I bought Brotherly Love, a discounted, yet signed, copy from the remaindered section of the bookstore where I used to work. At the time I was enamored by Pete Dexter, whose books Train and Paris Trout I had recently read. Both of those books are spare and menacing, at times brutally violent, but done in a masterful way. Brotherly Love is like those books, but to call the book spare is an understatement. Dexter takes his time – most of the book, really – fleshing out the main characters, cousins Peter and Michael Flood from a Philadelphia gangster family. As the plot slowly develops – or comes to a boil, one might say – it becomes clear that Peter wants out. But of course, Michael and his band of hoods keep dragging him back in. In Brotherly Love, Dexter doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths of his characters as he does so effectively in Paris Trout and Train, and the reader is left with a book that feels empty and characters that feel doomed from page one.
I first discovered René Belletto’s novels when some years ago I fell upon a review in the Times Literary Supplement of his book Le Revenant, which seemed to be a combination of literary fiction and what the French call the roman noir, a kind of thriller sometimes involving cops, villains, and those dubious inhabitants of Soulless-on-the-Seine, though in his case we were firmly entrenched between the Rhône and Saône, in the heart of Lyon.
I ordered a Livre de Poche edition, and came to identify the tough guy in the fedora on the cover as the author himself. Though he often shares traits with them—a love and knowledge of music, expertise in teaching and playing the Spanish guitar, a fascination with fast cars and the best stereo equipment money can buy—Belletto only occasionally looks like the heroes of his novels. Of all the writers he’s sometimes (and sometimes capriciously) grouped with, whether the more modern stars of the roman noir such as Jean-Patrick Manchette or Thierry Jonquet, or those, like Jean Echenoz, who borrow from the genre but belong to a more nebulous group, René Belletto is the one most likely to surprise and entertain us.
His earliest publications were on the experimental side: Beckett seems to be the governing shade there, with a touch of Maurice Blanchot and a sprinkling of Mickey Spillane. And then came his breakthrough, Le Revenant (The Ghost), which on the surface seems to be a straightforward thriller told in the first person, but becomes a highly personal and compellingly readable narrative of loss and redemption set within certain recognizable tropes of American B-movies. It’s also the story of a man attempting to escape fate: the fate of family, the fate of vengeance, the inescapability of his own actions in a world full of traps and false smiles. This was followed by the second part of the Lyon trilogy, Sur la Terre comme au ciel (On Earth as it is in Heaven), and finally L’Enfer (Hell, or, as it was published in translation here several years ago, Eclipse). These days, Belletto sets his fictions in the narrow streets of Montmartre, where he now lives. His newest work, Hors la loi (Outlaw), is a complex and riveting novel of reincarnation that, as with some of his more recent works, goes beyond the limits of reality into unexpected realms of other genres as, by using the musical concepts of theme-and-variation, prelude and fugue, and stepping into the regions of science fiction, it explores the inescapability of fate, the pleasures and traps of desire, the loss of identity through passion for another. Yet Belletto’s novels really don’t adhere to the standard plot devices of polars or romans noir; his concern is with character caught through wayward fate in a plot not of his own design, drawn into a world that on the surface seems familiar but bristles with unreality and danger.
Mourir, first published in France in 2002 and now expertly translated by Alexander Hertich as Dying, has just appeared in a handsome paperback original published by the Dalkey Archive Press. It’s a work of unusual though never-confusing complexity, a novel of reflections and correspondences that contains all of the author’s strengths: Belletto, who has a brilliant grasp of pacing and possesses a connoisseur’s knowledge of film, is a natural storyteller with a strong, sure voice, and his books prove difficult to put down.
Although the original French edition of Dying contains a section of reproductions and photos (discussed in the translator’s introduction, but sadly left out of the Dalkey Archive edition, as they playfully comment on and supplement the story surrounding them), the governing image is Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez.
What at first seems to be a portrait of the artist painting the Infanta Margarita with her attendants becomes, the more we look at it, a study in realities. The painter himself looks away from his canvas to glance up at us. Or is it us? Reflected in a mirror behind the Infanta are the girl’s parents, Philip IV and Queen Mariana, placed nearly where we, the viewers, would be. Which suggests that the painter is in the process of painting a royal portrait. Yet this is called Las Meninas, “The Girls,” which from his vantage point is not what he’s painting at all. Isn’t this instead a painting of an artist painting another painting altogether, one that we may never see? And where is Velázquez in all of this? Has he basically vanished into the work itself? The reflexiveness of this complex work is echoed—indeed mirrored—in Dying, where a character is even known as Reine, Queen, or, as Hertich renders it, Queene. In this novel we are, in fact, in a world of mirrors, not as mere literary trickery, but as a skillful, serious and indeed brilliant play on levels of reality in a story that, at heart, is about conquering death. And yet this is also a book filled with Belletto’s characteristic humor and melancholy, to which Alexander Hertich is especially sensitive.
