The Low End Theory

In 2013, a manifesto entitled The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study began making the rounds among the growing pool of nervous graduate students, harried adjuncts, un-tenured professors, and postdocs whirling through the nation’s faculty lounges. The Undercommons was published by the small anarchist press Autonomedia and made freely available for download; in practice, however, it circulated by word of mouth, copies of the PDF forwarded like samizdat literature for those in the know. On the surface, the text is an analysis of alienated academic labor at the contemporary American university. But it’s also more radical than that: it is a manual for free thinking, a defiant call to dissent within educational institutions that betray their liberal credos, filling their coffers even as they prepare students, armed with liberal arts degrees and “critical thinking” skills, to helm a social and economic order in which, “to work…is to be asked, more and more, to do without thinking, to feel without emotion, to move without friction, to adapt without question, to translate without pause, to desire without purpose, to connect without interruption.”

For those with little or no knowledge of black studies, the text’s deployment of terms like “fugitivity” and “undercommons” may seem baffling. To those in the circle, however, this lexicon of continental philosophy, remixed with a poetic and prophetic fire resembling Amiri Baraka’s, bears the signature of one of the most brilliant practitioners of black studies working today: the scholar and poet Fred Moten ’84.

Black studies, or African American studies, emerged out of the revolutionary fervor of the late 1960s, as students and faculty members demanded that universities recognize the need for departments engaged in scholarship on race, slavery, and the diasporic history and culture of peoples of African descent. Since its institutionalization, these departments have grown many branches of inquiry that maintain a rich interdisciplinary dialogue. One is a school of thought known as jazz studies, which investigates the intersections of music, literary and aesthetic theory, and politics. Moten is arguably its leading theoretician, translating jazz studies into a vocabulary of insurgent thought that seeks to preserve black studies as a space for radical politics and dissent. In his work he has consistently argued that any theory of politics, ethics, or aesthetics must begin by reckoning with the creative expressions of the oppressed. Having absorbed the wave of “high theory” — of deconstruction and post-structuralism — he, more than anyone else, has refashioned it as a tool for thinking “from below.”

Moten is best known for his book In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (2003). “The history of blackness is testament to the fact that objects can and do resist,” is the book’s arresting opening sentence, announcing his major aim: to rethink the way bodies are shaped by aesthetic experience. In particular, he explores how the improvisation that recurs in black art — whether in the music of Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday, the poetry of Amiri Baraka and Nathaniel Mackey, or the conceptual art of Adrian Piper — confounds the distinctions between objects and subjects, individual bodies and collectively experienced expressions of resistance, desire, or agony. Since 2000, Moten has also published eight chapbooks of poetry, and one, The Feel Trio, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2014. He is that rare literary figure who commands wide and deep respect in and out of the academy, and who blurs the line between poetics as a scholarly pursuit, and poetry as an act of rebellious creation, an inherently subversive activity.

This past fall, Moten took up a new position in the department of performance studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, arriving from Los Angeles and a teaching appointment at the University of California at Riverside. In early September, his office was still a bare room with a single high window looking out over Broadway. He hadn’t had a chance to unpack his library, but already a small stack of books on jazz theory, performance, and quantum mechanics rested in a pile near his desk. It soon became clear, however, that he is the kind of thinker who keeps all his favorite books in his head, anyway. His Paul Laurence Dunbar is always at his fingertips, and he weaves passages from Karl Marx, Immanuel Kant, or Hortense Spillers into his conversation with equal facility.

In someone else this learnedness could come off as intimidating, but in Moten it’s just the opposite. Something about his composure, his relaxed attentiveness, the way he shakes his head with knowing laughter as he pauses over the direction he’s about to take with a question, instantly erases any stuffiness: one can imagine the exact same conversation taking place on the sidelines of a cookout. And then there’s his voice: warm, low, and propelled by a mellow cadence that breaks complex clauses into neat segments, their hushed, conspiratorial air approaching aphorism. At one point, Moten asked about my dissertation, which I confessed, sheepishly, was kind of a mess. His eyes lit up. He leaned back with a wide grin, his hands spreading out in front of him. “You know what a mess is?” He said. “In Arkansas, a mess is a unit of measure. Like of vegetables. Where my people come from folks might say: ‘You want a bushel?’ And you’ll say, ‘Nah, I want a mess.’ You know, like that great James Brown line: ‘Nobody can tell me how to use my mess.’ It’s a good thing to have. A mess is enough for a meal.”

When he’s speaking before an audience, no matter the size, he never raises his voice; a hush comes over the room and remains in ambient tension, like a low flame. On the occasion of John Ashbery’s ninetieth birthday last July (just months before his passing), Moten collaborated in a celebratory recording of Ashbery’s long poem, Flow Chart. Ashbery was always a great reader of his own work, but it was thrilling to hear the sly affection with which Moten took the verse uptown, bending its notes with his Lenox Lounge delivery. The same qualities come out when he reads from his own poetry, always brimful of quotations from the songbook of black America. His poem, “I got something that makes me want to shout,” for example, consists of riffs that build off quotations from a celebrated funk record, each quote set off just enough and in just such a way —“I got something that tells me what it’s all about” — that when he lands on the last line of the poem — “I got soul, and I’m super bad” — he’s fully sublimated a James Brown groove. The line between poetry and song quivers, the “high” lyric gets down with the low, and the Godfather of Soul’s declamation of Soul Power boomerangs back to us as poetry, which is what it always was.


A Cosmic Rent Party

To understand how all the pieces that “make” Fred Moten come together, one has to step back and see where he’s coming from. The autobiographical reference is a constant presence in his poetry, in which the names of beloved friends, colleagues, musicians, kinfolk, neighbors, literary figures, all intermingle and rub up against each other like revelers at a cosmic rent party. “I grew up in a bass community in las vegas,” opens one poem from The Feel Trio: “everything was on the bottom and everything was / everything and everybody’s. we played silos. our propulsion / was flowers.”

Moten was born in Las Vegas in 1962. His parents were part of the Great Migration of blacks out of the Deep South who moved north and westward to big cities like St. Louis and Los Angeles. By the 1940s and 1950s they were also being drawn to Las Vegas, and the opportunities offered by the booming casinos and military bases established during World War II. “A lot of people don’t realize it, but Vegas was one of the last great union towns,” Moten says. Jobs within the gaming industry were protected by the Culinary Union, and with a union check, even casino porters and maids could save up to buy a house — “at least on the West Side,” the city’s largely segregated black community where he was raised.

Moten’s father, originally from Louisiana, found work at the Las Vegas Convention Center and then eventually for Pan American, a large subcontractor for the Nevada Test Site where the military was still trying out its new atomic weapons. His mother worked as a school teacher. (She appears often in his poetry as B. Jenkins, also the title of one of his finest collections.) Her path to that job was a steep climb. Her family was from Kingsland, Arkansas, and had committed themselves against all odds to obtaining education. Her own mother had managed to finish high school, says Moten, who remembers his grandmother as a woman with thwarted ambitions and a great love of literature. She’d wake him up in the mornings by reciting poems by Dunbar and Keats she’d learned in high school. “And she was the one who was really determined for my mother to go to college,” he says. “She cleaned people’s houses until the day she retired, and in the summer and spring she would pick cotton.” Kingsland is the birthplace of Johnny Cash, and Moten’s family picked cotton on the property of Cash’s cousin Dave, a big landowner, to get the money together to send his mother to college.

Jenkins attended the segregated University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, which housed her in the dormitory basement; she eventually transferred to, and graduated from, the Arkansas Agricultural Mechanical and Normal College, at Pine Bluff.* She was keen on doing more than just learning; she wanted to pursue knowledge for its own sake, and for how it might serve to explain the world around her. “My mother totally believed in the value of education,” Moten says, “but she was scholarly in a certain way. She was invested in learning in a way that was disconnected from the material benefits it was supposed to get her, and I must have picked up on that.” She was especially interested in sociology, and he grew up hearing her talk about figures like Horace Mann Bond, Hortense Powdermaker, Gunnar Myrdal, and John Dollard, towering figures of the liberal school of American social science who were engaged in solving what was then commonly referred to as “the Negro Problem.”

Degree in hand, she went to Chicago to teach in the public schools, but “someone basically told her she was too dark to get a teaching job in Chicago.” She hoped to have better luck in Vegas, but the schools were segregated there, too, and no one would hire her. “They used to call Nevada the Mississippi of the West,” Moten recalls. Jenkins took up domestic work, and it was only by chance that she found herself cleaning the house of a woman who was on the local school board, who helped her get a job at Madison Elementary School on the West Side, where she met Moten’s father.

