When asked, Marlon James is hard-pressed to name his favorite story. It’s admittedly a nearly impossible request to make of anyone, and surely more so of a novelist, whose trade relies so deeply on both intake and telling, however tangled, of tales. Unable to name just one, James improvised.
“My favorite stories usually tend to be stories about voyages, whether it’s The Odyssey or it’s ‘Sinbad’ or it’s Huckleberry Finn,” he said. “If John Gardner is right and there are only two kinds of stories, ‘a stranger comes to town’ or ‘people go on a trip,’ then I’m definitely into the ‘people go on a trip’ kind of stories. I’ve always liked journeys, journeys where people meet sea monsters, or human monsters. There’s something about people leaving everything they know and going into what they don’t know where you actually learn a lot about people.”
Pondering the significance of the journey, be it a principled quest or spiritual pilgrimage or merely a pleasant jaunt, is a perennial human occupation. And this week marks the publication, by Riverhead Books, of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first book in James’s Dark Star trilogy—a decidedly non-European medieval fantasy appropriately billed as an “African Game of Thrones” and, more recently, racking up comparisons to last year’s Marvel superhero blockbuster Black Panther—which fits into a long tradition of stories built around a great voyage, even as it is unafraid to challenge the conventions of that tradition.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is, in essence, the tale of a ragtag group of mercenaries seeking a missing boy who might be the heir to the throne of an empire spanning a large stretch of a fantastic medieval Africa. It is narrated by a man known only as Tracker, who is said to “have a nose”; his extraordinary sense of smell lets him track nearly anyone whose scent he has ever sniffed. Tracker and his on-and-off allies—among whom are a leopard who can shape-shift into a man’s body and back, a small giant, a Moon Witch, and an intelligent water buffalo—follow the boy from city to city, through stretches of dangerous, often mystical wilderness. Their hope is to bring him back alive, or to at least bring back news of his demise.
Many pieces of the novel’s plot will feel as familiar to readers of the Icelandic sagas or the Epic of Gilgamesh or Arthurian legend as it will to fans of speculative fiction properties from the likes of George R.R. Martin, Ursula K. Le Guin, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George Lucas, as they should. This is a hero’s journey, after all, even if its protagonist might not always seem heroic, and if the mythologist Joseph Campbell had been alive to read it, he’d be hard-pressed to disagree. Yet some might feel quite different, rooted as they are in settings and cultures that many, if not most, American readers, who remain unfortunately accustomed to fantasies set primarily in worlds of whiteness, have rarely, if ever, encountered.
Adding to this sense of newness is an intricacy James’s novels have become famous for sporting. For starters, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is only one of three books which will each tell the same overarching story from three separate perspectives, a technique evoking celebrated Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s seminal short story “In a Grove” and, more famously internationally, its film adaptation by Akira Kurosawa, Rashōmon. As such, it is an investigation into truth, and the more each “truth” the novel and its characters bear is held to the light, the slipperier or knottier (or both) it becomes. As James writes, truth is “a shifting, slithering thing.”
This proves to be the case from the get-go. “The child is dead,” reads the book’s first line. “There is nothing left to know.” What follows is…everything left to know. It proves true too in James’s pyrotechnic language, often so elliptical as to feel intoxicatingly dizzying.
It proves true even in the novel’s creation, it seems. The text in advance reading copies was markedly different from what was in final copies of the book, as James made significant changes to the story following the printing of the galley. (Some of those changes, he said, involved adding some 15,000 words to imbue its women characters, and their stories, with more depth.)
When James first began work on the book, the story started as a “stranger comes to town” narrative before changing its course. He starts writing characters first, “which can be very frustrating, because I don’t know what their story is.” The characters, he said, “just won’t leave my head alone.” Eventually, though, the story comes. “It’s always important to me, when I’m writing a book, that these characters have a pre-novel life,” he said. “When I figured out why these characters were here and what mystery they had to solve, I knew they would leave home and everything they knew. But I didn’t know when I started it.”
At first, James also did not know that Tracker would become its main character. And, in the next book, he won’t be. That novel will hold someone else’s story—that of the Moon Witch, Sogolon.