As Dying opens, the voice we meet, or rather the voice that creeps up on us, is a familiar one: it could be the narrator of any of the titles in Beckett’s trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable, croaks and wheezes of men in extremis, or at least at their worst, a man so solitary that the presence of another—whether character or reader—unleashes a torrent of words, an obsessive and mad swirl of internal logic. For the narrator is a resident of the Rats and Vermin Hotel, and he may well be in that shimmering transitive state between life and death. But wait… Because on page thirty, just as we’re becoming lulled into thinking this might be another Beckettian exploration of the human condition, we’re in a kidnapping story—one we’ve seen before in a Belletto novel and that we’ll see again in subsequent works. It’s then that the narrator known as Sixtus claims to be the husband of the kidnapped woman; at that moment he has stepped into the plot and left his miserable life behind him.
Armed with the ransom, showing up at the specified time, Sixtus discovers that the kidnapped woman he has just met is an imposter. Not the Armelle of the ransom note, but Queene, with whom he’s immediately smitten as they drive to Madrid and a room at—where else?—La Casa Margarita. We are inside the world of Las Meninas, where reality can either be tangible, something glimpsed in a reflecting glass, or a tale that we tell ourselves to make sense of another’s universe.
And then, suddenly, part one—“An Old Testament”—ends and “A New Testament” commences, with a new narrator and a new voice, more human, more direct, more trustworthy, more modern and, dare I say, more Belletoesque. We’ve walked through the mirror, and we’re in another world. Or is it? “I know today…our story was nothing other than the world without us,” the narrator of this new section writes, and the line is like the center of gravity for this work: a tale told by a man present at his own absence. “We toil relentlessly to hide beneath artifice that which is naturally out of reach,” he continues, as though to inform us that the man behind this voice, René Belletto, is giving us a kind of self-portrait, though one so deeply coded that whenever we seem to catch a glimpse of the author (his passion for the music of Tomás Luis de Victoria is known to me, but I’d be hard pressed to say that the character he writes about is Belletto himself), he slips out of view.
Even whole passages in Dying are lifted from his earlier novel L’Enfer, as though Belletto were looking at his life and works through the lens of a kaleidoscope, capturing the shifting and changing details as they create new visions, new worlds, and the endlessly-repeated reflections that constantly alter our view of the author’s reality.
For Belletto is first and foremost a storyteller, a devotee of the films of, among others, the director Richard Fleischer, and the novels of Dickens (he’s also the author of a fascinating 700-page work devoted strictly to Great Expectations), and so his venture into a world as complex and as full of reflection and echo as Dying never once grows heavy with theory, or with the machinations of consciousness. To Belletto this all comes naturally. The ease with which he shifts between genres—whether they be straightforward thriller, detective story, spy tale, or the blisters and flames of a thwarted romance—is breathtaking and highly entertaining. One reads Belletto’s books both for the humor and the intricacies of plotting. Which isn’t to say that character doesn’t count, for all of his works depend on richly-drawn protagonists, many of them variations on a single theme: the man we first met in Le Revenant, a man with an honest soul and only the best of intentions for whom we feel only the warmest affinity.
But Dying isn’t just a literary trick that slips like mercury between genres. There’s a haze of anguish that lies over the tale, indicating that the author has brought his most personal side to the page. Loss, mourning, regret—all of these come into serious play in this most playful of books.
Very few religious texts ever leave the place of worship. If you consult the Kol Nidre any night other than on Yom Kippur, it sings a little less powerfully. It seems inappropriate and off-putting to read over the Passion at any time beyond Easter. The line between holy writ and popular lit is drawn in stone, pitting our reading inclinations tablet against text, and so your choice becomes one of either total secularity or total Orthodoxy. So the stories that compel us are limited to their moment of application — Yom Kippur transforms into a fast and break-fast, and Easter turns into a celebration of bunnies and chocolate. Only one form of religious storytelling is ever permitted to bleed into the secular space — the Haggadah, the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt, and the book of prayer to accompany the Passover Seder.
