Namwali Serpell’s new novel reinvents elegy
Mourning is a magnet for metaphor. Grieving is – let’s fill in the blank – a maze you can’t get out of. It’s the monster in this maze, feeding on your flesh. It’s a ghost that haunts the recesses of your mind. It is a disease that inflames and irritates. It’s a black tide seeping into the fragile ecology of the mind. It burns like fire and drowns like water.
“Les Sillons” (Hogarth), Namwali Serpell’s fourth book and second novel, beats against the fixities of language like a moth against a windowpane. “I don’t want to tell you what happened,” the novel begins. “I want to tell you how I felt.” The narrator is Cassandra, or Cee, who recounts how, when she was twelve, her seven-year-old brother, Wayne, disappeared under the waves of the ocean, “the great furrows in the water” like furrows in a field. The two children were playing on a beach in Delaware when Wayne started swimming. she saw him struggling and swam after him, nearly losing her life in a failed effort to save hers.
This story is, it turns out, a history, an account of how Wayne left; whether or not the departure was a death, divides the family. “When I was twelve, my little brother drowned,” Cee begins, telling the story for the first time. Later: “When I was twelve, my little brother was hit by a car.” Etc. “Dear Wayne,” she addresses him. “As you unknowingly moved forward, he came and took you out of your furrow and into another, plowed you and pushed you back, put you in another place, somewhere else, where.” It’s quickly apparent that Serpell isn’t delivering yet another symbol of loss. On the contrary, “The Furrows” depicts the physics of loss.
Serpell writes in rhizomes – spreading underground stems that send out shoots at unpredictable intervals. This also applies to his critical work. A recent essay by her in The New York Book Review snakes from Émile Zola to “Zola,” a 2021 film about a pair of strippers on a “ho trip” gone wrong, the playful coincidence of names channeled by its subjects’ shared aversion to the pleasure principle of prostitution. Professor of English at Harvard, Serpell demonstrates how criticism can claim artistic attention. In her earlier book, a collection of essays titled “Stranger Faces,” she writes, “Stranger faces . . . straddle the line of readability and compel us to read them even though we know we are doomed. I think we compensate for this failure by taking unexpected pleasure in it.
Serpell’s 2019 debut novel ‘The Old Drift’ unravels a story of the place now known as Zambia, confounding colonial linearity by appealing to magic and chance – the resisters of the supposed rationalizers. A bright young woman named Matha falls in love with a fellow revolutionary, who abandons her when she becomes pregnant. One night, her tears fall and do not stop, rendering her blind and mute. Her personal and political history is dissolved by these tears: “Crying was exactly what she was doing now, who she was. Soon the community forgets why she is crying and loses sympathy for her. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel”, James Baldwin declared his distrust of the lying “wet eyes” of sentimentalists, but, as Serpell’s story reminds us, wet eyes can arouse our distrust for other reasons. . What do we do with the bereaved who cannot produce proof of a loss?
In “The Furrows”, a family is left without a body; the only evidence of the child’s death is the word of a young girl. It is quickly apparent how much it is worth. “Where did you put that boy?” asks his grandmother, who adored Wayne and never liked Cee. A policewoman demands testimony, but after Cee tells her what she remembers, the officer continues to push, “Do you know where your brother is?”
Serpell reveals the dynamics of this once nuclear family by means of fission. Cee’s father, an engineer, is black, and his mother, a dabbling painter, is white, and the idiosyncrasies of this particular interracial cast are heightened in the loss of a brown son. The mother, Charlotte, had always filled their summer living room with “worthy pietàs” featuring black women; as the search for Wayne’s body begins, she lies on the couch, listening to Nina Simone sing “Ne Me Quitte Pas”. Cee tells us, “I felt like I was really seeing her for the first time, not only the way we all come to see our parents as fallible humans, but also the particularities of her whiteness, the way she seemed to seek the expression of his feelings. only through black art.
The mother simply recognizes that her son has disappeared; the father accepts that he is dead, or at least gone for good. Neither supports unquestioning faith in their daughter’s story. Instead, Cee reflects,
Charlotte sinks into pathological mourning: “The absence of Wayne in our lives had become the drain towards which everything was heading.” Then she set up a foundation called Vigil, for parents of missing children – enlisting Cee in her work – and her publicity materials came to include a “prophesied face”, a charcoal portrait of Wayne as projected from him. look into the present. “This hypothetical portrait,” Cee reflects, “was another way his death had separated us all, the way a missing tooth creates spaces between others. Our memories of him now conflicted in disastrous ways. His father reacts to the loss of his son—and his wife’s emotional paralysis—by moving on and remarrying.
Cee will be the sole beneficiary of what psychotherapy has to offer. There is a therapist who is fixated on her brother’s drawings; another looks on the verge of crying when Cee, in the bored pose of a teenager, talks romantically about female circumcision. “I didn’t feel so screwed up,” she tells us with a shrug. And yet she continues to see Wayne everywhere, refreshed from memory. He’s at the mall, on the sidewalk, in his dreams, a boy made of sand, pinched in reality before reality kicks in: