25 March 2008
23 March 2008
Dallas Morning News
Since John Edgar Wideman’s eighteenth book, Fanon, is inspired by the life and writings of Martiniquean psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon, readers might expect a closely analyzed, fictionalization of his experiences.
But Wideman’s new work provides only intermittent bursts of narrative about Fanon. Around, through, and below those sections are narrative streams about Wideman’s failed attempt to complete his Fanon project; about Wideman’s imagined conversation with the French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard; about life in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh; about Wideman’s mother, Elizabeth, and his imprisoned brother, Rob; about Thomas, a writer working on his own flagging Fanon project.
The novel opens with Thomas, Wideman’s amanuensis, at home, daydreaming about the delivery of a severed head as he struggles to complete his manuscript, Fanon. The doorbell rings: Thomas receives an unsolicited package from UPS containing a severed head with an attached quotation from one of Fanon’s texts: “We must immediately take the war to the enemy, leave him no rest, harass him. Cut off his breath.”
Though an icon of the postcolonial era, Fanon, often labeled “an apostle of violence, hater of whites, spawner of terrorists,” is frequently misread and misunderstood by both his acolytes and detractors alike.
Rather than disseminating anti-Western, race-baiting ideologies, works like Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961) present Fanon as a learned Western intellectual dedicated to eradicating narrow ideological thinking, racist social arrangements, and First World/Superpower imperialism.
In Fanon, as in his brilliant essay “Whose War” (2001), Wideman makes the case for interrogating our status quo cultural narratives about incarceration, American history, identity, and race.
In fact, Thomas’ mysterious, grotesque gift allows connection between Wideman’s literary-tangle and our current anxieties about terrorists and terrorism. But instead of instilling fear, Fanon’s impression on Wideman charges him to question the status quo definitions of “terror,” the suppression of dissent, and the techniques of literary storytelling.
Wideman populates the work with multiple voices in order to articulate various angles of imagining sparked by Fanon’s ideas. Slyly, Wideman marks his own literary attitude when he describes his mother’s style of oral storytelling –“flattening and fattening” point of view, cramming “everything, everyone, everywhere into the present, into words that flow, intimate and immediate as the images of a [Romare] Bearden painting.”
Bearden’s jazz infused art is an apt analog: Wideman sutures his patches of story together collage-like, threading Fanon’s theories on racism and political oppression into lyrical structures that swing like Ornette Coleman solos. Wideman practices radical, experimental modernism; his artistic forebears include Alberto Giacometti, Thelonious Monk, and Samuel Beckett.
Wideman’s linage makes Fanon a demanding, high-art novel. Though well-written and intelligent, Wideman’s discoveries that Fanon is “not a book” or that writing it is really “about identifying with others, plunging into the vexing mysterious otherness of them,” will frankly, unfortunately, leave some readers confused, others unmoved, cold. But the payoff for those who invest in Fanon, engaging (and analyzing) the promises (and pitfalls) of Wideman’s literary gamesmanship, is intense and liberating.