John Edgar Wideman - Fanon

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A mess that should not have been published

Sep 2, 2008 (Updated Dec 7, 2008)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review


Cons:structure, prose, story of the severed head, etc.

The Bottom Line: A major disappointment

John Edgar Wideman (1941-), an African American writer and former MacArthur Award winner, who teaches at Brown University has perpetrated an extraordinarily inept book that purports to be a novel. titled Fanon. The book is a metafiction with none of the wit and panache of metafictions by Italo Calvino or Paul Auster in which a 60-year-old novelist named Thomas is writing a metafiction about another Thomas who receives a severed head (seemingly his own—a bad surrealist dream) in a box with a quotation from Frantz Fanon (1925–1961).

Thomas is attempting to write a screenplay about the life of Fanon, intending to sell it to Jean-Luc Godard. The screen play does not exist. There are a few scenes imagining Fanon: traveling from his native Martinique to the neighboring island of Dominica en route to join the French army, listening to a torturer who has become Fanon's psychiatric patient, and dying in a NIH cancer facility in Bethesda, Maryland (where he meets Wideman's mother: sigh). These fragments suggest that a historical novel about Fanon might be interesting. Alas, much more of the book is about the puzzle of the severed head, plus an imagined visit by Godard to the Homewood section of Wideman's native Pittsburgh, where Wideman's aged mother lives.

There are also accounts (whether fictional or not, I don't care) about Wideman visiting his brother in prison, where he is serving a life sentence for murder (as is Wideman's son). This relationship is better limned in Wideman's Brothers and Keepers. Here, Wideman puts riffs like this in the mouth of his brother: "You got this one human person trying to make a life for itself on the planet. ... We’s all one person, all the same body. ... I mean, the way it is today the hands don’t speak no more. Squabbling. Fighting. Grabbing. Hands hate each other in a way, you could say. Trying to strangle the one neck they own. People so stuck up in they own little worlds they forget they live in the same body and got to depend on the same two hands."

The lines given Godard are similarly unimpressive. Long, long ago, Godard made "Le Petit Soldat" that showed waterboarding in relation to the Algerian independence struggle and Godard liked jumpcuts, but it is difficult to imagine Godard making a biopic. (Black British film-maker Isaac Julien made a biographical meditation on Fanon that Wideman does not mention.)

I would have done better to reread Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks or David Macey's Fanon biography on which Wideman based the few Fanon scenes than the rambling paragraphs (running, 3,4,5, 6 pages) and portentous, run-on sentences (such as "If some witch or god knows his fate—and he was sure the market women privy to his, impossible to sneak past without their appraising eyes, their sharp tongues peeling his secrets, pulling down his khaki shorts so he was a naked, tender boy again — if his life a finished thing tied with a cord like the roll of cloth he'd stolen from his father to pay for passage to Dominica, why worry and plague himself, should I shouldn't I, go-stay-no-yes-no — his mind tossing like the sea tosses this flimsy boat in its passage to another island, the chop,. chop sea, waves splashing, sea sloshing in the boat's belly soaking his feet he can't seen in the black night, feet darkness can't hide from the women's cat's eye, Lookee that boy's long feet him long hand.") Wideman got published.

What I consider the best part is an early paragraph that connects to my reactions to watching Gillo Pontecorvo's harrowing films "The Battle of Algiers" and "Burn!":

"You feared, Fanon, that winning a war of independence in Algeria, no matter how protracted and bloody the struggle, would be less difficult than maintaining a clear vision of the goals that had made declaring war against France a necessity for colonized Algerians and eventually for you. You realized that oppressed people could be convinced to sacrifice their lives for the promise of freedom, dignity, and self-determination and also that it's easier to die for such ideals than to live them, live with them embedded, uncompromised in placed day by day, choice by choice in the institutions of society, inn the consciousness of individuals and the spirit of a culture."

Fanon did not live to see what decolonized Algeria became. Wideman has, but avoids the question he raises about the price paid.

@ 2008, Stephen O. Murray

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