This story gains new complexity and unanticipated fluidity in The New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander. Foer and Englander’s edition is less a makeover than a workout — by opening up the Passover story, giving stiff words new flexibility, and prodding the text’s eternal questions, they have given readers, both devout and secular, a newly rich and provocative text, one that can be enjoyed long after the afikomen is found. The book is classically laid out, with Hebrew text on the right-hand page (gorgeously illustrated in texturally rich watercolor by the Israeli typographer Oded Ezer) and Englander’s translation on the left. At the top runs a timeline from Mia Sara Bruch, a scholar of Jewish history at Stanford University, charting the history of the Jews from 1200 BCE to present day, from the moment of the actual diaspora’s commencement to the reading of the Haggadah today, creating a throughline of historical relevance for the reader. Some readers may feel the text is wanting for a transliteration, but its book is an engaging read despite its absence. I found myself turning the pages in all directions, searching my years of Hebrew school for a language I’ve forgotten, and lost myself in the experience of the text.
The New American Haggadah’s strengths are especially prominent in the commentary dispersed throughout the text. Each major portion of the Seder is accompanied by four perspectives — Middle-East historian Jeffrey Goldberg (“Nation”), director of the Center of Jewish Studies, Nathaniel Deutsch (“House of Study”), novelist and scholar Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (“Library”), and novelist Lemony Snicket (“Playground”). These contrasting voices bring out the multitudes of questions and quandaries inherent in the Passover story, and by secularizing the commentary, giving it over to political, liturgical, literary, and elementary analysis, they have made this into a vitally relevant piece of philosophical inquiry. Goldberg’s “Nation” contributions are especially vital, contextualizing the Seder as a moral code that we as global citizens have tried (and failed) to uphold. (Sharp eyes will immediately scan the text for his take on the Israel-Palestine quagmire.) And Snicket’s witty asides bring the perfect amount of snark to the text — it will keep the antsy adolescent attendee entertained throughout the Seder while keeping them engaged with the evening’s message. (Especially great is the retort to that ever-condescending narration of the Four Children — Snicket offers, as an antidote, “The Four Parents.”) Ending the Seder with Snicket’s Seinfeldian examination of the bizarre Aramaic song, “Chad Gadya,” lets you leave the table with a belly laugh — made even more enjoyable after the required four glasses of wine.
What makes this volume such a pleasure to read, and what makes it the best book of modern religious thought in recent memory, is its demand that dialogue be a central part of worship. “Tonight is the night,” Goldstein says, “that we sanctify storytelling,” and nowhere is this more clear than in Englander’s translation, framed with the essence of narrative-in-community in mind: “Adonai” becomes “Lord God-of-us, King of the Cosmos.” The latter half is a bit grandiose, but the first part is spot-on. The voice of the storyteller-as-representative of the audience is central, and the translation of the Seder’s outline suddenly clarifies why each part is crucial — reading each stage as one line of dictation, “Sanctify and wash; dip split and tell; be washed and bless the poor man’s bread; bitter, bundle, and set down to eat; hide it and bless; praise it; be pleased.” Prayers are translated leniently, as if preparing for the not-so-adherent Jew, i.e. if you fail to dispose of all the leavened bread in your house, it’s no big whup. And he lets the beauty of the language flow, turning prayers into poems. In a prayer for compassion, the plea is to “rescue and recover them — delivering them from gorge to meadow, from darkness to light. Break them free of their shackles and lead them on to salvation. Do it with speed and in our days, and let us all say, Amen.”
Within each newly framed line, however, is a question — not one of the four questions, not even the major one, “Why is this night different than all other nights?” The question is the ambivalence of our worship: how, in a universe where chosen people were forgotten and made to toil under the yoke of slavery, and where their exodus came only at the price of further slaughter and plagues of suffering, do we believe and enact justice as spiritual citizens? The question of how to be good in a world that has not been good to us, colors Ezer’s powerfully violent illustrations for the 10 plagues. And yet these unanswerable questions do not defeat us as readers, but emboldens us. Ambivalence is empowering, for it demands that we debate and engage with our faith. In Englander’s translation on the Shema, the holiest of prayers; he says, “Blessed is the One that is Space and the Source of Space, the One that is the World but whom the World cannot contain…” In the complexity of our devotion are the unanswerable details of how we maintain faith. The most provocative sequence, in which a single illustrated word vibrates in pale green and which Englander translates to “With how many layers of goodness has God blessed us?,” made me run to several different books in attempting to find the exact Hebrew transliteration, all to no avail. Yet in the searching for the transliteration, I felt more connected to the Passover story than ever before.