“When I really started to think of this novel and how much I wanted it to divert from what I usually read in all the fantasy books I like, Tracker just came to the fore,” James said. “For want of a better way of phrasing it, I didn’t want to write a fantasy novel about important people. I didn’t want to write a fantasy novel starring nobles and kings, although they all end up in it. No, I wanted it to start in the street.”
That’s a common theme in James’s work, and exemplary, he said, of his writing process. Often, he will actively turn his focus toward a character he “hadn’t thought twice about” and, as he puts it, “look at everything I have and do the opposite or the reverse or pick the least important character.” As an analogy, he mentions photos of basketball players doing a slam dunk: “I always wonder, who’s that guy way off in a corner who was frowning at it? Who’s the bit player in the great shot? I want to know their story. That’s always happened to me. When I’m starting something, it’s the people in the margins that I notice over in the corner of my eye.”
James lives alternately in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he teaches at Macalester College, and an apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but also keeps an office in the attic of Camp Cedar Pines, author John Wray’s brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which Wray has turned into something of a writers colony. It’s fairly spare, with an elliptical in the corner next to a blocky gray couch and a desk in the center of the room facing a wide glass window. As with most writers’ offices, it’s filled with stories, which is to say it’s filled with books.
Next to James’s desk, a single-volume version of Amos Tutuola’s novels The Palm Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts lies on the floor, and a stack nearby houses Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents and two academic books from 5 Continents Editions’ Visions of Africa series, Arthur P. Bourgeois’s Yaka and David A. Binkley and Patricia Darish’s Kuba. In another pile near the desk, the Icelandic Elder Edda, the Saga of the Volsungs, and Beowulf sit atop William Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Fran Ross’s novel Oreo, and two more scholarly texts, Brian M. Fagan and Roland Oliver’s Africa in the Iron Age and Richard W. Hull’s African Cities and Towns Before European Conquest, both published by white scholars in the 1970s.
The solitary nature of a writer’s office is strange to James, despite having a room dedicated to writing in each of his homes and this office at Cedar Pines—which, sitting as it does down the hall and above the quarters of a number of other writers, does allow for a little bit more company. Growing up in Jamaica, James said, he was surrounded by the noise of his family and community, and it was in that environment that he first learned to work. (It does not hurt that James is as insatiable a music listener as he is a reader; he mentions Alice Coltrane and Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis’s acid jazz albums, and the kora music of Toumani Diabaté, among many others, as being influential while he wrote this book.)
The novel itself replicates that noise, filled as it is with a motley of characters carrying their own passions, missions, fights to fight, sex to have, and tales to tell. The cities in Black Leopard, Red Wolf bustle, but so do the riverlands and the bush and the jungles—with humans, but also with giants, shapeshifters, demons, vampires with the power of lightning, bush fairies, merpeople, river spirits, gremlins, trolls, and flesh-eating monsters.
While James’s portrayal of mythological beings is distinctly African, the majority of these creatures appear in folklores all across the world. In a way, this allows the novel, which is such a paean to African history and culture and folklore, to double as an exhortation to fantasy readers: be drawn in by what is similar, and stay for what is unique. Or: Don’t stop at Tolkien and the Odyssey. Read Marlon James and the tale of Mansa Musa, The Lion of Mali, too.
The difficulty, as James makes clear, is that many stories of African peoples have only been available in the American and European markets in texts aimed at academia. Their authors, translators, and editors, almost invariably, are white academics. One major result of this is a lack of public awareness that leads to a perception of an inferiority of those stories, that James says just is not the case.
“Looking at the most recent translation projects of African epics, there’s been some really good work that’s been done,” James said. “The issue with a lot of those translations is that they weren’t translated by poets. They were translated for the academy. Which will lead people to think that these stories, these epics, are inferior to, say, the Icelandic sagas. No they’re not. I’ll bet anything the Odyssey wasn’t shit until a poet translated it.”
Until, that is, a poet retold its story. But with Black Leopard, Red Wolf, there’s no need to wait for the right translator. James is the teller, and Tracker, and Sogolon, and so many others. He, and they, have got a journey right here.
