Saturday, February 27, 2010

Black History Month: Fanon

By coincidence as Black History Month drew to a close I finished reading Fanon by John Edgar Wideman. This is a miracle of a book. My critical capacities fall far short of what would be required to give this book its due, in a blog posting, an essay, hell, another entire book which is what it might take to approach it from every necessary angle and convey an adequate sense of its depth. With that apology up front, then, these few words will have to do, and the first of them is simply to urge you to read this vital book by this masterful writer.

Don't approach Fanon expecting a biographical or historical novel about the great revolutionary, theoretician, writer and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon. What Wideman is up to here is much more complex than that; of course it is, for, as anyone who has read any of his stories or other novels knows, his is never a linear approach. By which I don't mean that here he ignores Fanon or treats him with anything less than his due--in fact on one level, one strand of the book is a sort of love letter to Fanon, a heartfelt call to the world to remember and pay tribute to this hero of the anti-colonial struggle, to all he did and tried to do and sacrificed--but that Fanon takes on even more. The book takes on, really, nothing less than the state of the world these nearly 50 years afer Fanon died of leukemia in a U.S. hospital. The state, especially, of the African American nation. These are pages shot through with pain and anger, with harsh truths, with bitter hopelessness and yet also tender love and even an iota of hope.

There aren't many pages. It's a slim book. Yet it took me a good two weeks to read where other books of this length have taken me a day or two. The reason is that it is extremely dense--I mean this in a good way--each word, each sentence, each paragraph and page packed with meaning, with literary, historical and political allusion, with often dazzling wordplay, so that the reader must pay very close attention. You can't rush through sentences like these.

There are many many riffs on all sorts of things that you wouldn't think are connected but that in Wideman's hands somehow come clear as all parts of the whole, the whole being this wretched racist society and culture. And there are passages that are straight from Wideman's own life, about his brother who is serving a 28-year prison sentence, his elderly and wheelchair-bound mother, his own often despairing quest to make meaning of it all as a writer. Yes, this, or much of it, is meta-fiction. I had to look that up to make sure I'd gotten the term right, and I think I have: Wideman breaks with and/or brings front and center to expose the conventions of fiction writing, for instance bringing himself, the author, in as a character.

These sorts of devices are usually not my cup of tea. Not because there's anything inherently wrong with them, but because in practice they're usually bound up in novels of utter irrelevance. Fanon is the exception. This book is all about the ills of this society. It is, unless I very badly misread it, a cri de coeur, a cry from the author's heart, to fix things before it's too late. It is an offering, a clear-eyed vision of the wreckage from a writer who is unable to look away and dares us to join him in confronting reality. This book wants, as Wideman writes in nearly so many words on one of the final pages, to save a life.

A couple weeks back I posted some thoughts and questions about left literature. What it ought to consist of, what it ought to aspire to, whether it can or ever does have any actual concrete effect in terms of the class struggle. I do intend to return to that subject as soon as I can for continued general consideration, but here now is a specific book to wonder at from the perspective of these questions. Wideman's Fanon raises provocative problems. If because of its stylistic approach a book might be difficult for many people to read, is it still useful or relevant? If a book is honest and angry but is hardly oriented toward struggle, is it still a contribution to the struggle? It's hardly my place to offer any firm answers in the case of this book but I can offer my strong suggestion that you read it, because I do feel on firm ground in saying that it is the work of a literary master. It gripped me. Shook me. Made me grateful to spend a couple weeks in the presence of a deep and brilliant mind.

It also made me want to go back and read more of Fanon's own work. I read The Wretched of the Earth many years ago, in high school or college. It's time to revisit it.