As Foer notes in his introduction, “Here we are, as night descends in succession over all of the Jews in the world, with a book in front of us.” No other holiday is so centered on storytelling, so focused on the power of narrative and the responsibility that narrative bears. And so this night becomes a living narrative, and so each time we gather around the Seder table to tell it, we imbue it with new possibility. “Here we are,” Foer says, “individuals remembering a shared past and in pursuit of a shared destiny. The Seder is a protest against despair.” Though we may wish to parcel out our moments of religious contemplation, leaving the big questions for the synagogue, The New American Haggadah makes worship a radical act of intellectual inquiry. Goldstein says, “It is the intimate spaces that the unwelcome and necessary revelations come, and we withdraw from those intimate spaces at our peril.” By bringing old stories and new questions together at the Seder table, we ask the unwelcome questions, and the revelations come in multitudes.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Jonathan Franzen seems to have always known what kind of writer he wanted to be when he grew up. His underrated first book, The Twenty-Seventh City, published before he was thirty, managed to synthesize the warring impulses of postwar fiction – toward black comedy and intimate lyricism, toward domestic realism and busy narrative, toward the personal and the political – in a language of aphoristic wit, journalistic specificity, and lapidary precision. The Twenty-Seventh City was a little bit of everything, without seeming like the average of anything.
Notwithstanding his subsequent (and public) hemming and hawing about the social vs. the domestic, the difficult vs. the hospitable, art vs. entertainment, Franzen’s ambitions have proven remarkably stable since then. Every seven or eight years, he brings out another dense and dazzling slab of pages – another panorama of American life viewed through the prism of the individual conscience. With 2001’s The Corrections, he would seem to have perfected his method. It won the National Book Award, pissed off Oprah, and sold a million billion copies. Our recent poll of authors and editors singled it out as the best novel of the last decade.
What could it possibly mean, then, to say that Freedom, his long-awaited follow-up, finds Franzen maturing? Surely not that he is more confident at 50 than at 40. (It’s hard to think of a novel more confident than The Corrections.) Nor that Freedom is more or less expansive, or that it represents, in the canned phraseology of newspaper reviews, any kind of “stunning departure” in substance or in sensibility. Rather, the novelty of this novel – the richest reward it offers us for our patience – is the deepening of the author’s moral imagination. One thinks of flavors ripening over a slow boil, of instruments changing as they age. To put it another way, in Freedom, Franzen’s blues are bluer. The ironies are stronger, the pain more mysterious, and the characters more given to change.
Like its predecessors, Freedom can be read as a species of family novel. Unlike them, it is, at heart, a love story…though Franzen cannily muddles the terms of the genre. The lovers in question are Patty and Walter Berglund, parents of two and members in good standing of the urban gentry of St. Paul, Minnesota. But it is not at all clear initially that Patty loves Walter – or, at any rate, how Patty loves Walter, or how well Walter knows Patty. It is, moreover, not at all clear that we should care. A bravura overture, “Good Neighbors,” introduces us to the Berglunds through the eyes of their fellow gentrifiers, offering a mordant catalogue of the foibles of “the Whole Foods generation.” The satire is delicious, but also offputting. We come to agree with community sentiment, expressed in the free indirect third-person Franzen favors: “There had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.”
Immediately afterward, however, Freedom takes a sharp turn: it plunges us into Patty’s point-of-view. Seeing through her eyes Walter – and their son, Joey, and Walter’s best friend, the charismatic rock musician Richard Katz – we are shaken from our comfortable judgments. And then, in long, subsequent sections that follow, we move into Richard’s head, and Walter’s, and Joey’s, and back to Patty’s, each time having to adjust our understanding of this core quartet, the married couple and the manchildren who come between them. Franzen has played this inside-outside game before; The Corrections shuffled us serially among the Lamberts. Here, though, the sharper disjunctions between the various perspectives make the stereoscopic effect at once deeper and more unsettling. Between the outward and inward lives of these characters is a chasm we begin to wonder if we will ever bridge. Which is, of course, exactly the chasm Walter and Patty will have to bridge.
First, though, we hopscotch through time. We explore the Berglunds’ formative years (their meeting at college, Patty’s rape, Walter’s alcoholic father); the flickering, destabilizing presence of Richard in their lives; their move to post-September 11 Washington, D.C.; Joey’s and Walter’s entanglements with the conservative powers of that city; and the slow dissolution of the Berglund marriage under the familiar Franzen formula of depression, anger, and explosive sex.