This profile was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and originally appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, which marks Martin Riker’s first book-length foray into fiction, is a book that I imagine has been simmering for a long time, and one that likely has taken a back seat to Marty’s many other pursuits. As one of our most perceptive critics—I’ve made it a rule to read books he reviews favorably—and publishing do-it-alls (at Dalkey Archive and now, with his wife, novelist and publisher Danielle Dutton, at Dorothy, a Publishing Project), Marty has been one of the great champions of daring, innovative fiction. This, of course, leaves little time for other things.
And so it was with great excitement and pleasure that I read Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, which is characteristically subtle, funny, and well-seasoned. To say it’s a novel about identity or parenthood or our collective fixation on television may be partially true, but as with all significant works of fiction, those descriptors may be in the ballpark but miss the game entirely. For the game, you’ve got to read the book.
The Millions: As I was reading Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, I couldn’t help thinking of the television show Quantum Leap. The differences between the time-traveling, body-jumping hero of that show and the eponymous character of your novel are vast and in that gulf is a world of possibilities, which you mine to great effect. What is it about the trope of inhabiting another body or consciousness that appeals to you?
Martin Riker: I actually don’t know that show! In fact I’ll admit right out of the gate that even though the novel contains a whole narrative history of television programming, I don’t own a TV. Growing up I was a TV kid, not a book kid. In the eighties I loved network television with all my heart. But I stopped watching in the early nineties and didn’t look at screens at all for 10 or 15 years. Having a kid of my own brought TV back into my life, but our son doesn’t watch much. I mean, we Netflix. We’re not hermits.
Anyway, the trope: The logistical answer (there are two answers) is that this novel was originally conceived as a modern retelling of Robert Montgomery Bird’s 1836 Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself, which is a picaresque novel narrated by a man who’s died and whose soul travels from body to body, uncovering the reality of lives across the socioeconomic spectrum of early America. I loved the playfulness of that premise, its expansiveness, but beyond that I loved its democratic ambitions, the Whitman-like project of trying to sing America from the inside out. My own version took some pretty radical digressions from Bird’s original; for example, I abandoned very early any attempt to be “representative” of the diversity of modern America, which is just too broad, and instead focused on points of commonality and difference, themes that define life for all of us (media, family, solitude).
The more general answer is that I am a lifelong admirer of the Menippean satire, a 2,000-year-old literary genre the particulars of which I won’t go into here except to say that one of its 13 attributes (according to Mikhail Bakhtin in his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics) is the transgression of boundaries between this world, heaven, and the underworld. Starting around the “Myth of Er” in Plato’s Republic, there’s a long line of writers playing with these boundaries, and specifically with the idea of metempsychosis—the transmigration of the soul through bodies. The point, from an art perspective, is that it allows the writer (and reader) to step back from everyday life and look at our human experiences from a distance. The pettiness of human endeavor is revealed for what it is, etc. The oddity of my narrator is that, despite how separated he (mostly) is from the world he witnesses, he can’t seem to attain anything like a comforting objectivity. Death gives him “perspective,” but that’s almost all it gives him. It doesn’t free him from human concerns. He’s still as frustrated and petty as anybody.
TM: I suspect rendering one of those consciousnesses almost helplessly passive was a great challenge. Did you set yourself any formal limitations in the composition of the plot?
MR: Yeah, that was what made me want to write the book in the first place, that challenge. For years I had been thinking about how to write an adventure novel in an age when modern transportation and telecommunications have left us with pitifully few unexplored places and when a life of “action” feels like a movie cliche. You could set it in space, or inside the earth, I guess. Cyberspace feels more Kafkaesque than adventurous to me. So what I saw in the premise of Sheppard Lee was the possibility of an adventure story in which the protagonist lacks agency—a passive action novel! And then immediately I realized it would be a book about media culture as well.
As for plot composition, I have an almost embarrassingly specific answer for this. Edgar Allan Poe reviewed Sheppard Lee when it first came out. He liked it, but cited among its problems that Bird couldn’t seem to decide when or to what extent his protagonist (Sheppard Lee) should control the bodies he inhabits. My interest in writing about media sort of solved this problem for me—my protagonist would have as much control over what he sees as you or I have over a television program—but it raised a different problem, which was how to make that into an interesting book. I wasn’t excited to write something boring and hopeless. My Samuel Johnson had to be able to (and forced to) make decisions with moral consequences, even if he tended to make very bad ones. So I had to have a narrative device by which my protagonist might gain control of his existence (under certain circumstances), and the invention of that device is another reason my novel took a very different direction from Bird’s. The device itself, and the emotional possibilities it opened up, took me to unexpected places, and that element of adventure (compositional adventure) was one of the great pleasures of writing this book. Fortunately, sticking to the plan was never part of the plan.