The West Side was a tightly knit community. Moten likens it to the village in the Toni Morrison essay “City Limits, Village Values,” where Morrison contrasts white fiction writers’ “Gopher prairie despair” with the affection black writers typically express for the intimate, communal life built around “village values”— even if that black village, like Harlem, say, is part of a larger city. “It seemed like everybody was from one of these tiny little towns in Arkansas. My mom’s best friends — their grandparents were friends.” Nevada was a small enough state, he says, that the West Side could swing tight elections, and much of Las Vegas politics in the early 1960s was concerned with national politicans’ positions on civil-rights legislation. “So a few precincts in Las Vegas might make the difference between the election of a senator, Paul Laxalt, who probably wouldn’t vote for the Civil Rights Act, or the election of a Howard Cannon, who would, and my mom was deeply involved in all that.” Through her, politics and music became intertwined in everyday life.

Though the flashpoint of national politics at the time was school desegregation, locally it was also about desegregating the Vegas Strip. “You know, you see all that Rat Pack shit in the movies,” Moten says, “but the truth of it was that Sammy Davis Jr., Duke Ellington, Count Basie — they could perform on the strip, but they damn sure couldn’t stay there. So when they came to town they would come to the West Side and stay in rooming houses, and there was this amazing nightlife on Jackson Street where you could hear everybody.” Everyone, from headliners to pit-band musicians, came to stay on the West Side. Moten’s mother knew a number of musicians, dancers, and singers; when jazz singer Sarah Vaughan came to town they would gather at a friend’s house to cook greens, listen to music, and gossip. “For me that was like school,” he says. His childhood summers, meanwhile, seemed to revolve around listening to Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett doing the Dodgers broadcast: “My family were all rabid Jackie Robinson-era Dodgers fans.”

Moten also has strong memories of listening to KVOV, “The Kool Voice of Vegas.” “It was one of those sundown stations, you know, that shuts down for the night, and they had a disc jockey named Gino B. Soon as the sun started getting low, he would put on a bass line and start rapping to himself…bim bam, slapped-y sam, and remember everybody life is love and love is life…that kind of thing, and everybody in town would tune in just to hear what he was going to say, and I loved that.” He also vividly recalls encountering certain LPs in the 1970s, like Bob Marley’s Rastaman Vibration and Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions—“those double-gated record albums that had the lyrics printed on the inside, so you could sit and read while the music played overhead.” Aside from his grandmother’s love of it, he says, his first experience of poetry was music.


From Harvard to the Nevada Test Site

For a kid from a midsize Western city, the shock of going East to college at Harvard might have been overwhelming. Moten felt he was ready for the challenge. He was lucky to have folks looking out for him, he insists — like David L. Evans, an admissions officer who was “like a hero to us”: “Any black student from the late ’60s onward, you can believe he had to fight like Mayweather, Ali, Frazier, and Joe Louis to get us in.” Moten’s first surprise at Harvard was encountering a certain kind of black elite. “My growing up was a lot more like Good Times than it was like the Huxtables, and now I was in a school with a lot of Huxtables.” The even bigger shock was campus politics. “When I went to Harvard in 1980 I thought I was being trained for the Revolution. The Black Panther party in Vegas — they met in my mom’s basement. So I was ready to go, and I had foolishly assumed everyone there would be thinking like me.”

Moten’s first surprise at Harvard was encountering a certain kind of black elite. “My growing up was a lot more like Good Times than it was like the Huxtables, and now I was in a school with a lot of Huxtables.” The even bigger shock was campus politics.

Moten originally planned to concentrate in economics, taking Social Analysis 10 and a class on development economics that he vaguely imagined might lead to agricultural development work in Africa. Freshman football helped him through his first semester by providing a loose structure without too strenuous a commitment — but by the second, things were getting messy. He was very influenced by Professor Martin L. Kilson, a scholar of black politics whom Moten describes as “a great man and a close mentor,” and to whom The Undercommons is dedicated. He was also increasingly involved in the activities of politically minded friends — tutoring prisoners and working with civil-rights activists in Roxbury. After a while he got too busy to go to class. He was also awakening to a world of ideas and intellectual debate. “We were staying up all night, we were reading everything, just none of it was for class.” The group discovered Noam Chomsky, and got deeply involved in exchanges between E.O. Wilson and Stephen Jay Gould about sociobiology and scientific racism — “and we felt like we were in the debate, like we were part of it, you know, we were very earnest and strident in that way. But eventually it caught up to me that I had flunked three classes and I had to go home for a year.”

This turned out to be a transformative experience that can only be described as Pynchonesque. When he got home, he ended up taking a job as a janitor at the Nevada Test Site, busing in through the desert each day. “The Test Site was the last resort for a lot of people. If you really messed up, you might still be able to get work there,” he says now. He worked pretty much alone, but for an alcoholic man from Brooklyn who’d somehow drifted west, and would regale Moten with stories about growing up in Red Hook. “I’ll never forget, he always called me ‘Cap’: ‘I wanna succeed again, Cap!’”

Fred Moten
Photograph by Robert Adam Mayer

It was eight hours of job but two hours of work,” Moten recounts, “so mostly what I did was read.” He got into T.S. Eliot by way of seeing Apocalypse Now and reading Conrad. “‘The Hollow Men’ and ‘The Wasteland,’ those were very important poems for me. There was this scholarly apparatus to them, a critical and philosophical sensibility that Eliot had, that you could trace in the composition through the notes.” He’d pore over a newly released facsimile edition to “The Wasteland” that included Eliot’s drafts. “By the time I came back, I was an English major.”

Back in Cambridge, it was an exciting and tumultuous time to be jumping into literary studies. He took an expository writing class with Deborah Carlin, who introduced him to Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston and encouraged him to write; he took Helen Vendler’s “Modern American Poetry” class, where he first encountered Wallace Stevens, Frank O’Hara, and Allen Ginsberg, “And I realized that I could read it, I could get it.” Reflecting, he adds, “I was glad that I had taken the class with Vendler and the class meant a lot to me, but I also already knew my taste differed from hers.”

At the same time, Moten was cultivating a relationship to campus literary life, joining The Harvard Advocate, where he met its poetry editor, Stefano Harney ’85 — forming a close and enduring friendship that has also evolved into an ongoing intellectual collaboration (Harney is co-author of The Undercommons). Together, they took a class taught by David Perkins on the modernist long poem, reading William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, Robert Duncan’s “Passages,” and Ed Dorn’s The Gunslinger. “I was into that stuff, and Steve was, too, so we could cultivate our resistance to Vendler together.” Parties were off campus at William Corbett’s house in Boston’s South End, where fellow poets like Michael Palmer, Robert Creeley, or Seamus Heaney might stop in for dinner or drinks. Moten absorbed the possibilities of the scene but his poetic sensibility is that of the instinctive outsider, attracted to all those who dwell at the fringes and intend to remain there.

A decisive turning point came when literary critic Barbara Johnson, arrived from Yale to teach a course called “Deconstruction,” and he first read Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and Ferdinand Saussure. At the time, in a class on James Joyce, he was also reading Ulysses. “It had a rhythm I was totally familiar with, but that I didn’t associate with high art. I believed, I just sensed that it was radical; it felt instinctively to me like this was against the status quo, that the reason they wrote this way was that it was like a secret, it wasn’t for the bosses.” He felt the same way about Derrida: “This is for the people who want to tear shit up. And we were ready for it.”

The Poet-Philosopher of Weird

Moten went on to pursue graduate studies in English at Berkeley. Even his earliest journal publications are intensely idiosyncratic. It’s as if he were convinced he had to invent his own tools in order to take up the subjects that interested him — design his own philosophy, his own theory. “I’m not a philosopher,” he says. “I feel like I’m a critic, in the sense that Marx intends in Private Property and Communism when he gives these sketchy outlines of what communism might look like: ‘We wake up in the morning, and we go out in the garden, till the ground, and in the afternoon we engage in criticism.’”

In his criticism, Moten is especially attuned to a zone that Brent Edwards (a close friend and interlocuter) has called the “fringe of contact between music and language.” He’ll draw the reader’s attention to the “surplus lyricism of the muted, mutating horns of Tricky Sam Nanton or Cootie Williams” in Duke Ellington’s band, for example. Or, commenting on Invisible Man’s observation that few really listen to Louis Armstrong’s jazz, he’ll cut to an abrupt and unsettling assertion: “Ellison knows that you can’t really listen to this music. He knows…that really listening, when it goes bone-deep into the sudden ark of bones, is something other than itself. It doesn’t alternate with but is seeing; it’s the sense that it excludes; it’s the ensemble of the senses. Few really read this novel.”

In one of In the Break’s most transfixing passages, Moten reassembles a new set of meanings, or understandings, of the photograph of Emmett Till’s open casket. Why should that image, out of all others, have so much power — some even arguing, as he points out, that it triggered the mobilization of the civil-rights movement? Why has it remained so charged and fraught, so haunting? “What effect,” Moten asks, “did the photograph of his body have on death?” His answer: captured within the image is the sexual panic occasioned by the sound of Till’s whistling, “ ‘the crippled speech’ of Till’s ‘Bye, baby,’ ” forever bound up in the moaning and mourning of a mother over her dead child. Looking at the photograph, Moten writes, “cannot be sustained as unalloyed looking but must be accompanied by listening and this, even though what is listened to — echo of a whistle or a phrase, moaning, mourning, desperate testimony and flight — is also unbearable.” Millions have viewed the photographs of Till’s open casket. His images have been infamously and controversially reproduced, looked away from, gawked at. Moten does with extraordinary care what most have never done for Till (or for so many other sons and mothers), out of ignorance, or fear, or shame — which is, of course, to listen.

Moten is impatient with detractors who accuse him of difficulty and lack of clarity. Many writers once thought to be impenetrable are now considered canonical, he points out. “The critics I loved and who were influential to me were all weird: Empson, Burke, Benjamin, Adorno — they all had a sound, and it wasn’t like a PMLA, academic-journal sound.” The other critics who influenced him, he continues, were poets: Charles Olson, Amiri Baraka, Nathaniel Mackey, and especially Susan Howe — who, he says, has a different understanding of how the sentence works. “Miles [Davis] said: You gotta have a sound. I knew I wanted to sound like something. That was more important to me than anything.” One could argue that Moten’s sound resonates with the “golden era” of hip-hop of the late eighties and early nineties, when it was still audibly a wild collage of jazz, R&B, late disco and funk: “Styles upon styles upon styles is what I have,” the late Phife Dawg raps on A Tribe Called Quest’s celebrated 1991 album The Low End Theory.

One difficulty for outside readers encountering Moten’s work is that he tends to engage more with the avant-garde than with pop. It’s easy to see why the art world has embraced him: his taste gravitates toward the free-jazz end of the spectrum so strongly it’s as if he were on a mission, striving to experience all of creation at once — to play (as the title of a favorite Cecil Taylor album puts it) All the Notes. This spring, Moten is teaching a graduate course based on the works of choreographer Ralph Lemon and artist Glenn Ligon. In recent years he has collaborated with the artist Wu Tsang on installation and video art pieces, where they do things like practice the (slightly nostalgic) art of leaving voicemail messages for each other every day for two weeks without ever connecting, just riffing off snippets from each other’s notes. In another video short directed by Tsang, Moten — wearing a caftan and looking Sun Ra-ish — is filmed in “drag-frame” slow motion dancing to an a cappella rendition of the jazz standard “Girl Talk.”

I grew up around people who were weird. No one’s blackness was compromised by their weirdness, and by the same token, nobody’s weirdness was compromised by their blackness.”

By way of explanation, Moten recalls his old neighborhood. “I grew up around people who were weird. No one’s blackness was compromised by their weirdness, and by the same token,” he adds, “nobody’s weirdness was compromised by their blackness.” The current buzz (and sometimes backlash) over the cultural ascendancy of so-called black nerds, or “blerds,” allegedly incarnated by celebrities like Donald Glover, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Issa Rae, leaves him somewhat annoyed. “In my mind I have this image of Sonny Boy Williamson wearing one of those harlequin suits he liked to wear. These dudes were strange, and I always felt that’s just essential to black culture. George Clinton is weird. Anybody that we care about, that we still pay attention to, they were weird.”

Weirdness for Moten can refer to cultural practices, but it also describes the willful idiosyncracy of his own work, which draws freely from tributaries of all kinds. In Black and Blur, the first book of his new three-volume collection, consent not to be a single being (published by Duke University Press), one finds essays on the Congolese painter Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu and C.L.R. James, François Girard’s Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, a comparison between Trinidadian calypso and Charles Mingus records composed in response to the Little Rock Nine, David Hammon’s art installation Concerto in Black and Blue, Wittgenstein and the science fiction of Samuel Delany, a deconstruction of Theodor Adorno’s writings on music and a reconstruction of Saidiya Hartman’s arguments on violence. Sometimes the collision can happen within a single sentence: “Emily Dickinson and Harriet Jacobs, in their upper rooms, are beautiful,” he writes. “They renovate sequestration.”

Taken together, Moten’s writings feel like a Charlie Parker solo, or a Basquiat painting, in their gleeful yet deadly serious attempt to capture the profusion of ideas in flight. For him this fugitive quality is the point. We are not supposed to be satisfied with clear understanding, but instead motivated to continue improvising and imagining a utopian destination where a black cosmopolitanism — one created from below, rather than imposed from above — brings folks together.

For Moten, this flight of ideas begins in the flight of bodies: in the experience of slavery and the Middle Passage, which plays a crucial role in his thinking. “Who is more cosmopolitan than Equiano?” he asks rhetorically, citing the Igbo sailor and merchant who purchased his own freedom, joined the abolitionist movement in England, and published his famous autobiography in 1789. “People think cosmopolitanism is about having a business-class seat. The hold of the ship, among other things, produces a kind of cosmopolitanism, and it’s not just about contact with Europeans and transatlantic travel. When you put Fulani and Igbo together and they have to learn how to speak to each other, that’s also a language lab. The historical production of blackness is cosmopolitanism.”

Trump is nothing new. This is what empire on the decline looks like. When each emperor is worse than the last.”

What can one learn from the expression of people who refuse to be commodities, but also once were commodities? What does history look like, or the present, or the future, from the point of view of those who refuse the norms produced by systems of violence: who consent not to be a single being? These key concerns course through the entirety of Moten’s dazzling new trilogy, which assembles all his theoretical writings since In the Break. At a time of surging reactionary politics, ill feeling, and bad community, few thinkers seem so unburdened and unbeholden, so confident in their reading of the historical moment. Indeed, when faced with the inevitable question of the state of U.S. politics, Moten remains unfazed. “The thing I can’t stand is the Trump exceptionalism. Remember when Goldwater was embarrassing. And Reagan. And Bush. Trump is nothing new. This is what empire on the decline looks like. When each emperor is worse than the last.”

* * *

A thesis that has often been attractive to black intellectuals (held dear, for example, by both W.E.B. Du Bois and Ralph Ellison) was that the United States without black people is too terrifying to contemplate; that all the evidence, on balance, suggests that blackness has actually been the single most humanizing — one could even say, slyly, the only “civilizing” — force in America. Moten takes strong exception. “The work of black culture was never to civilize America — it’s about the ongoing production of the alternative. At this point it’s about the preservation of the earth. To the extent that black culture has a historic mission, and I believe that it does — its mission is to uncivilize, to de-civilize, this country. Yes, this brutal structure was built on our backs; but if that was the case, it was so that when we stood up it would crumble.”

Despite these freighted words, Moten isn’t the brooding type. He’s pleased to be back in New York City, where he’ll be able to walk, instead of drive, his kids to school. He’s hopeful about new opportunities for travel, and excited to engage with local artists and poets. His wife, cultural studies scholar Laura Harris, is working on a study of the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica, who is currently being “re-discovered” by American artists and critics. “I circulate babylon and translate for the new times,” opens another poem in The Feel Trio, referring to a timely, or maybe timeless, place where “secret runway ads brush and cruise each other and / the project runaway.”

Moten is not in the business of promoting optimism for the future, but he does not feel imprisoned by the past or bogged down in the present. Instead he is busy prodding about the little edges of everyday life as it is expressed by everyday people, the folkways of the undercommons. As his writings circulate within and beyond the classroom, so too does his version of theorizing from below, always seeking out sites where a greater humanity might unexpectedly break through.

A Kind of Freedom

The subject of the black family and its relationship to racial progress in America has never been neutral. Historians, social scientists and armchair critics from all quarters have led fractious debates defending or condemning it. These polemics all too often overshadow the very human experience they purport to understand, reducing to caricature full and entangled lives.

In her luminous and remarkably assured first novel, “A Kind of Freedom,” Margaret Wilkerson Sexton cuts through this haze to shine an unflinching but compassionate light on three generations of a black family in New Orleans who try to make the best choices they can in a world defined at every turn by constraint, peril and disappointment — a world in which, as one of her characters puts it, you quickly “learned the hard way that life could drag disgrace out of you.”

For a debut novelist to take up such charged material is daring; to succeed in lending free-standing life to her characters without yielding an inch to sentimentality — or its ugly twin, pathology — announces her as a writer of uncommon nerve and talent.

In “A Kind of Freedom,” Sexton pursues a family’s history in a downward spiral, with three alternating plot lines that echo one another along the way. The novel opens in 1944, with the budding love of Evelyn, a daughter of a well-to-do family (her mother is Creole, her father a black doctor who has raised himself to respectability), and Renard, a young man from a poor Twelfth Ward neighborhood who works menial jobs at a restaurant but aspires to study medicine. Their courtship, though ardent, reveals the strictures of a class- and color-riven society that suffocates ambition and distorts desire.

Forty years later, Evelyn’s daughter Jackie is a struggling single mother in 1980s New Orleans who is in love with her child’s father but afraid he will succumb to his crack addiction. Eventually, we get to know Jackie’s son, T.C., in 2010, a young man at a turning point in his life. Through T.C.’s eyes, Sexton portrays a post-Katrina New Orleans where the smell of mold still lingers and opportunities for fast cash in the streets abound, as do the chances of getting shot or arrested.

