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Fanon by John Edgar Wideman
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53. Fanon by John Edgar Wideman
published: 2008
format: 229 page hardcover
acquired: 2011
read: Dec 3-10
rating: 3

Before I joined Club Read my main source of book reviews was the New York Times. Back in 2008 I read a review of this book there and, while the review was probably quickly lost, the impression of the review stuck with me. I had this idea of an author struggling with himself and it just hung around in my head. I never saw any other reference to the book. Years later, in 2011, I was in a Borders, and they still existed (I know, because I documented it), and I stumbled across this book in their bargain books pile and remembered the book review and quickly grabbed it. Then it sat on my book shelves where it quietly collected dust for a number of years. (The NY Times review is available Here.)

I have been looking at my bookshelves lately trying to find some books to actually pull off read. I find this an oddly disappointing process for reasons I haven't been able to figure out. Anyway, this one appealed because I've been thinking about it all these years and it's a nice, little hardcover.

I know very little about [[Frantz Fannon]], a black decorated WWII veteran for France from Martinique who later fought against France for Algeria, and later wrote the pro-violence [Wretched of the Earth], but I did know coming in that this wasn't about him so much as the author using his exploration of Fannon as prop of sorts. Wideman is writing about himself, or maybe about struggling to write about himself, and also about racism.

It's a tough book to read, partially because of Wideman's layers. He tells us he's writing about a fictional Thomas who is struggling to write about Frantz Fannon, and who receives a package of a severed head and then Wideman mixes which level is narrating—him, about him, about Thomas, is Thomas narrating? He goes through a large fictional and impossible conversation with film director [[Jean-Luc Godard]], where the text cuts in and out of proposed cinematic scenes. But what really makes this a tough read is Wideman's run-on sentences - apparent scattered thought processes that circle back on themselves and correct, refine or contradict themselves while randomly switching topics and focus and then returning. These are page length convoluted sentences that are difficult to follow and often don't have any clear point.

Then mixed in is Wideman's story about his real-life brother, who is decades into a lifetime prison sentence without parole. Through the difficulty of this book, his visits to his brother with his mother stand out clear and powerful. His brother's words and Wideman's inability to express what his brother is going through, or the costs in time and other, and what this all means and how he feels about it is extremely moving. (He doesn't say so in the book, but wikipedia tells me his brother was involved in some kind of contraband exchange where one person (not him) shot and killed another.)

Anyway, after all that, after all the wondering about this book, my main impression is the struggle to read these long sentences, and how long each page ahead looked as a saw another long sentence with little clear purpose. It's a disappointing book that has probably gone stale. It probably needed to be read in 2008.

I did have two interesting takeaways. The first was the mixed connotations of the severed head Thomas finds himself in possession of. He disposes of it in the East River, bringing up to me an image of Orpheus's severed head floating down a river still singing. It represents Fannon's shortened life and restricted life of black America and of Wideman's brother and of Wideman's own struggling and limits of writing. The other was the sense that maybe this mutilated language was itself an expression of how difficult it is for Wideman to say what he wants to say in the way he wants to say, a concession of his own struggle. ( )
1 vote dchaikin | Dec 15, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0618942637, Hardcover)

A philosopher, psychiatrist, and political activist, Frantz Fanon was a fierce, acute critic of racism and oppression. Born of African descent in Martinique in 1925, Fanon fought in defense of France during World War II but later against France in Algeria’s war for independence. His last book, The Wretched of the Earth, published in 1961, inspired leaders of diverse liberation movements: Steve Biko in South Africa, Che Guevara in Latin America, the Black Panthers in the States.

Wideman’s novel is disguised as the project of a contemporary African American novelist, Thomas, who undertakes writing a life of Fanon. The result is an electrifying mix of perspectives, traveling from Manhattan to Paris to Algeria to Pittsburgh. Part whodunit, part screenplay, part love story, Fanon introduces the French film director Jean-Luc Godard to the ailing Mrs. Wideman in Homewood and chases the meaning of Fanon’s legacy through our violent, post-9/11 world, which seems determined to perpetuate the evils Fanon sought to rectify.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:27 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

A fictional portrait of Frantz Fanon, a philosopher and political activist, chronicles Fanon's life, from his Martinique upbringing through the publication of his influential work, as seen through the eyes of the African-American novelist writing his biography.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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