TM: There is perhaps no way of answering this, but I’m going to ask to see where an answer might lead: Could you have written this novel before becoming a father?
MR: I don’t think I could have, but not for the obvious reason (that I now know what being a father is like). The actual reason is much more personal, and I doubt I can articulate it very well. It has to do with how having a kid changes what you care about, where you invest your emotions and your aspirations. I’ve written fiction for many years but not much of it was very sharable, because I was constantly getting in the way of myself (don’t ask me what I mean by that). One of the biggest changes for me, in becoming a dad, was that I stopped caring very much about myself. I like myself just fine, but my emotional attention is now directed elsewhere, toward my son and my wife but also outward more generally. And for some reason that change in myself had a tangible impact on my ability to craft sentences and paragraphs. It’s not the only change that mattered for writing this book, but it’s maybe the most interesting.
TM: Am I correct in reading SJER as a satire?
MR: Not in the conventional sense. I’m not out to attack anyone. There’s no target. I mentioned Menippean satire earlier, and one of the funny things about that genre is that despite the name, it isn’t really satire as we think of it. Where satire attacks one point of view from the perspective of a different point of view, the Menippean satire is all about copia, plentitude, the diversity of ways of seeing the world. The only thing it attacks is the presumption that any single worldview might constitute “truth,” and this it often attacks viciously, if comically. Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly, for example, or Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel. Bakhtin admires menippea (as he calls it) because he’s all about polyphony and the idea that a novel is not a political statement but rather a space in which many different voices and ideas and ways of seeing are constantly mixing and contending with one another. This is what I like about it as well.
TM: When we met, you were still at Dalkey Archive Press, and you are now the publisher, with Danielle, of Dorothy, so I must ask the question of influence. Which writers and/or schools influenced this novel? Who are you reading or what excites you in contemporary fiction?
MR: I don’t know about influence, but I start to salivate at the opportunity to make book recommendations. But first I’ll try to answer about influence.
Aside from Bird’s novel, it’s hard to say precisely what influenced SJER. I was rereading Dickens when I started writing it, and I’m sure he’s in there somehow—the voice, maybe. Georges Perec is probably the most important, and in some ways that influence is clear: the mixing of an adventure story with other genres, the almost schematic breadth of subjects, Perec’s passion for telling tales. There’s a lot of linguistic parody in SJER, and some of that might be coming from Fran Ross’s Oreo, which is in my all-time top five. Ross’s parody has more satirical punch, though. I’m just interested in all the cool things language can do (so was she, of course). More generally, I think my ideas about art and literature were shaped from a very early age by the Beastie Boys, whose work I see as fundamentally about friendship, first, and, second, about the endlessly various ways a bunch of stuff can be thrown together to make something wonderful. That’s the quality William Gass meant when he called Donald Barthelme—quoting Barthelme himself—“the leading edge of the trash phenomenon.” It was a compliment.
Lately I’ve been rereading a lot—for my classes and for fun—and it’s been a great joy to revisit Flann O’Brien and Nikolai Gogol and people like that. After the fact, I saw a lot of Dead Souls in SJER, even though it wasn’t in my mind while writing. In fact, I find that writing a book causes you to see your own book in every other book you read, or at least in a lot of them. Other books I’ve been loving but that have nothing to do with SJER include everything Dorothy is publishing (!) and quite a number of the books I’ve been reviewing. Best in Show goes to Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, which I think you and I both liked a great deal. McCormack’s novel made me feel loose and ready, like a boxer. It made the question of “the novel” feel suddenly up for grabs again, which for me is the best thing a book can do.
TM: You mention that when writing a book you start to see your book in every other book. This is such a simple but revelatory statement! It also speaks to something apparent in the novel: a current trend (that’s too light a term for it, but it’ll stay for now) that is all about the… if not the dissolution, then at least the fragmentation or break-up of the idea of a concrete individual who is bound by gender, age, demographics. I love how SJER’s shifting forms reflect this pivotal moment in Western culture. All of which is to ask: What good is the individual in fiction? Does he/she have a future in literature?
