Post Road Magazine #21

John Edgar Wideman: The Last Great Radical

Michelle Hoover

I'll likely get plenty of pushback for the statement above, but waiting for a flight as I am at 11 pm on the floor of the Phoenix airport with a "Desert Images" store neatly glassed off for the evening hours and a blonde speaking nothingness on the television, I can't help but look again at John Edgar Wideman's work with astonishment, admiration, even sadness. Who else has written about race, class, and an author's desire to explore both with such complexity and self-stated confusion? Who else combats these issues in a style as dense and musical as the best improvised jazz? And who else can mesh hard sex and motherhood, the insect and the human, the dead and the living? Who can write so entirely over our heads while striking at the heart of our guilty humanness?

I was lucky enough to have Wideman as my thesis advisor at the University of Massachusetts. God help the man for the awful prose he had to crawl through. He repeatedly asked me one question: "What are you trying to say?" At twenty-three, I was trying to say all sorts of things, but none of them were very interesting. When I introduce Wideman's stories now to my freshmen, they are equally puzzled—and then curious, squinty-eyed, and shaking their heads in wonderment. In the same way, I'd like to introduce Wideman's early collection All Stories Are True—the same collection that marked my own introduction to Wideman more than a decade ago.

First off, there is heartbreak in the story "newborn thrown in trash and dies." A riff off a newspaper headline, Wideman could easily have gone for the throat with sentiment here, but instead he chooses to crush us by threading the voices of innocence, rage, cynicism, poetry, and reporting into a riff that implicates everyone. From the perspective of the child herself, falling as she is through a trash bin past ten floors of her apartment complex, Wideman slows the child's existence into a lifetime of experience, one floor at a time: the floor of facts, the floor of questions, the floor of opinions, etc. "I can speak to you now," the infant tells us, "only because I haven't reached bottom yet. I'm on my way, faster than I want to be traveling and my journey won't take long." Instead of experiencing "your whole life… in review the instant before you die," the infant is granted a "preview, the coming attractions of everything that must happen."

The "must" in this sentence is a dark choice. Toward the end, Wideman ensures that the infant's fate, this cycle of sex and violence, will continue if it goes unchecked. Flashing forward into her possible life, the child races past "The Floor of Love" only to envision herself sexually abused by her own father, the kind of act which might have spawned such an unwanted and shameful birth in the first place. In the final paragraph, "The Floor That Stands for All the Other Floors Missed or Still to Come," even the infant's stepbrother is lost to place and circumstance: "Tommy was playing in the schoolyard and they shot him dead. Bang. Bang. Gang banging and poor Tommy caught a cap in his chest." For girls and boys both, such are their fates in the projects. The trash chute doesn't seem to promise much less. In the end, the fault lies with both Wideman and ourselves, as even the author admits he can't make assumptions about the child. "You can't understand my time," the child admonishes him and us. "Or name it. Or share it. Tommy is beginning to remember me. To join me where I am falling unseen through your veins and arteries down to where the heart stops, the square opening through which trash passes to the compactor." We might not be able to share her time, but it's our own veins she's tumbling through.

Similar to Wideman's own escape into the ivory tower, his character Kendra in the story "Signs" is an overachiever who leaves the familiarity of her home for a teaching job in an unwelcoming academic world. Here, Kendra soon becomes the victim of racist signs and promises of violence. In depicting this world of attacker, victim, and those who suffer in between, the story begins and ends with metaphor:

Consider the lowly termite. How one predator, the aardwolf depends on a particular termite species for 90 percent of its protein . . . Soldier termites rush to defend their mound, protect their bloated queen. They fire a gassy tasting liquid from their snouts. Waves of soldiers are consumed but their acid flavor drives the aardwolf to abandon his feast, move on to a fresh next of victims. Could this be called fighting back.

Wideman doesn't allow a simple reading of the metaphor's parts. The bloated queen might stand for Kendra's bloated aunts, Kendra's home, or sense of self. On the other side, the queen might also be white society bloated by its own powers. Switch the equation and the aardwolf could be this same white society or merely the status quo. It could also be Kendra, having taken on the hatred for her race until she becomes a selfhating, self-negating victim.

Kendra herself worries:

Does a traitor lurk in her heart passing on her secrets to the authorities. . . If she cannot trust herself, is she fatally divided. Which voice the traitor—the one keeping her here at school or the one called her home. What's being betrayed—her wish to be a person the signs can't turn around, or is the person holding on, fighting for a place in this wilderness betraying the one who knows good and well being here is wrong.

In the end, out of frustration and mourning, Kendra makes a powerful decision: "I called the dean's office and confessed. I made it all up. I'm responsible for the signs…. I may or may not return in the fall. If I do, I can guarantee there will be no problem." Has she failed? Is she a coward? Or has she taken control of the situation the only way she knows how? "There will be no problem," she states, as if her decision has vanquished the attacker and racism itself once and for all.

Such readings aren't easy to swallow. Is Wideman blaming the individual for her self-doubt or society for causing it? Or both? The delight in his stories is his refusal to simplify or even lead to easy answers. Like all good fiction writers, he merely asks questions, even if he does so in a voice that berates and shouts.

In "Backseat," Wideman makes this split in personal responsibility and identity far more personal. The story opens with a sexual wallop:

We made love in the belly of the whale. More times than I could count I'd laid her across the funky backseat of Uncle Mac's 1946 Lincoln Continental rusting in the backyard of 712 Copeland Street and opened her fat thighs, jiggly as they wanted to be, but like a compass too, hinged, calibrated so you can keep track of how far they're spreading….

If I could quote the first two pages, you'd know the full extent of the speaker's lust. And this is lust. The narrator, a stand-in for Wideman himself, offers more specifics about the car and its address than the woman herself. But there's a reason. In truth, this story is far more about a grandson mourning the loss of his grandmother—and mourning the difficult family history his grandmother represents—than it is about sex. With his grandmother dying in another city, the narrator confesses, "I cannot close the great distance between us except by letting myself get too close. Too close means imagining myself beside her bed in the hospital room in Pittsburgh and holding her hand and dealing with the meltdown a touch, flesh to flesh, would begin." This "meltdown" both frightens and attracts the narrator. In a family in which the greatest secrets about heritage, illegitimacy, and rape are answered with a mere "uh huh," closeness can be dangerous. "Flesh is baggage," the narrator explains. If we know the full stories of our ancestors, if we immerse ourselves in those sorrows, how can we ever escape their fate? Throughout the story, the narrator's fear of intimacy remains, especially with women, but this fear is less about male ego than it is with what women represent: family, home, the past, and the future, all wrapped up in a woman's ability to create, to continue the family line. In this way, sex takes on more meaning than most can bear.

But distance is equally problematic. "Uh huh," the narrator explains. "She was passing on/sharing with me her gift of language, the power to name, claim, and disclaim. One scornful, curt, clear-eyed, distasteful to her lips part grunt, part incantations in which I heard how they for all their fantasies of authority and control and endless scheming and libraries of words, they could never tell the simple truth of her life." Without this intimacy of language, both Wideman and his fictional ego lose their story altogether.

The truths in Wideman's work are never simple. That's likely his and our inheritance. Even the title of the book, All Stories Are True, is tongue and cheek. These are difficult stories, both in style and content. But they are worth a look for that very reason.

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