Sexton is a native of the Crescent City, and one of the pleasures of this novel is its feel for the particulars of local language, texture and taste: a jar of pickled pig lips, a family crawfish boil, the turn of an old Creole phrase, the sound of Lil Wayne on Q93 FM, as well as the shame of bringing a date to the movies when you had to sit in what was then (in more polite circles) referred to as “the Negro balcony.”

All this can bring to mind Jesmyn Ward’s “Salvage the Bones,” but where Ward is Faulknerian in her rhetorical sweep, Sexton maintains a cool, detached naturalism more reminiscent of Tayari Jones in “Leaving Atlanta.” Whether writing of black girlhood, the quotidian fears and hopes of mothering, or the lure of street life, she places her characters in the path of momentous choices while making it clear they have little to hope for. At the end of the day, it is mainly women like Jackie, “teetering between her narrow options,” who are left to pick up the pieces and wonder at their ability to cope. “What happened to the face of a broken woman?” Evelyn asks herself as she watches over her sleeping sister. “Did it turn to convey the loss or did it conspire with her heart to hide it?”

A Kind of Freedom” attends to the marks left on a family where its links have been bruised and sometimes broken, but dwells on the endurance and not the damage. The force of this naturalistic vision is disquieting; it is also moving. One could say that it has the disenchanting optimism of the blues. Though her style differs sharply from Zora Neale Hurston’s sassy lyricism, Sexton looks upon her characters much as Janie views her life in “Their Eyes Were Watching God” — “like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone.”

In the Zone

Mathias Énard is not by any means a household name, but he is increasingly viewed in France as one of the country’s foremost novelists. Born in 1972 in the small southwestern town of Niort, Énard originally planned on studying art history and attended the prestigious École du Louvre in Paris. A nascent interest in Islamic art and literature led him to study Persian and then Arabic at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations, a change of course that sent him on a long series of travels across the Middle East before he eventually took up a position teaching Arabic at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

In 2003, Énard published his first novel, La Perfection du Tir (which one could translate as The Sniper Prepares). A tense and unsettling portrait of a gunman in an unnamed war-torn city that could be Beirut (but also, just as convincingly, Sarajevo), it reminded Énard’s French readers of the eurozone’s proximity to, and complicity in, the many ethnic and religious animosities roiling just beneath the surface of the ostensibly harmonious trade bloc piloted by Brussels. Since then, he has published four more novels and a handful of novellas, as well as translations of classic Persian and contemporary Arabic poetry.

Énard is best known for his sprawling, violent 2008 novel Zone. Written as one unbroken, amphetamine-addled sentence stretched across a canvas of some 500 pages, Zone rummages through the mind of its narrator, Francis Mirkovic, an intelligence agent with a past, who is traveling by train from Milan to Rome with a dossier he intends to deliver to the Vatican that catalogs evidence of war crimes committed throughout the 1990s in the Balkans. Ranging across the Mediterranean—the titular “zone”—Énard weaves geography and history together in a manner worthy of the French historian Fernand Braudel, and he does so while pitching the reader ever forward into a confessional of violence and alienation reminiscent of William Burroughs.

Presenting a nightmarish vision of post–Cold War Europe, Zone was unabashedly epic in scope and high-modernist in execution. Justly hailed by critics at home and abroad, it cemented Énard’s reputation as a novelist with major ambitions who was operating at the height of his powers.

After Zone, Énard did not let up. In 2010, he published a new novel, Rue des Voleurs, which moved his focus away from the northern ridge of the “zone” to its lower, southern half. (Rue was translated into English by Charlotte Mandell and published by Open Letters as Street of Thieves in 2014.) Following Lakhdar, a young Moroccan from Tangier, Street of Thieves continued to explore the portents of violence just beneath the surface and the different valences of cultural identity and belonging found on both sides of the Strait of Gibraltar. As with so many of Énard’s characters, Lakhdar is a voracious and omnivorous reader. Language and the world of letters destabilize him and open him up to new horizons. In a statement that echoes Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” Lakhdar declares a credo that Énard himself might espouse: “I am what I have read, I am what I have seen, I have within me as much Arabic as Spanish and French, I have multiplied myself in these mirrors to the point of losing myself or constructing myself, a fragile image, an image in movement.”

This “image in movement,” a picture of the destructive and creative possibilities forged by the Mediterranean “zone,” is not just a literary device for Énard; it can be found in his personality and public persona. He has spent his own life moving from one end of the zone to the other, without entirely giving up the French language or his attachment to its literary traditions. His manner is soft-spoken and gentle, but he is also gregarious, gestural, and charismatic. One can easily picture him sitting at a café table in Algiers or even running a small Lebanese restaurant, as he in fact did for several years in Barcelona, the city that he now calls home and where he has written all of his books.

The image of Énard as a voyaging romantic is perhaps helped by the fact that he is physically striking, almost Dickensian in appearance: a man of diminutive and compact build, whose tangled curls and receding hairline frame a pair of unruly sideburns more reminiscent of Stendhal than a 21st-century writer taking on the challenges of a world enthralled by Google and ISIS. Énard can seem in his very person to be somehow seeking to contain and resolve the apparent contradictions, the dislocations of place, the fractures of culture and historical frames. Can one person, through the force of erudition and poetic sensibility, turn literature into a healing salve—one that we can all believe in? With humanitarian crises and terrorist mayhem delivering fresh horror in the daily news, the prospects appear daunting. Yet this is precisely the wager that Mathias Énard has taken up.

Énard’s new novel, Compass, just published in the United States in an English translation by Charlotte Mandell, came out in France at the height of a bloody and destabilizing year for the country. On January 7, 2015, gunmen affiliated with Al Qaeda in Yemen assassinated members of Charlie Hebdo’s editorial staff in the heart of Paris and later terrorized a kosher supermarket; then, in March, ISIS-inspired terrorists killed 21 people at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis.

In a gesture of solidarity and defiance of the terrorist threat, the jury for the 2015 Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, decided to announce that year’s finalists, which included Compass, at the Bardo museum. One week later, on November 3, it was officially announced that Énard had won. In France, literary prizes are still followed with the kind of media blitz and fanfare that normally accompany movie festivals. For Énard, there was little time to celebrate: Just 10 days later, France saw the worst bloodshed on its soil since the turmoil of the Algerian War, when a team of ISIS commandos sent from Syria detonated suicide vests, shot up café terraces, and massacred concertgoers they had taken hostage at the Bataclan theater. At the same time, the surge of refugees and migrants attempting to cross the sea into Europe reached catastrophic proportions, with hundreds drowning by the month.

This atmosphere of tension and spectacular cruelty directly informs the pages of Énard’s crepuscular narrative, which is set in the immediate present of 2014–15, with the Syrian conflict and the rise of the Islamic State as its backdrop. The plot of Compass is really more of a frame, an anchoring point for a series of loosely strung, impressionistic fugues that follow the streams of thought of one man over a single night. Our hero is Franz Ritter, a middling Franco-Austrian musicologist living in Vienna. Ritter suffers from a grave but unnamed illness, and with a good deal on his mind, he reflects on his unremarkable but well-traveled career as an academic. He also considers his fledgling love affair with Sarah, another unspecified member of the contemporary academy (her dissertation’s title is “Visions of the Other Between East and West”) who shares his passion for pursuing the obscure and forgotten translators, poets, and spies who—not unlike Franz and Sarah themselves—have, throughout history, gone flitting to and from the region’s old cities like Istanbul, Damascus, and Aleppo, cross-pollinating their cultural contacts along the way.

Chapters divide the night into bouts of insomniac reverie, as Franz fidgets and bumps about an apartment stuffed with books and mementos, piecing together for us the phases of his romantic pursuit of Sarah, while indulging in an uninterrupted cavalcade of soliloquies and scholarly sidebars, including several chapters from a hypothetical essay, “On the divers forms of lunacie [sic] in the Orient.” By dawn, Franz will have looked up old e-mails, consulted journal articles, listened to the radio, and compulsively refreshed his inbox far too often in the hopes of getting word from Sarah, who is conducting her research on the other side of the world.

Énard’s style is difficult to place, shifting through registers that shade romantic and even baroque, but are often tinged with ironic doses of self-mockery. This tonal play can be difficult to parse even in the French, and Charlotte Mandell is brilliant at finding solutions to bring these subtleties into English, though the overall effect is a kind of detachment and coolness less evident in the original. Énard’s subject matter, after all, is deeply erotic, and his prose in the French strives to intoxicate, to inundate the reader with particulars.

Of the four major cities that Franz and Sarah explore together, and that Franz recounts on his sleepless night in Vienna, the most intensely realized love scene takes place in Tehran. “The gliding automobiles, the smells of tar, rice and saffron that are the odor of Iran,” Franz tells us after describing their encounter, will be “forever associated, for me, with the salty, rainy taste of Sarah’s skin.”