If this sounds heavy, it should be pointed out that Franzen is one of our funniest writers. His sense of humor, too, constitutes an inside-outside game. When Patty, years later, “envies and pities the younger Patty standing there in the Fen City Co-op and innocently believing that she’d reached the bottom,” we are both the wiser, older self (how bad can things really be, in the Fen City Co-Op?) and the “innocent” younger one. Franzen has a wonderful way of boiling down this kind of perspectival comedy even further, into a little bouillon cube of diction: “Joey was staggered by the quantity of hardcover books and by the obviously top quality of the multicultural swag that Jonathan’s father had collected during distinguished foreign residencies.” “Multicultural swag” is funny – we catch the superficiality of Joey’s hosts, and a flicker of glib self-awareness in Joey. A lesser novelist might have stopped there. But the agrammatical “obviously top quality,” tucked away nearby, is funnier. For all his efforts at savoir-faire, Joey is also ingenuous, in ways he can’t quite see.
For Franzen, as for the Buddhists, understanding, whatever pieties it may traduce, is the supreme act of compassion. And to understand people in all of their contradictions is, perforce, to be ironic. To speak of the “likeability” of Freedom’s characters is thus to miss the moral project completely. Joey is a product of his generation; as another character observes, there is “something Reaganite” about him. But because the novel cares enough about him to inhabit his consciousness fully, we care about him, too. We are laughing at once with him and at him. And with and at ourselves.
Such anthropological laughter is a constant in Freedom. The novel picks up and probes everything it comes into contact with, managing in the process to take apart a goodly portion of what currently constitutes American life. It’s not that Franzen “knows a thousand different things,” as James Wood has suggested the contemporary American novelist seeks to – he’s no Tom Wolfe, thank heavens. But he is curious about everything: Volvo maintenance, phone sex, alt-country, iPods, college life, Leo Strauss, NCAA women’s basketball…
Franzen’s curiosity – his wish to welcome the world into his book – at times becomes overly antic, in a way that sits less easily against Freedom‘s midlife sobriety than it did in The Corrections‘ atmosphere of oxygenated adolescence. Joey’s excursion in South America as a would-be war profiteer is like a less compelling version of Chip Lambert’s sojourn in Estonia. And the coal-company conspiracy that envelops environmentally-minded Walter in the middle of the book is far less effective, as political commentary, than the tensions within Walter’s own family. One thing Franzen does not seem to know particularly well is Washington, D.C., and there is an opacity to Walter here that we don’t feel with Walter elsewhere, or with Joey, Richard, or Patty. (It is surely worth mentioning that Franzen writes more persuasively and attentively about the inner life of women than any male American novelist since Henry James.) But Franzen has the wisdom not to strand Walter inside the Beltway.
Against the urban densities where the Berglunds have chosen to make their lives, Freedom keeps returning to a family cabin in the Minnesota woods where they seek respite. And it is a mark of Franzen’s growth as a novelist that he keeps letting them find it – letting them breathe. Here, for example, is Walter, late in the novel, but early in his life:
Seventeen years in cramped quarters with his family had given him a thirst for solitude whose unquenchability he was discovering only now. To hear nothing but wind, birdsong, insects, fish jumping, branches squeaking, birch leaves scraping as they tumbled against each other: he kept stopping to savor this unsilent silence as he scraped paint from the house’s outer walls.
And here is Patty, twenty years later and 300 pages earlier, just before her life falls apart in earnest:
She took War and Peace out to the grassy knoll, with the vague ancient motive of impressing Richard with her literacy, but she was mired in a military section and kept reading the same page over and over. A melodious bird that Walter had despaired of teaching her the proper name of, a veery or a vireo, grew accustomed to her presence and began to sing in a tree directly above her. Its song was like an idee fixe that it couldn’t get out of its little head.
In the delicate mirroring of these passages, Franzen insists on nothing. Instead, he lets meaning, the elusive thing, emerge through momentum, like widening circles from a pond-tossed rock. The songbird’s repetition echoes Patty’s, and its idee fixe is really hers: the “vague ancient” impulse to sleep with Richard. Moreover, the grassy openness of the place Patty calls “Nameless Lake” speaks of a freedom neither Patty nor Walter can find in the “cramped” confines of the nuclear family, or of the society of which it is a microcosm. Freedom, in its intertwining personal and political aspects, is Freedom‘s explicit concern. It should be noted, though, that the bird the novel keeps coming back to (and that graces its cover), is a blue one, allied not so much with freedom as with happiness. Franzen’s real quarry here is the vexed relationship between the two. In the space of the Minnesota woods, the Berglunds are – like Richard on the road or Joey off at college – free, but alone.
