off your head. …”
And so on.
With a career of moves like that, Mr. Wideman, a MacArthur genius grant winner and National Book Award finalist, is needless to say a writer generally more admired than enjoyed.
“WITH THIS BOOK,” proclaimed the New York Times review of A Glance Away, his 1967 debut, “another young Negro writer has established himself in a vein of contemporary American fiction; another craftsman has learned, from Irishmen like Liam O’Flaherty and James Joyce, what makes the world of words and the interaction of dreams reach the sensual state of literature.” (The reviewer also praised Mr. Wideman’s “poet’s flair.”) Chuckle at the casual cultural paternalism—Negroes becoming civilized like the Irish!—but appreciate the prescience: Mr. Wideman has remained a craftsman, a writer whose unassailable formal exactitude comes at the price of a certain arm’s-length distance. He’s incredibly smart, but not much fun.
Until now. To be honest, Fanon is too slapdash and haphazard and showoffy to elicit any real admiration. Mr. Wideman’s poetry-prose has often been compared to both jazz and rap, but here it’s something closer to electroclash: overstuffed, raucous and only lucid every fifth or sixth page. And yet, 50 or 60 pages into dense, inscrutable, maddening Fanon, you realize you’re having a great time.
This unexpected turn of events could have something to do with a plot, such as it is, that often seems a shining satire of unearned seriousness. “Why Fanon?” Mr. Wideman winks in one of many authorial interjections. “The answer’s obvious, isn’t it?” Well, no.
Fanon, of course, is Frantz Fanon, the black French psychiatrist from Martinique whose writings on colonial violence and the world’s “others” provided the intellectual underpinnings for Algeria’s war of independence and many an anticolonial rebellion since then. But Fanon, despite devoting increasing attention as it unfolds to actual moments in Frantz Fanon’s life, is far from biography, either real or imagined.
It’s more like a novel about Thomas, a black American writer (Mr. Wideman’s on-again/off-again alter ego), who’s attempting to novelize the revolutionary’s life. Matters are complicated when John Edgar Wideman himself—sometimes rendered as J.E.W. in the text—appears with his own ruminations on Fanon, along with his wheelchair-bound mother and incarcerated brother, familiar characters from Mr. Wideman’s several memoirs. Then Jean-Luc Godard enters—from left field. There’s also a severed head in the mix.
It’s the imprisoned brother who asks repeatedly, Why Fanon?—fairly taunting the Wideman in the novel to explain why attributing present-day sociopolitical import to a long-dead Francophone philosopher is anything more than the displacement of very real, very pressing questions of race and identity. It’s to Fanon’s great credit that the reader comes away with something like an answer.
Frantz Fanon, who seemed to have gone out of fashion after the Third World revolutions turned ugly and the Black Power movement faded, has been staging a quiet comeback for the past two decades or so. Mr. Wideman’s isn’t even the first narratively unhinged treatment of the man—that honor belongs to British filmmaker Isaac Julien’s Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (1996).
Fanon’s 1961 classic The Wretched of the Earth is once again a staple in university bookstores. It still comes with a preface by Sartre, and from this distance, one can see the appeal to cosmopolitan existentialists. Fanon was the Arab in The Stranger, miraculously talking back.
Mr. Wideman seems appropriately suspicious of such simple idolatry. Against the odds, he’s pieced together vignettes and monologues and stream-of-consciousness microfictions—some cringe-worthy, many powerful—into an entertaining evocation of what Fanon called the “psychopathology of colonialism.” The book isn’t pretty, but then neither is the pathology.
Call it poetry.
Jonathan Liu is a writer living in Queens. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.