MR: I’m not sure he/she even has much of a past! Or at least that past is admirably patchy. It seems to me literature’s been ahead of the curve when it comes to complicating or fragmenting or subverting received ideas about the cleanly coherent self for at least a couple hundred years. Maybe not so much in the outwardly visible ways we’re seeing now in the culture, not until books like Orlando, or Brigid Brophy’s 1969 In Transit, or Anne Garréta’s Sphinx—but those books seem to me natural extensions of the novel’s essential polyphony. Once the menippean values I mentioned earlier got mixed up with the idea of character, which was happening at least by the time of Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew in the mid-18th century, the instability and multiplicity of identity became what novels—some novels—were all about. Dostoevsky, whole swaths of modernism, etc.
In comparison to that stuff, my Samuel Johnson is pretty simple. He starts off without much self to speak of, so he’s relatively unpresumptuous, and comfortable in the role of sponge. What interests me most is that even though he inhabits all these other lives, and forgets himself and “becomes” these others, still he doesn’t often feel that he knows these people very well. He knows them as well as you could possibly know someone, but that turns out to be: not that well! In part because they don’t know themselves, or are too human-messy to be easily defined, but mostly because he doesn’t have access to their thoughts, and so there’s this invisible wall, consciousness.
I do get put off (this is a different way of answering your question) by writing that doesn’t allow room, formally, for experiences of instability, possibility, surprise, change. A lot of commercially successful fiction makes me feel constricted in that way. It takes itself too seriously, or doesn’t take me (reader) seriously enough. But maybe that’s just a way of saying that uninteresting books aren’t interesting. Whereas identity as a site of possibility or contention, the individual as an ongoing dialogue—those ideas I hope have a future, because literature would be pretty dull without them.
TM: Your reference points for the book are, for the most part, 19th century and earlier, though of course there are more modern influences. What is it about these forms that allows them the plasticity to be continually reinvented and to feel so fresh?
MR: You are my dream interviewer. I think all literary forms have the plasticity you’re talking about. Forms come with some basic characteristics (e.g., a “list” contains “items”), but they don’t come with any prescribed values or freshness potential—that’s all in what you do with them.
If I were going to really do this question justice I would go on a longish rant about friendship. I would talk about the sense I have in reading certain 18th-century works—for example, Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist—that they were written long before the idea of the “professionalized author” was even conceived. I would then attempt to describe the pleasure I get—with Diderot—from feeling that what I am reading is written not by a “professional” but by an incredibly smart and interesting friend. Wayne Booth makes the argument, in his The Company We Keep, that the idea of friendship as a literary value falls off somewhere in the 19th century. In fact, he says the idea of friendship as a subject worthy of critical attention falls out of intellectual life entirely, even though for the longest time the notion that books were like friends was the primary way of seeing them. He doesn’t mean we’ve lost friendship itself, even in books; he just means we don’t really think or talk about books in those terms.
I’ve noticed that the books I feel the greatest friendship toward tend to resist the veneer of professionalization in one way or another. I mentioned earlier Fran Ross and Georges Perec. Alasdair Gray is another. Also Joanna Ruocco, whom I publish, though I don’t know her personally very well. Not long ago I interviewed her, primarily because I wanted to confirm for myself that she was actually as cool as I thought she was (she is). There are others, but not very many. It’s a specific feeling, not a common thing, more a recognition of shared values than “liking” or admiring or even loving the work. For example, I don’t feel this way about David Foster Wallace’s work, even though David was my real-life friend, someone I cared about quite a lot. I love his writing, too (well, I love about half of his writing), but I don’t have that “friendship” feeling toward it.
All I mean to say is that I’ve always wanted my own writing to be friendly, approachable. Meaningful, but in a manner completely in step with everyday life. My favorite writers read like they might easily live next-door to you. You can go over and borrow their lawnmowers, plus they write these wonderful, interesting things. And maybe 18th- and 19th-century storytelling devices appeal to me—to try to loop this back to your question—because things like conversational narrators and tale-telling and “then fate took an unexpected turn!” are very approachable and are as likely as anything else to produce interesting art.
