A Revolutionary Imagination

By James A. Miller,
who is a professor of English and American Studies at George Washington University
Tuesday, April 8, 2008


By John Edgar Wideman

Houghton Mifflin. 229 pp. $24

The cover of John Edgar Wideman's latest novel -- Fanon's name boldly inscribed in gray against a black background -- immediately attracts attention. Riding on the Metro, my copy in hand, I notice another passenger -- an African American man in his mid-40s -- carrying a copy, too. Our eyes meet and we nod to each other, almost conspiratorially, as if we are members of a secret fraternity. But as I return to my reading, I find myself wondering what my comrade is thinking about as he turns the pages.

Martinique-born, French-educated psychiatrist-turned-revolutionary Frantz Fanon continues to haunt and inspire the imagination of many, long after his death in 1961 from leukemia at the National Institutes of Health, under the watchful eye of the CIA, which had arranged his transportation to the United States for medical care. An astute analyst of the psychic disorders inflicted by colonialism, an apostle of violence as one of the key solutions to the problem, a patron saint of the Black Panther Party and many Third World revolutionaries, Fanon has now been canonized by academic theorists of post-colonial studies.

Wideman, an African American writer born in Washington in 1941, has long been drawn to him, since the first time he read Fanon's acknowledged classic, "The Wretched of the Earth," written in white heat during the last year of his life. As he acknowledges in the open letter to Fanon that begins this curious novel: "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."

Having failed to meet the standards set by Fanon's example, Wideman reconciles himself to his Fanon project as a "source of anxiety and unfulfilled ambition." And, indeed, these anxieties and unfulfilled ambitions pervade "Fanon," a work that is as much concerned with failed hopes and dreams, the inadequacy of language, and the act of writing as it is with its purported subject.

Readers approaching "Fanon" looking for a more or less straightforward biography will be disappointed: "I'm reluctant to say," Wideman maintains, "whether my evolving project is fiction or nonfiction, novel or memoir, science fiction or romance." Not only does he refuse to draw sharp distinctions between fact and fiction, he also seems to regard biography with particular disdain: "Doesn't biography or, worse, autobiography serve readers primarily as a source for gossip, rumor-mongering, titillation. Thinly disguised voyeurism. An absent life substituting for a reader's absent life."

Instead, Wideman freely invents himself: a fictional writer named Thomas, who also is anxiously wrestling with a book project about Frantz Fanon and who has convinced himself that a large box he has received at his Lower East Side apartment contains a severed human head. He fills the story out with several other characters taken from "real" life: Wideman's brother, Robby, now approaching his third decade of incarceration at the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh -- and a permanent feature of Wideman's work since the publication of his award-winning memoir "Brothers and Keepers" (1984); his aging mother, ailing and confined to a wheelchair; and, of course, Fanon, whom we sight at different times and places in his life -- Martinique, Lyon and Paris, Algeria, Mali, the United States.

"Fanon" shuttles briskly and unexpectedly from one place to the next: from the streets of lower Manhattan, where Thomas roams; to Robby's prison, where Wideman and his mother visit; to southern France, where Thomas travels, seeking to pitch Fanon's life as a film to Jean-Luc Godard, who, he suspects, may be as despairing of the power of film as Thomas is suspicious of the power of words; to Wideman's Pittsburgh neighborhood, where he (or Thomas) treats a visiting Godard to a soul food meal. Wideman roams freely across time and space, apparently unconcerned about historical anachronisms. At some point he has confided in Robby and his mother about the project, and these two figures emerge as both auditors and collaborators. They also have some of the best monologues and stories in the book.

During one of Wideman's prison visits, Robby tells him: "Guess what. Your mother over there claims she met Fanon during one of her stays in the hospital." This introduces yet another twist into the work: Wideman's mother will end up looking after a dying Fanon.

With more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction to his credit, two PEN/Faulkner awards and a literary society dedicated to his work, Wideman is at the top of his form. In the heightened consciousness he brings to issues of narrative point of view, representation and language, he pushes literary conventions almost beyond their limits, and perhaps beyond some of his readers, too. But the brilliance of his language, the power of his storytelling and the sheer bravado and unexpectedness of his riffs exert considerable charms. In this respect, his brother Robby has some of the best lines: "Plenty times I don't agree with them knucklehead ideas I been hearing from you my whole life, but I like to hear your [expletive] anyway. . . . When you get off on words and get to rapping and signifying."

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