I first encountered author Kiese Laymon when I read his essay “You are the Second Person,” an unapologetically bridge-burning reckoning of his encounter with a assimilationist editor who tried to deracinate his work.
What stuck out to me, however, wasn’t so much the content, but the form, and the style. It was confessional autobiography as poetry. It was –or at least I have reason to believe– an account of real events and people, but it wasn’t written in a realist style. It presented as a fairy tale, but not a Disneyfied version –something less tamed and more organic. It felt fresh and different –appropriate for a piece about refusing to throttle your voice.
That is what led me to Long Division, the book referenced in the above essay, and it was all that had been promised. A truly, deeply eccentric, idiosyncratic and unique book, it takes its place on a treasured short shelf in my house that also includes Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie & Bruno, Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren, Michael Ende’s Neverending Story and Steven Hall’s Raw Shark Texts –books that challenge the very form and function of a novel.
Long Division, like Sylvie & Bruno, and Neverending Story, is more than one book between a single set of covers. In this case, the frame story is about two poor-but-bright young black kids in rural Mississippi, who have a love-hate relationship, and a homoerotic rivalry. Their pride at being chosen for a prestigious contest turns sour when they realize that their inclusion was jury-rigged to serve someone’s racial agenda.
The second, and in some ways more compelling narrative, is about a second boy with the same name and some of the same biography as the main protagonist from the first narrative, but living a generation earlier, and deeply in love with his (female) best friend, a time-traveling iconoclast.
As William Gibson said of Dhalgren, Long Division “is not there to be finally understood. I believe its ‘riddle’ was never meant to be ‘solved.'” Given that, rehearsing the intricacies of the plot are a bit beside the point. What Long Division gives us is voice and vision, both defiantly uncompromised.
I have to admit, going into Long Divison, my own intuitions were perhaps a bit more in line with Laymon’s trivializing editor. I’ve spoken elsewhere on the challenges facing a minority author in a “niche” genre. As your work becomes readily relatable to a smaller and smaller subset of the reading population, its chances of success get smaller and smaller. As a black writer, your options for success are either to be mainstream and black, or niche and raceless. But Long Division defies that common wisdom, if wisdom it ever was. Black, surrealist, fantastical, experimental, slyly humorous, sexually ambivalent and ambiguous –it’s a dead-on hit for my own tastes, and whether or not it appeals to an imagined “mainstream” reader is clearly the least of Laymon’s concerns.
Reading Laymon has encouraged me to be bolder and less apologetic in my own voice and identity. What more can you ask from a work of art? Go read it.