TM: I really like your take on the question about fatherhood. That fatherhood provides an out from yourself that opens up a whole set of possibilities that open up whole avenues previously untraveled or at least infrequently visited is a refreshing take—especially for a writer, since so many male writers have been aloof or absent from the lives of their children. I wonder if the passivity of the narrator is a reflection of what must feel like occasional helplessness in viewing the life of a child.
MR: That’s a really ideal way to read it. The book thinks a lot about feelings of helplessness, both with regard to parenting and more generally to life. The idea that we are stuck in our own heads and there’s little we can do for one another has been a staple of existential comedy since Beckett at least, in addition to being a painfully obvious fact of every parent’s daily reality, and I like seeing those two seemingly distinct anxieties—one existential, the other mundane—as not so different.
As far as my narrator goes, I would stop short of saying his passivity is caused by his helpless-parent feelings. He is modern man! He’s passive from way, way back.
TM: I don’t want to talk about the ending, but I do want to ask, in a general way, one of those craft questions about the structure of the novel and how it came to you. Were you writing toward that ending? At a certain point, the narrative picks up momentum and you can see where it’s going, and my hunch is that it was lurking there all along, but I’m curious to know if that’s accurate.
MR: When I first conceived of the book and had written the opening two chapters, I had a particular ending in mind. Danielle wanted to know what it was, but I wouldn’t tell her, and she said “Well, I just hope that…” and then said the thing she hoped would happen, which was not the ending I had in mind. I wanted my wife to be happy with my book—it was quite possible she would be the only one reading it—so I thought, maybe I can have both endings? It took me a while to figure out how to make that work, but the result is that the book really has two endings, and this is essential, I think, to how and what the story “means.” We talk of stories having happy endings or sad endings and I very much dislike those being the options. I’ve always loved the start of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, where the narrator says a good book ought to be allowed to have three entirely different openings. I didn’t want entirely different endings, though; I just wanted the ending to “mean” in several directions at once. I can’t say more without saying too much. But if there’s anything I’m particularly proud of in this book, it’s those last two chapters.
When I worked at a bookstore, I became adept at summarizing books for readers in as few words as possible. The Great Gatsby? Rich guy tries to win girl’s heart. The Crying of Lot 49? Girl checks the mail, discovers a worldwide conspiracy. It’s likely that I would have met my match, however, had I been working as a bookseller when Mat Johnson’s Pym came out in 2011. It’s several books rolled into one, really: a literary detective story about Edgar Allan Poe’s sole novel; an action-adventure movie featuring ice-dwelling albino creatures in Antarctica; a racial satire about the vain pursuit of pure whiteness; and likely a few other obscure subgenres as well.
Loving Day, Johnson’s new novel, lacks the fantastical backdrop of Pym. The whole novel takes place in Germantown, an African-American neighborhood in Philadelphia. There are no CGI monsters to speak of. (There may or may not be a ghost, however.) But it is arguably a more daring novel, and what makes it so daring is the fact that it’s so personal. Johnson has crammed as much of himself into this book as can fit. This is very affecting, as Johnson’s is a self that has immense difficulty fitting in anywhere.
Like many a Victorian Gothic, Loving Day begins with a man returning to his ancestral estate, finding it empty and in disrepair. But Warren Duffy is no member of the landed gentry. The son of a black woman and a white man (Irish, specifically, that pasty shade of white), Warren was raised in Germantown by his mother while looking passably Caucasian. After she died, and after his father took a hands-off approach to parenting for the remainder of his adolescence, Warren went to art school in Wales, “where dear Lord I have never felt blacker.” He married a Welsh woman who expected him to become a successful comic book artist and/or a successful father. He failed on both counts. Divorced, broke, Warren returns to Loudin Mansion, the seven-acre estate in the midst of Germantown that was already falling apart when his father bought it in the ’70s. Following his father’s death, Warren inherited it. He has dreams of his own regarding the house, ambitious though not especially noble: he wants to burn it down, claim the insurance money, then run off without even looking in the rearview mirror.
Warren’s plans are soon derailed, however. When he was a teenager, he had a brief romance with a Jewish girl who lived in one of Philly’s tonier neighborhoods. Unbeknownst to him, the affair produced a child, a girl named Tal. Once Warren is back in town, Tal’s grandfather tracks him down, explaining that her mother died a few years back, and what she needs now is guidance from the father she never knew. The arson scheme goes on the back burner, so to speak, while Warren tries to find a school where Tal can finish up her senior year and thus evade delinquency.
