Outside the box

Ben Ehrenreich is the author of the novel "The Suitors."

This is a John Edgar Wideman novel, and if you've had any acquaintance with such creatures, you'll know before turning the first page that whatever Wideman's ostensible subject may be, he will write about many other things besides, and often brilliantly. Ideas will spawn ideas. Voices will multiply. Fictions will jump the fence and cohabit with facts. Lines will blur and cross and be suddenly abandoned. The picture will escape the frame.

In past novels, Wideman's frame has been the history of lynching in America, a 1793 epidemic of yellow fever in Philadelphia, the 1985 police bombing of the black radical collective MOVE in the same city and, repeatedly, the streets of the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, in which Wideman grew up. In all his books, race and racism color everything, eat away at everything, leave everything broken and internally divided. So it feels almost inevitable that Wideman would at some point turn his attention to Frantz Fanon, the West Indian psychiatrist and theorist of anti-colonial revolt, diagnostician of both the multilayered madness of white supremacy and the tortured pathologies of the oppressed. "Pinpoint of light in a darkening world," Wideman calls Fanon. "Doctor, philosopher, freedom fighter, writer, a man of color, man of peace who said no to color, no to peace if the price of color or peace is hiding behind a mask."

But, once again, this is a John Edgar Wideman novel, so don't expect much in the way of biography. (Wideman dismisses the genre outright: "Thinly disguised voyeurism . . . a costume drama.") Here, though, are the skeletal details of Fanon's short but oversized life: Born in Martinique in 1925, when that island was still a French colony, he ran away from home at 18 to join the Free French Forces, defending the colonial power that he would spend much of his later life fighting. Wounded in 1944 and decorated for valor, Fanon went on to earn a medical degree in Lyon, then took a job at a psychiatric hospital in Algeria, where he treated Algerians broken by torture and the policemen who tortured them. He later joined the anti-French liberation forces, was expelled from Algeria and died at 31 of leukemia in a Maryland hospital on the same day that his masterpiece, "The Wretched of the Earth," was banned from French bookstores.

Wideman begins the novel with a letter to Fanon in which he attempts to explain the task he's set himself. He is not merely writing, he says, but "trying to save a life" -- though "whose life and why are other things I'm trying to find out." Years ago, the narrator says, he emulated Fanon: "I wanted to be somebody, an unflinchingly honest, scary somebody like Frantz Fanon whose words and deeds just might ignite a revolution, just might help cleanse the world of the plague of racism." (Fanon has been on Wideman's mind for years: He quotes him at length in 1973's "The Lynchers.") But over time, "my Fanon project shifted to writing about disappointment with myself and my country, about shame and guilt and lost opportunities, about the price of not measuring up to announced ideals."

So Wideman invents himself a double, a fictional protagonist with the rather over-determined name of Thomas (referencing at once the doubting apostle and a certain ill-reputed uncle) who also happens to be working on a book about Fanon. Ever-anxious Thomas is convinced that a package that arrives at the door of his New York apartment contains a severed head. The scene suddenly shifts, and Thomas is on a bullet train speeding through the French countryside ("What happened to the head?" deadpans Wideman), hoping to convince Jean-Luc Godard to direct a film based on the Fanon book he has not yet written.

Cut back to New York, where Thomas perambulates the streets of lower Manhattan, worrying that the sky will fall ("How long can a thin blue partition keep all that heaviness at bay?"). Then to North Africa, where Fanon the revolutionary is seeking a supply route into Algeria through Mali, and then across time and the Atlantic again, to the narrator and his mother visiting Wideman's real-life brother Robbie, who is serving a life sentence in a Pennsylvania prison and was the subject of Wideman's 1984 memoir, "Brothers and Keepers."

Eventually the narrator's mother will tend to the dying Fanon in his hospital bed. The narrator (now named John Edgar, not Thomas) will bring Godard to Pittsburgh, treat him to soul food from a Homewood corner store and suggest that, years earlier, the filmmaker might have impregnated Wideman's young mother, fathering our hero: "surprise, surprise out comes . . . Fanon, lips all bloody munching on the barbecued afterbirth."

Don't worry if you can't keep up. Wideman's narrative ideal is "truly democratic -- each detail counts equally, every part matters as much as any grand design. . . . Meaning equals point of view. Stop. I sound like a museum audiocassette guide when all I really mean to say is dance."

Dance he does, back and forth through time and space. He stumbles occasionally: a long, clumsy meander links the first snowflakes Fanon saw in France, his embattled leukocytes, the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. Mostly, though, his steps are sure. The head in the box eventually reappears, this time compared with the severed head of a slave that was central to one of Wideman's early stories. The author's mother and brother deliver monologues. Young Fanon plays soccer. The Lumiere brothers, Shakespeare's Caliban (who played a sizable role in "Philadelphia Fire") and Empress Josephine make brief appearances. Godard vanishes. Whole sections of "The Wretched of the Earth" are quoted almost verbatim.

In the end, Wideman's "Fanon" is not so much about Fanon the man as it is about writing about Fanon, about writing in a world in which revolutionary hopes have soured, about writing, period. Why bother to write, Wideman asks, in a society in which literature and art are "scorned, stripped of relevance to people's daily lives, dependent on charity, mere playthings of power"? Why put pen to page when meaning itself is forever in flight, "language a slow boat to China, groaning under the weight of its slowness, inconsequence, its inadequacy because what everybody really wants is China"?

Wideman gives most of his best lines to his brother, Robbie, who articulates his apprehension better than he or doubting Thomas: "When I think about it, big bro, I give you credit for being an intelligent guy, but, you know, I got to wonder if writing an intelligent book's an intelligent idea."

We could argue with him if we wanted, and express our gratitude for books like this one -- books unhurried by convention, obsessed by thought and language -- but Wideman has to answer for himself. He writes, he says, "to be free," and because "I want to write a life for myself." He writes to defang horror: "If you can write it perfectly once . . . you'll be able to walk out the door and never come back." He writes because he's lonely. He writes, as he says on "Fanon's" first page, "to save a life," and by the end, we know whose.

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