While Énard limits the book’s frame to Franz’s recollections, he also occasionally moves outside them with Sebaldian insertions that feel more like hyperlinks, as Franz absentmindedly pulls up Sarah’s old articles from his hard drive and treats us to facsimiles of academic jargon, reproductions of postcards, and frontispieces to Goethe and Balzac. Presumably, the upshot for Énard in making his narrator an academic is that it’s a useful contrivance for dredging up the literary arcana and necessarily minor figures who populate his area of inquiry (we learn about the spy and explorer Alois Musil, cousin to the novelist Robert Musil, and the orientalist polymath Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall; we are also introduced to the Iranian writer Sadegh Hedayat and the Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab). These excurses in Énard’s field of expertise also allow the narration to oscillate between the first person and a more scholarly, invitational “we” that, one suspects, is supposed to include Énard and his readers.

But there is an obvious downside here as well. Even if one is willing to suspend one’s frustration at being made to feel ignorant, there’s the added unkindness of being stranded in a room with a pedant. Franz has an irrepressible fondness for the sound of his own voice. It’s insufferable to have to listen to a man prone to saying things like “life is a Mahler symphony, it never goes back, never retraces its steps”; it becomes intolerable once you realize this man is going to talk to himself all night, and it’s not yet one in the morning! True, Énard is mostly poking fun at the self-important gassiness of contemporary academia, and yes, everything suggests he is well aware that this is a wild fantasy of academic life bearing not the slightest resemblance to the real thing. But that still leaves it as an inside joke, and Franz Ritter, while occasionally droll, is not a sparkling wit.

One begins to get the sense that there’s another game at play, one that was perhaps not Énard’s intention when he set out to write Compass, but that a reader can’t resist surmising in the wake of its publication. Outwardly, Énard’s Franz Ritter has a lot in common with François, the hero of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, which appeared early in 2015. Both men are undistinguished, middle-aged academics; both maintain a keen interest in unlocking the potential of the Orient. Both desire some kind of deliverance from women, something beyond sex but also resolutely and insistently related to it. In Houellebecq’s novel, women are emotional and sexual dead ends: François experiences his girlfriend as a source of indifference and sexual despair, and finds release in the company of sex workers; he also finds his mother’s death barely worth mentioning. Franz is just the opposite, in this and many other ways: Sarah is his passport to the world, to further knowledge, an almost ludicrously erotic vessel for what are primarily his own needs and realizations.

Both writers seem aware of the awkward limitations of this kind of female essentializing, but it doesn’t exactly deter either of them. And while Houellebecq’s François is far more repugnant, he is also a much more believable representative of the kind of reactionary mind-set that Énard is trying bravely—but, one feels, a bit abstractly—to refute. Houellebecq’s “depressive realism,” as the critic Ben Jeffery has called it, may be about as appealing as paint thinner, but it is also a solvent that quickly exposes all the hollow bits that come with Énard’s brand of idealism.

The contrast between the two writers is hard to overstate. Where Houellebecq’s prose is famously clinical and cunning, Énard’s tends toward inflation and mannerism, as though puffing itself up to handle a burdensome but heroic act of diplomacy. He writes passionately, with a boundless faith that the accumulated wisdom of centuries of learning, art, music, and philosophy on all sides of the Mediterranean zone will prevail over the desiccated vision of Islamists and ethno-nationalists of all stripes. In a 2016 interview with the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud, in an exchange about stereotypes of Islam in the media, Énard invoked the eighth-century poet Abû Nuwâs, a Walt Whitman–esque figure of the classical Arabic tradition, who celebrated “liberty, humor, drunkenness…. That, too, is in Islam today,” Énard insisted, “but it has to hide itself the most, so we see it the least.”

It’s the kind of statement that Houellebecq has no truck with, and he is hardly alone. For the French, the clash between the two writers reads like a Rorschach test for the left- and right-wing reactions to several decades of jihadist violence: half the country in thrall to the fantasy of throwing an undefined “immigrant” population out, and the other half, stunned and wounded by vicious acts of terror, still struggling to reverse the trend of half a century of failed integration.

Which side Énard is on is clear enough, but how his work might serve as a guide is less so. It’s not easy to find a solid plank for the reader to rest upon amid all the geographical and cultural disorientation in Compass. Believe it or not, tucked away in the pocket of Énard’s novel are not one but two compasses. The first is a replica of the compass that Beethoven is said to have carried around with him on his walks, which Franz has bought as a souvenir and left unattended on his bookshelf. The second is a symbolic one that he has come to appreciate from his travels in the Muslim world, and it points to the powerful geographic imaginary of Dar al-Islam:

in Muslim hotels they stick a little compass for you into the wood of the bed, or they draw a wind rose that can indeed serve to locate the Arabian peninsula, but also, if you’re so inclined, Rome, Vienna, or Moscow: you’re never lost in these lands. I even saw some prayer rugs with a little compass woven into them, carpets you immediately wanted to set flying, since they were so prepared for aerial navigation.

It’s an irresistible conceit, and one can see why it immediately appeals to Énard, who has built all of his books, like a latter-day Ibn Battuta, out of repeated circuits, voyages of circumambulation, with the purpose of knowing each time something more of the world and yet revealing to his readers what they have long not known.

But compasses are not the flexible devices that Énard depicts or perhaps wishes them to be: They may be open to interpretation, but they nonetheless reflect an unmoving geography. The impediments that ordinary people face when determining their own course in the face of rigidly prescribed doctrines are very real. Does knowing that our sense of orientation comes not from the East or the West, but from some kind of intermediate Mediterranean zone in which both interact, help to liberate us? Isn’t this cross-cultural inheritance as much to blame for our violent times as anything else? Can we shed our marks of identity (to borrow a phrase from the late Juan Goytisolo, another drifter in the zone) without fueling more hatred and confusion, the existential violence of alienation?

Cultural mutations are unpredictable and not always benign, after all, and they can sometimes create violent counterreactions. As Franz mulls over the strange case of the orientalists hired by the Austrians and Germans in 1914 to help incite jihad against England, he observes that even Islamic jihad is “another horrible thing constructed by both East and West…at first sight an idea that’s as foreign, external, exogenous as possible,” but that is in fact “a long and strange collective movement, the synthesis of an atrocious, cosmopolitan history.”

Énard hopes that his novel will offer an alternative kind of cosmopolitanism. Literature, he believes, can be something of a universal translator for the heart, recognizing how essential the discovery and exchange of beauty between people and cultures are to their mutual creation. But the poetry of his vision has its blind spots. And in France, across Europe, and farther afield, the blind spots of those of us for whom the wealth of the world is tangible in cheap airfare and study abroad and transnational business opportunities are being called out. Without some decisive change in social outlook and a reordering of the priorities of political economy, the contours of the present crisis will harden.

In Compass, Énard has created a giant fresco, a dream sequence parading the history of cosmopolitan Europe before us. But even as we crane our necks to stare in awe at his creation, it is hard not to notice the cracks in the ceiling, fissures that go right to the foundation and may bring the house down sooner than we think. Houellebecq, for his part, can and will find all his preconceptions and bile reconfirmed every time he turns on the news. His fiction perfectly captures the materially fluid and emotionally abrasive texture of modern life—its violence and sexism, the thinness of its cosmopolitanism and the callousness of its social relations—but he cannot get out of his own head.

Yet what’s remarkable is that both of these major novelists miss the story on their very doorstep, the human face waiting to be recognized. It’s astonishing, for instance, that in Énard’s novel Franz never once meets a Muslim character of any substance living downstairs on his street, operating the cell-phone shop on the corner, standing in line at the grocer’s, going to pray in a mosque tucked discreetly into a former gymnasium or community center. When he and Sarah go to Paris, they visit the tomb of a dead Muslim poet, but there’s no attempt to find the living ones, or to meet a few of the millions of people—many of them crowded into the projects on the far side of the city ramparts—whose lives and futures embody the tradition they are so obsessed with.

Houellebecq has never cared to pen a character that is not basically an alter ego. He complains a good deal about the people who surround him, but for all intents and purposes he has never met them in life, and he cannot bring himself to imagine them in his fiction. Indeed, with the exception of a few groundbreaking writers like Marie NDiaye and Abdellah Taïa, for the most part the novels that actually explore the lives of Muslims living in France have yet to be written.

One hopes that they will be soon, and that the best of Énard’s encyclopedic vision of a truly interwoven Mediterranean will eventually prevail. But I will confess for my part that, as I gaze warily at the events unfolding on both sides of the Atlantic, it is neither Franz Ritter nor Houellebecq’s misanthropic François who seems to capture the spirit of the times. Rather, we must look to Énard’s earlier creation, the haunted Francis Mirkovic, whose flight from the nightmare of history and all of Europe’s bloody fault lines is suspended at Zone’s close as he sits on a bench in the Roma Termini station. Énard ends the book with quiet words that offer no hope of redemption, just the fear of living on borrowed time. Time for a shared cigarette, Mirkovic tells us, “one last smoke before the end of the world.”

