John Edgar Wideman's fiction has often toggled between the merely difficult and the largely inaccessible. The two-time PEN/Faulkner Award winner, National Book Award finalist and MacArthur genius grant recipient has published 10 novels over four decades that go out of their way to reward attentive readers while punishing dilettantes.
Wideman's three earliest works, known as "The Homewood Trilogy," have straightforward narratives that could entrance and entertain any book group.
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Still, the closest Wideman has ever come to popular acclaim was his 1984 memoir, "Brothers and Keepers," the chronicle of his brother Robbie's conviction for a murder in Pittsburgh at the same time the author was enjoying the fruits of an Ivy League education.
"Brothers and Keepers" is a harrowing tale of wasted potential and familial regret. Like Toni Morrison, another African-American novelist who writes "difficult" fiction rooted in the black experience, Wideman has never denied himself the obligation of challenging his readers with unconventional narratives.
Unlike Morrison, Wideman has yet to attract a patron as influential as Oprah Winfrey who can introduce him to a popular audience and coax readers into giving him chances when the going gets rough.
For his first novel in a decade, Wideman ruminates on how Frantz Fanon, the late Martinique-born author of the seminal anticolonial text, "The Wretched of the Earth," affects the spiritual and intellectual life of a writer named Thomas, a literary stand-in for Wideman.
"Fanon" is a meta-fictional funhouse mirror in which Thomas, like Wideman, toils over a novel about Frantz Fanon while also dealing with the mysterious arrival of a package with his own head in it. Also complicating things is a narrator named "Wideman."
If this sounds unnecessarily distracting, well, it is. It also presents the novel's first stumbling block if wrestling with a postmodern narrative about an African-Caribbean psychiatrist with a revolutionary pedigree isn't high on a reader's to-do list.
Though ostensibly about Frantz Fanon, the book could just as easily have been about Dennis Franz or Franz Ferdinand or Franz von Suppe or Chris Frantz, the former drummer for the Talking Heads.
The true star of this novel isn't the black revolutionary as much as Wideman's intoxication with language at the expense of a story in which the narrator either doesn't know how -- or even wants -- to cut to the chase.
But even the most dazzling passages will seem like thin gruel to anyone who comes to this novel with the old-fashioned idea of a book going from point "A" to point "Z" in an orderly fashion.
The interplay of biography -- both Fanon's and Wideman's -- with fanciful literary constructs and real people keeps things interesting, but never as riveting as I would like.
The author's mother, who died recently in Homewood, enters the very strange canon her son has constructed. Even Jean-Luc Godard, the great French filmmaker, puts in an appearance when Thomas tries to enlist the film god in a scheme to put Fanon's life on the big screen.
Along the way, some of the most luminous passages ever written about gangs in the East End flow from Wideman's fingers.
Still, unless the reader buys the conceit of this novel early on, even the most beautifully executed passages become tough slogging when there is no hope of a satisfying emotional payoff at the end of 229 pages.
Wideman has covered similar ground before with more satisfying results. His brilliant 1990 novel "Philadelphia Fire" has all the audacity of "Fanon" with none of the narrative dead ends.
I struggled -- and continue to struggle -- with this novel because I suspect Wideman has changed the rules of the game and that it may take a while for us to catch up.
By drilling so far into his internal universe, Wideman risks losing the audience. At times "Fanon" provides too uncomfortable an echo of the readers' own inchoate thoughts and experiences. Reading Wideman under those circumstances becomes the opposite of escapism.
For all my reservations about "Fanon," there is no denying how interesting a literary experiment it is. Just because it wanders a little too much into a narrative morass for my tastes doesn't mean Wideman doesn't know what he's doing.
Tony Norman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631.