Ultimately, in these and other moments that call to each other across time and across the space of the novel, Franzen also allows the patient reader to see what Walter and Patty cannot: that they are made for each other. I cede the floor to James Baldwin:
Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
It is the surprising grace – in every sense – with which Franzen evokes Patty and Walter’s love that marks Freedom as the work of a master. Readers looking for the pleasures of The Corrections will find all of them here, in force. But they are also likely to come away from this novel moved in harder-to-fathom ways – and grateful for it. Which is to express the hope that, amid the general childishness of the cultural scene he skewers so lovingly, Jonathan Franzen and his audience may be growing up together.
To paraphrase the critic Georges Poulet: a poet of written poems does not necessarily aim only to write a poem; he or she aims to become, and for those who read his or her poems to become. Becoming is an activity that many young African Americans are engaged in today — whether it be formal, revolutionary, or informal — and it is an activity that requires undivided dynamism. If Kendrick Lamar’s chant “we gon’ be alright” — four words that when repeated meld a fight song to a primordial moment in the foundation and the defense of a collective and its culture — is now considered the foremost musical expression of this era’s black activism, Nate Marshall’s poem “repetition & repetition &”, the very first poem from his book Wild Hundreds, should be considered the foremost articulation of contemporary blackness’s dynamism in literature. It’s an engine of becoming.
Our is a long love song,
A push into open air,
A stare into the barrel
With those three lines, Marshall begins an epic comparable to Robert Hayden’s renowned “The Middle Passage” and other black epics; but this is an epic of guidance and instruction. It’s built on the thesis that black “works,” as painful as it may be to be black. The poem begins by posing the question What do I feel as a black person, its title “repetition & repetition &” having given us the context. The opening of the poem removes any ambiguity we might attribute to the poem’s message, plunging us into the poet’s project.
We are a pattern,
A percussive imperative,
A break beat
“repetition & repetition &” quickly comes to feature the collective “we” as fundamental to the poem. Marshall uses the word “we” as the black community loves for it to be used. If “I” is modernism, and postmodernism, Marshall pushes it aside for the beloved “we” — the “we” of the hard road to salvation and joy. Sorry, he seems to be saying: despite claims that our sentiment is tribalism or that we are just Americans, the black community remains a place where a black “we” is a beautiful way of saying “me.” With “we” he expresses the blackness that has us all feeling, one that cannot be found in oh-so-many poems that center the lonely “I” or “me.”
“We” is brilliantly defined in the line “we are love.” We = love, in convivial crowds and effective political rallies.
Baby we are hundreds:
Wild until we are free.
Wild like Amnesia
This is an epic of identity. It proposes black identity (love, being wild) to its reader, as a written articulation of “black is beautiful”; it functions as a model of identity to adhere to and trust.
Identity is an old and persistent question in black life, to the point where passing, pretending that one is not black or not claiming one’s blackness, has been a theme of many black novels (see Nella Larsen’s Passing). Faith in blackness and in one’s own blackness is a feature in our age of contradictions: of a black president, of interracial marriages, of a growing middle class, of foreclosures of homes owned by blacks, of predatory and racist practices, of the killings of young black men and women, of Black Lives Matter. It’s an age of youthful comic modernities, where tragedy is not the sort of thing that co-workers of other races want to talk about. Should I be happy in public? Who am I in all of this? Marshall answers these questions and others with an epic that can guide, in terms of how to think about blackness or being black.
The black identity being proposed is not a simple one. As John Edgar Wideman wrote as a blurb for Mitchell Jackson’s novel The Residue Years, it embraces the English language as a means of expression, saying loud and clear, Despite my difference, I am culturally a descendent of the English language and of poetry in English. It is perhaps the most complex aspect of the poem — the poet does not want to settle for blackness as some sort of noble savagery. His language tells us that a black person can read French theory and find solace in Modernist English poetry all the while feeling the pain and rage that comes from seeing a dead black child on a television; all of it combined being who “we” are or “I” am as a black person.
In the end, Marshall offers an engine for the pursuit of self that can only be the undercurrent of black production — ranging from Beyoncé’s Lemonade, or Greg Osby’s many great yet unknown albums of genius Jazz blackness, or a teacher’s persistence with children — but also a vehicle for any non-black person to think about the blackness of co-citizens and friends. His poem is an epic of strength in love and in numbers, where in despite “a stare into the barrel,” and “repetition,” as he ends the poem, ‘we are 1’ and will remain it.