Sad and Boujee

Percival Everett. So Much Blue. Graywolf Press, 2017.

One of the great, unsung heroes of the 1970s is a black cowboy by the name of The Loop Garoo Kid, the hero of Ishmael Reed’s 1969 novel, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. In Reed’s tall tale, a brilliant spaghetti-noir—A Fistful of Dollars meets Killer of Sheep—Loop Garoo is a wandering cowpoke who also happens to be a fiercely independent experimental novelist. Early in the novel, The Kid gets ambushed on the edge of the desert by “Bo Shmo and the neo-social realist gang.”

The trouble with you Loop is that you’re too abstract,” their leader declares, “far out esoteric bullshit is where you’re at. Why in those suffering books that I write about my old neighborhood and how hard it was every gumdrop machine is in place while your work is a blur and a doodle.” Loop keeps his cool and answers his truth: “No one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o’clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons.” The neo-social realists have no answer to this, and “being not very original,” decide to discipline Loop by smearing jelly on his face and burying him up to his neck in the sand.

Loop Garoo’s fix is that of all writers struggling to define themselves against a tide of assumptions about who they are and how they ought to exercise their craft. But he’s also very specifically an avatar for the figure of the black writer in America, struggling to outrun the ambushes of racist strictures — the demand that one focus relentlessly on “how hard it was” in the “old neighborhood” or face accusations of betrayal and questions of authenticity, while simultaneously be ignored if one deviates from the expected script. In short, it’s the old canard that the black writer faces a zero-sum choice between political responsibility and alienated indulgence. I suppose it is for this reason, along with the Western theme, that the perilous path of the Kid reminds me of no other contemporary writer more than Percival Everett, a writer whose thirty-year career has produced a dazzling and prolific array of experimental novels, short stories, and poetry that have won him something of a near-legendary reputation himself, an outsider roaming the American West where he has long made his home.

With Everett the appearance of a new novel is always an unpredictable affair, and even longtime fans and followers know they have to be prepared to, well, get thrown for a loop. The plot of So Much Blue, Everett’s latest, braids together a story out of three narrative arcs pursued in alternating chapters — a dynamic triptych sequencing the life of a mildly depressive, post-middle age painter named Kevin Pace. One strand follows Pace’s homelife on a comfortable property (“very arty and New Englandy”) in Rhode Island (summers on Martha’s Vineyard), with a focus on his parenting struggles as the father of two teens and marital troubles with his wife Linda. A second recounts the evolution of an affair conducted in Paris ten years earlier with a 22-year-old French woman named Victoire. The third takes us back to El Salvador in 1979 and a rescue mission set during the opening phase of the country’s civil war, when Kevin (the novel sticks to first names) joins his friend Richard on a desperate bid to find Richard’s brother Tad, a “fuckup” who has gone missing and is possibly caught up in drug trafficking. The novel holds these three apparently incongruous storylines in suspense before gradually and deftly revealing how a set of nested secrets entwines them.

The novel opens with the Paris affair, a seamless sequence of familiar images and plotting filtered through Kevin’s dry and ironic gaze. In a bit of soliloquizing, he admits that “the only thing extraordinary,” about his affair is, “that I would admit to something so pathetically clichéd.” He meets Victoire at an exhibition in the museum at the Jardin du Luxembourg. Victoire is blond and attractive and has, Kevin thinks, “perhaps the whitest skin I had ever seen.” Kevin ponders the hue: “Was she zinc white? Titanium? I decided she was flake white, with all its lead danger.” Victoire is a watercolorist, and a student at the École des Beaux Arts, yet somehow possesses the means to have a small apartment conveniently located right around the corner from the museum. She also has a thing for older men. Wandering through a gallery together the lovers lapse into competing clichés. He is the wizened and weary older artist with deep thoughts: “I’ve come to dislike museums … it’s where art comes to die.” She plays the role of the whimsical siren: “You’re afraid of us” she warns provocatively, only to segue into an open invitation: “I have nice tea at my flat.” “Do you?” “It is Iranian tea.” Compounding her role as the ideal side-girl, Victoire reassures Kevin that she doesn’t mind that he’s married with children, that she wants nothing from him, and that she’s in love. She is sexually available, and — perhaps to add a touch of Gallicism — we learn that her mother is happy to meet this older married black man and does not disapprove of the relationship.

In a characteristic Everett move, Kevin’s race is only glancingly evoked in the novel. The first overt mention of it unsurprisingly comes from The Bummer, a character in the El Salvador section who is the walking embodiment of crude explicit racism. “Don’t think I didn’t notice you’re a nigger,” he warns. When Kevin’s son Will asks him what he wanted to be when he was growing up, we learn that Kevin had an uncle Ty who was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, an illustrious heritage deflated by the knowledge that “Uncle Ty was a fucking asshole.” One of Everett’s great achievements has always been his unassuming portrayal of characters that defy the grotesque strait-jacket of racialized characterization, which so much of American fiction (or American culture in general) simply can’t give up. But racial invisibility is as pure a fantasy as racial stereotype, and Kevin’s effortless gliding around Paris with Victoire adds to the already strained plausibility of a frictionless fantasy. But then an unfortunate (and sometimes unnerving) flatness extends to all the characters in the book. Linda is the intelligent, busy wife who worries quietly about her marriage and is frustrated and out of touch with her teenage daughter April. Richard is a reliable wingman buddy who is loyal, dependable, and honest: “I call a spade a spade.” (“Careful,” Kevin interjects in a rare misfire in their banter.)

The El Salvador material feels like the least realized of the novel’s threads. Kevin and Richard rent a Cadillac and (on a tip from the American Embassy) make contact with The Bummer, a hillbilly Vietnam-vet-turned-mercenary who has retreated to El Salvador where he can keep up his unsavory lifestyle and lie low, possibly to avoid prosecution for war crimes: “Every fuckin’ slant I saw, I killed, what do you girls think about that.” The Bummer promises to help them find Tad and a good part of the novel follows the trio into the Salvadoran hinterlands as signs of the civil war rumble in the background and The Bummer tirelessly calls into question his companion’s virility while greasing his long gun. The feel of these passages is cinematic, heavy with buddy dialogue and well-established sets: a roadside cantina is described as “so much a cliché that it wasn’t one”; a dramatic encounter occurs at a little village in a jungle clearing; a sprint to the airport is held in suspense by the traffic of an angry street demonstration. In this respect it can sometimes read like a loose adaptation of Oliver Stone’s 1986 film Salvador (featuring James Woods and Jim Belushi in a Camaro), with even less of an interest in the political and historical context, aside from a few scattered and generally comical references to the looming presence of the CIA. Everett has written tightly constructed, atmospheric thrillers before. One of his most recent, Assumption (2011), set in a small town in the New Mexican desert, is also arguably his best. So it’s all the more surprising that El Salvador in this book remains such a blank canvas.

Perhaps Everett felt he needed a vivid counterpoint to the domestic drama. The novel certainly treads more assuredly on home turf (the Rhode Island sections are simply labeled “Home”), where intimate vignettes from contemporary bourgeois American life are rendered with wry irony but also a reserve of compassion: the way a partner in an unhappy couple will hang fire, as a sushi dinner turns into a tactical verbal engagement; the distinctive tone kids fall into with their parents on the phone when they’re tired; how to deal with your friend the art gallery director when he’s snorted one too many rails. The most enthralling scene in the novel is a rare moment when we get to see Kevin Pace acting as a responsible father, as he catches up to and takes care of his son Will, who has tried to walk home after school in the middle of a snowstorm.

Like Reed before him, Everett is a writer alive to the paradoxes and traps of an artist’s life, so it is particularly strange that he reduces the mind of the painter to a world literally conceived in terms of painting. In what comes to feel like a tired mannerism, Kevin never misses an opportunity to whip out his (exquisitely refined) palette or namedrop a blue-chip artist. Considering his “guilty guiltlessness” as he lies in bed with Victoire, he muses, “if this feeling were a color, I considered, it would be the orange threads of slightly diluted saffron.” Elsewhere, a road in El Salvador wet with stones “looked like a Pollock.”

The color blue naturally receives special consideration. Recovering from a traumatic encounter with death, Richard asks Kevin to describe the sky overhead. “I would call that a very light manganese blue,” he responds. At a vernissage in Paris Victoire arrives “wearing a cerulean coat covered with white clouds, after Magritte but missing the overcoated men in bowler hats.” Later on a lonely walk around the city Kevin sees, “the blue of rain, how it tinged the darkness of night sapphire and how Alice blue made lavender the leading edge of morning.”  (“Alice Blue,” if you were wondering, is an ultra-pale and almost green azure, like the core of an ice floe.) In the middle of a crucial, action-packed scene, Kevin stops to notice, unforgivably, that the body of a dead Salvadoran man, “looked like a drawing by Käthe Kollwitz.”