Middle-aged male, persevering through failure with the aid of alcohol and a sense of humor: it’s a setup that wouldn’t be out of place in, say, a Richard Ford novel. But where the loneliness of Ford’s men is existential in nature, Warren’s is also social, even genetic. He’s a black man who looks white, out of place wherever he goes.
I am a racial optical illusion. I am as visually duplicitous as the illustration of the young beauty that’s also the illustration of the old hag. Whoever sees the beauty will always see the beauty, even if the image of the hag can be pointed out to exist in the same etching. Whoever sees the hag will be equally resolute. The people who see me as white always will, and will think it’s madness that anyone else could come to any other conclusion, holding to this falsehood regardless of learning my true identity. The people who see me as black cannot imagine how a sane, intelligent person could be so blind not to understand this, despite my pale-skinned presence. The only influence I have over this perception, if any, is in the initial encounter. Here is my chance to be categorized as black, with an asterisk. The asterisk is my whole body.
It’s not saying too much, I don’t think, to detect aspects of the author within his character. Johnson is also the son of a white father and a black mother, his racial identity seemingly contingent upon the whims of whatever community he finds himself in. He’s written about it before, in Pym as well as Incognegro, a graphic novel that follows a black journalist “passing” for white in the Jim Crow south to report on lynching. But Loving Day is by far his most personal take on the matter, a statement of intent as much as a work of fiction.
That is not to say that it’s some humorless screed. Anyone who follows Johnson on Twitter knows that he is incapable of being unfunny. Loving Day is a thoroughly comic novel, though the humor isn’t sugar meant to help the medicine of racial insight go down more easily. No, the humor is the medicine. There’s the seemingly white kid with dreadlocks who calls himself One Drop, appropriating the name of the miscegenation law that was on the books for much of U.S. history. There’s the mixed-race school that Tals ends up attending, the students of which are “the human equivalent of mismatched socks.” There’s even the simple matter of terminology, as when one of Tal’s teachers declares Warren to be a “sunflower.” What’s a sunflower? “Yellow on the outside, brown on the inside. A slang term for a biracial person who denies their mixed nature, only recognizing their black identity.” If that doesn’t make you squirm, there are dozens more jokes like that, and one of them is bound to make you uncomfortable.
Is that what Johnson is up to, making us laugh at our discomfort at discussing race in any terms other than platitudes? As far as projects go, it’s not without merit, but there’s something deeper going on here. Indeed, part of Johnson’s aim is to reclaim the term from its pejorative associations. There’s value in this, certainly, but it’s worth pointing out how framing the “mulatto experience” as comic runs deeply against the grain of American literature.
For better or worse, the work of William Faulkner remains one a touchstone when it comes to literary depictions of race. Toni Morrison counts him as an early influence; she even wrote her master’s thesis on his work. Mixed-race characters appeared often in his fiction, nearly always with a sense of doom about them. Think of Joe Christmas in Light in August, who looks white but has the “one drop” of black in him. After having an affair with a white woman, he’s accused of rape, hunted down, and killed. This trope occurs often enough that there’s even a name for it: the Tragic Mulatto. Outcast in both directions, fated to never belong.
Loving Day is an entry in a small but vital subgenre: the Comic Mulatto Novel. (Fran Ross’s Oreo, soon to be reissued by New Directions, is another.) It looks to upend not just a vocabulary word, but an entire concept, one that’s been around since the Constitution was drafted. Rather than having a mixed-race character act as a metaphor, shouldering the burden of meaning, Loving Day places him in front and center, telling his own story and making his own meanings. That it does so with such nimbleness, tossing off one-liners with every turn of the page, is a testament to Johnson’s strengths.
And to the strengths of the form. Is there a better opportunity for the biting power of humor than the mixed-race experience? Partaking of two different cultures with different histories, halves that each take themselves to be a whole, seems like a secret weapon when it comes to making readers of various backgrounds laugh with first discomfort, then recognition, and finally understanding. Here’s hoping that more books will come along to explore this particular facet of the human comedy.