Everett has long evinced a passion for the visual arts, and for abstract painting in particular. His novels, and even more especially his poetry are peppered with allusions to Masters Old and New. The poetry collection, There Are No Names for Red, a collaboration with Chris Abani, features some of his own illustrations. But expressing the vision of the abstract artist is not the same thing as having a keen interest in the form. Naming the right set of colors is just putting a kaleidoscope to the eye: it’s fun and dazzling, but it doesn’t cohere into a vision of the world. Nor can curation ever be effectively neutral, which invites a whole new set of questions that don’t get considered here. It would be wonderful if Norman Lewis and Alma Thomas were recognized for their contributions to Abstract Expressionism in the same way that Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner are — but that would be a different country.

One is left with the impression that the abstract artist working on his masterpiece, the artist struggling with hidden secrets in his past and unavowable passions (or extinctions) of the heart in the present, exists here so that we can notice the pockets of emptiness and swatches of incompleteness in the frame, the lurking stains behind the figure of success and mastery who apparently has it all. This mood of tense masculine anxiety — a Miles Davis kind of blue — is the true subject of the novel. It is a testament to Percival Everett’s enormous talent that despite its weaknesses, So Much Blue does succeed in meshing its wildly different parts into a whole. There is underneath the stilted search for effects, a genuine feeling for the colossal pressure closely guarded secrets exert, the mysterious process of erosion that allows intimate relationships to cohere and quickly fray, or conceptions of self to shift under the pressure of sudden revelation.

This sense of humanistic concern pulsing underneath intellectual fireworks of extraordinary and sometimes overwhelming intensity suggests affinities with David Foster Wallace, a writer of roughly the same generation whose engagement with postmodernism passes in part likewise through a passion for philosophy, particularly the kind of ordinary language philosophy dominant in the American university in their student years. Like Wallace, the young Everett was consumed by problems in logic and linguistics and gravitated toward Wittgenstein, before eventually pulling away to pursue creative writing instead. Traces of that intellectual penchant (or nerdiness) can be found throughout Everett’s writing. The protagonist of Glyph, Baby Ralph, is a genius (think Stewie from Family Guy) who spews out the Western canon and simultaneously its deconstruction. The working title for Percival Everett by Virgil Russell was apparently “Frege’s Puzzle,” a classic paradox in semantic theory. Asked if he admired the famous “Incompleteness Theorem” in formal logic, Everett told the Paris Review recently, “If I could write something like Gödel’s proof, I’d be happy.”  

This is not to say that Wallace and Everett’s projects are exactly aligned, though I think they certainly complement each other. But the greater problem is that they are seldom read together, or by the same people. Indeed, those who ardently prize Wallace’s difficulty and experimentation and tout his achievement seldom seem to have read much, if any, of Everett’s work and therefore cannot know whether it ought to be considered for such accolades.

Neglect is a fate all experimental writers risk, but if they happen to be black it can seem almost impossible to avoid. Everett always intended to chart his own course. He picked the novel up where Ishmael Reed had taken it, but pivoted away from Reed’s zaniness toward a prismatic allegorical realism, a constant reinvention of form designed to grapple with the vertiginous ends of America’s violent and often contradictory racial, economic, geographic, and sexual epistemologies — a project consonant in many ways with Wallace’s, but evidently not one that could generate the same kind of popular appeal.

This is a shame because Everett brings something to the contemporary American novel that is — in part since Wallace’s early death — sorely missing: utter fearlessness in placing demands upon a reader combined with real compassion for ordinary people. Everett’s prose may not have the ionized finish prized by fellow icons of postmodernism and metafiction like Don DeLillo or Tom McCarthy. But he possesses something crucial that neither of them do: an extraordinarily deft capacity for rendering human foibles without contempt — getting characters on the page that are painfully recognizable and yet free of pathology, never reduced to being mere pawns in an overarching authorial conspiracy. His metafictional layering never feels gratuitous or indulgent as it sometimes does in others. Rather, in his hands it serves what are usually thought to be the traditional ends of realism — a serious and capacious humanistic rendering of the adventure of ordinary life (and more often than not of black lives), which he treats with an unsentimental dose of lucidity reminiscent of Margo Jefferson’s crisp essayistic stitch.

So my reservations about So Much Blue must be set against the record of a master artificer who in the space of thirty-four years has produced eighteen novels — nineteen if you include his epistolary office thriller, A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond, as told to Percival Everett and James Kincaid (2004), not to mention some four collections of short stories, and more recently several collections of poetry. It’s a long career that’s been built against the grain. In the teeth of the kind of stupidity and prejudice encountered by Thelonius “Monk” Ellison, the protagonist of Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, whose attempt to get his own novel published exposes, under a blistering and exquisitely handled satirical blade, the pitiful cultural lies we tell ourselves about race and all that we “know” about it.

Within the arc of Everett’s career Erasure reads as the culmination of a decade of literary experiments — in retrospect perhaps a bit too obsessed with the scholasticism of high theory in the academy, but nevertheless a wonderful suite of metamorphoses borrowing from every corner of the universe of language in order to self-fashion a radical and perpetually unpredictable voice: a postmodern Henry Box Brown always reenacting his evasion of the plantation confines erected by the limited taste and enduring whiteness of the (corporate) American publishing industry’s conceptions of what African American literature is, and how it will sell.

And so I would beg you to go to your local bookstore (almost all of Everett’s work has been published by small independent or university presses) and ask for his first novel, Suder, and discover the tender yet restrained magical realism of Craig Suder’s adventures across the country which lead him (among other places) to the forests of Oregon, where he lives on “Ezra Pond” with an elephant named Renoir, and (with a nod to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon), eventually learns to fly. Revisit The Water Cure, and its indictment of the moral turpitude of America in the Bush years. Pick up the Shandyesque adventures of Not Sidney Poitier, the misfortunately named foundling adopted by Ted Turner and hero of the rollicking I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Read, teach, and share his justly celebrated short story “The Appropriation of Cultures,” a parable that could not possibly be more timely. Consider the extraordinary Percival Everett by Virgil Russell a storying retold in between the lines of other stories exchanged between a father and his son caring for him in a hospice — a novel I think is likely to stand out eventually as a contemporary masterpiece.

As for Kevin Pace and his bourgeois blues, it’s possible I’ve missed something. Everett is an inveterate trickster, and one can never be sure where the Borgesian game of literature begins or ends with him. If you take a look at the book jacket to his novel Glyph, you’ll find a photo featuring Everett and Thelonius Monk — his mule — side by side staring back at you. It’s almost enough to make you wonder if So Much Blue isn’t a prank. Everett’s sly signifying on a white mainstream America he secretly loathes even as it painlessly ignores him; a cool answer to its swooning embrace of the upmarket scripts and scene-changes of “prestige television” with all its glossily repackaged and ever seductive clichés: the secret affair in Paris; the south of the border that is always and forever Narcos; a way of acknowledging that he knows damn well most of his readers, as soon as they’ve put down with a sigh the last pages of their semi-genuflection into the dip of current “cultural” fare will put on Netflix.

Either way it seems all but certain that this book won’t receive the estimation it merits, nor help to garner Everett the kind of recognition and awards he so richly deserves. For those who count themselves among his dedicated or occasional followers, So Much Blue will neither make nor break Everett’s reputation, built as it is upon an extraordinary body of work, a great fund of invention that — however neglected by contemporary readers — will undoubtedly prove an enduring wellspring for writers, particularly black ones, in the coming years. In the meantime, we can eagerly await the next reinvention, the next raid into the desert of contemporary American fiction by our black Lone Ranger — that long hour of sunset in the West when the Kid rides again.

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The Way Forward in France

In France, there is a distinct, almost literary pleasure in watching the unlikely rise of a handsome, ambitious young man from the provinces and charting his skillful navigation of the treacherous corridors of power, vanity, and ambition. But as Balzac and Stendhal knew well, the motif is also useful as a means of exposing the surprisingly shoddy scaffolding of government — the remarkable extent to which the majesty of state power, upon closer inspection, reveals itself to be a delicate facade masking ugly, unprincipled, and chaotic struggles for domination.

The triumph of Emmanuel Macron in the 2017 French presidential election is undoubtedly novelistic in this sense. At the tender age of 39, Macron is the youngest man ever to become the head of the French republic. Born in Amiens, historically the provincial capital of the northern region of Picardie, he grew up in a solidly bourgeois household. Both of his parents are doctors, and he attended Jesuit schools in the region before going to Paris to enter the Lycée Henri IV, one of the country’s most prestigious high schools. A precocious and gifted student, he evinced a passion and a flair for the dramatic arts — skills that have transferred well to his political role and influenced his personal life. In 2007, he married his theater teacher, Brigitte Trogneux, 24 years his elder and the daughter of a prominent family of chocolatiers known for their macaroons and their right-leaning politics. With a stellar résumé, he passed through the nation’s business and administrative grandes écoles, institutions that have become rites of passage for those seeking to enter the upper branches of state power. His trajectory, in short, has been that of an impeccable golden boy who is more acquainted with success than failure, who has enjoyed the fruits of being born into comfortable circumstances, and who possesses exquisite social-climbing skills and an unerring sense of good timing.

On the evening of his election victory, Macron strode out alone in a long, dark coat, under dramatic lighting, and into the main square in front of the Louvre. He faced I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid as loudspeakers played the official hymn of the European Union, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” It was a pointed musical choice, reflecting the view, at home and abroad, that Macron’s victory was a make-or-break moment for the European project, which has recently been imperiled by Brexit, the turmoil in Greece, and the contempt of the Trump administration. More subtly, local political observers also interpreted it as a nod to François Mitterrand and the 1981 election that brought the Socialist Party to power for the first time since World War II: The Louvre’s glass pyramid was one of Mitterrand’s iconic grand projects, and he also chose the “Ode to Joy” as the musical accompaniment for his victory lap.

Don’t expect Macron to lead a return to socialism, however. In fact, his rise to power, and the hope that it has understandably brought to a portion of the French people, actually embodies, and even magnifies, the extent to which the political foundations of the French republic are rotten. Macron’s story symbolizes, for many, not the potential to rise from lowly beginnings to the highest office in the land, but rather the entrenchment of social inequality that protects a culturally liberal, bourgeois class with anti-labor economic priorities. Macron represents a class of French citizens that has flourished under left- and right-wing governments alike, has refused to make any concessions to those who have been left out, and has become increasingly insulated from popular demands to end tax evasion by the wealthy, nepotism in government, and a eurozone monetary policy dictated from Berlin.

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Wideman’s Ghosts

In an address at the Library of Congress in 1964, Ralph Waldo Ellison mused upon his relationship with his father, who had bestowed on his son a somewhat curious literary forename. “Why,” Ellison wondered, “hadn’t he named me after a hero such as Jack Johnson…an educator like Booker T. Washington, or a great orator and abolitionist like Frederick Douglass?… Instead, he named me after someone called Ralph Waldo Emerson, and then, when I was three, he died.”

Ellison’s question connected the perennial anxieties that have haunted African-American artists for generations — questions of inheritance, tradition, and belonging — with a more personal and painful one about fatherhood: What was the meaning of a father’s legacy, in particular one who died early in one’s life? And what did it mean to be stamped by a name so intimately connected to his ideals?

Ellison’s experience was not every child’s. But the mark of sudden and premature loss, the haunting ambiguities created by an uncertain past, has constituted an overwhelming theme in African-­American literature. From the struggle over literary parentage between Richard Wright and James Baldwin, to the unclear family histories and patrimonial legacies in Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father and the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s In My Father’s House, to the letter from father to son in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, one can sketch out a veritable subgenre of literary work devoted to the struggle between black fathers and sons to give some kind of meaning to their shared fate and common past.

This fraught inheritance, the missed recognitions and ambiguities between family members, in particular fathers and sons, is one of the deep chords animating the life and writings of John Edgar Wideman, whose latest book, Writing to Save a Life, is perhaps his most desperate and bracing endeavor yet to “make some sense out of the American darkness that disconnects colored fathers from sons, a darkness in which sons and fathers lose track of one another.”

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On Blueness: A Conversation with Joshua Bennett

Joshua Bennett is one of the most impressive emerging voices in poetry today. His debut collection, The Sobbing School, written in 2014 against the backdrop of a national crisis over state violence and black lives, won the 2015 National Poetry Series Award and is published this fall by Penguin — you can read three of his poems in the current issue of Dissent. Although he is making his debut in print, Bennett is already well known as an artist of the spoken word, whose performances have gained him a huge following on college campuses. He is also quietly building a reputation as one of the brightest intellectual and political thinkers of a new generation, and is currently a member of Harvard’s Society of Fellows.

I first met Joshua at Princeton in the fall of 2011. Over five years of graduate study together, he has been a vital friend and a source of constant intellectual inspiration. He is the kind of person who gets you excited about thinking and reading again. In the pages of Dissent last year I suggested that his voice is part of a literary movement in which poetry and politics are converging in new and unexpected ways, exemplified, for instance, by the success of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. This September we met at Dissent’s office in downtown New York City to talk about the origins of his book, affect in poetry and politics, and what solidarities and imaginaries might point us towards a more hopeful future.

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The Literary Right Bank

Unsurprisingly, the majority of the members of the Shakespeare and Company Lending Library lived on the Left Bank. As an umbrella term, the Left Bank or Rive Gauche, refers to several neighborhoods in Paris: the Latin Quarter — named for its many universities, including the Sorbonne; the area south of the Seine at the Louvre, traditionally associated with the publishing industry and the book trade; the wealthy Faubourg Saint-Germain; and finally Montparnasse, home, in the 1920s and 1930s, to the avant-garde. Shakespeare and Company, at 12 rue de l’Odéon, was perfectly located at the intersection of these neighborhoods.

Yet an analysis of the addresses on the Shakespeare and Company lending library cards reveals that a significant number of members lived on the Right Bank. Indeed, there are 80 addresses in the 16th arrondissement alone, a residential neighborhood built around the old village of Passy to the west of the city. The 16th has been popular among the wealthy and the rising bourgeoisie ever since its expansion and Haussmannization under the Second Empire.

Although one doesn’t usually associate the 16th arrondissement with the Lost Generation, there are several good reasons why one should. As the map above shows, the American Embassy had its offices at 5 rue de Chaillot from 1913 to 1933, and the American ambassador lived at 2 avenue d’Iéna. Other important American expatriate institutions include the American Hospital, still located at 63 boulevard Victor Hugo, and the American Ambulance Field Service Headquarters at 21 rue Raynouard, which was responsible for dispatching the American Ambulance Corps during World War I. (Many influential writers served in the Corps, including John Dos Passos, e.e. cummings, Ernest Hemingway, and Dashiell Hammett.) Yet another attraction was the American Women’s Club at 61 rue Boissière, which, according to Arlen Hansen, counted 1,200 members in 1929. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald kept their last apartment in Paris at 10 rue Pergolèse, from October 1929 to April 1930.

(The map above is a contemporary map of Paris, focused on the 16th arrondissement. Zoom in and out. Explore. The major institutions have red dots; the remaining addresses, all derived from the lending library cards, have green dots if they are discussed in this essay and blue dots otherwise.)

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Visible Men

Mychal Denzel Smith's memoir reckons with racial injustice, and tells the story of his political education.

A Literary Chameleon

Colson Whitehead ’91 has written a zombie-apocalypse novel, a coming-of-age novel set in the world of the black elite, a satiric allegory following a nomenclature consultant, a sprawling epic tracing the legend of the African American folk hero John Henry, a suite of lyrical essays in honor of New York City, and an account of drear and self-loathing in Las Vegas while losing $10,000 at the World Poker Series. That work has won him critical acclaim. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002, and has been a finalist for almost every major literary award; he won the Dos Passos Prize in 2012 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2013. In an era when commercial pressure reinforces the writerly instinct to cultivate a recognizable “voice,” his astonishingly varied output, coupled with highly polished, virtuosic prose, makes Whitehead one of the most ambitious and unpredictable authors working today.

He has gained a reputation as a literary chameleon, deftly blurring the lines between literary and genre fiction, and using his uncanny abilities to inhabit and reinvent conventional frames in order to explore the themes of race, technology, history, and popular culture that continually resurface in his work. In a country where reading habits and reading publics are still more segregated than we often care to admit, his books enjoy a rare crossover appeal. His first novel, The Intuitionist, is a detective story that regularly turns up in college courses; the zombie thriller Zone One drew praise from literary critics and genre fiction fans alike; Sag Harbor, about black privileged kids coming of age in the 1980s, was a surprise bestseller.

Beyond the books, Whitehead swims effortlessly in the hyper-connected moment: he maintains an active presence on Twitter, where his sly and dyspeptic observations on the curious and the mundane have gained him a devoted following. A sampling includes sagacious tips for the aspiring writer — “Epigraphs are always better than what follows. Pick crappy epigraphs so you don’t look bad” — and riffs on Ezra Pound: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd / Petals on a wet, black bough / Probably hasn’t been gentrified though.” In the pages of The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker, he has wryly dissected contemporary mores and the light-speed metamorphoses of language in the age of social media. In a widely shared essay from last year, he parsed the current attachment to the “tautophrase,” as in “you do you” and “it is what it is.” Or Taylor Swift’s popularization of “Haters gonna hate.” Swift makes an easy target, of course, but Whitehead takes aim at the rhetoric of those in power too, and the narcissism in our culture more generally. He’s more gadfly than moralist, but there is a Voltaire-like venom to his sarcasms. “The modern tautophrase empowers the individual,” he observes, “regardless of how shallow that individual is.”

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