Behind the Masks

Behind the Masks

Fanon: A Novel
by John Edgar Wideman
Houghton Mifflin, 2008, 240 pp., $24.00

The overall critical response to John Edgar Wideman’s Fanon was not positive. Carlin Romano wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “At a time when Barack Obama offers America a new possibility—a successful half white, half black American politician who resists angry, resentment-fueled racial politics—veteran writer John Edgar Wideman returns with a novel meant to honor Frantz Fanon. . . . It delivers too little information about Fanon, and too much of what we’ve heard before—the litany of race cards that any African American can justly play against America’s shameful history.”

On NPR, Maureen Corrigan complained that Fanon achieved new levels of authorial self-indulgence. “Fanon,” she said, is “a parody of a postmodernist novel . . . a literary failure to commit”—an opinion that she insisted was no reflection upon her own lack of literary sobriety. “We readers get it. Unfortunately, there just isn’t that much to get.”

It is curious that Corrigan could not at least credit Fanon with a modicum of originality, considering that she—like several reviewers—seemed vexed to define exactly what the book is. Neither an essay, nor a novel, nor a biography of Frantz Fanon, it’s perhaps best described as a personal essay incorporating elements of a fiction.

“Let the beat roll on. Anachronisms sprinkle this story. If that sort of thing bothers you, you’re in trouble,” Wideman writes early on, calling attention to the fact that Fanon is top-heavy with time shifts, imaginary conversations, and playful witticisms, both a narrative in chronological flux, and a project rooted in admiration for a historical figure. The biographical subject—anticolonialist author and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon—is the ostensible centerpiece of this multilayered narrative that draws heavily from David Macey’s authoritative 2001 Fanon biography.

Fanon opens with a prelude that has the sixty-year-old Wideman idling in his house in Brittany, contemplating the modern world with dismay while penning a letter to the spirit of his revolutionary hero. To Fanon, who himself wrote extensively on language as a tool of colonialist oppression, Wideman argues that America today is beset by the language of convenient and hierarchical boundaries, boundaries such as Fanon wrote about between black and white, settler and native. Class and racial boundaries in American society are reinforced on the pedagogical level by the academic defense of what is really an arguable line between nonfiction and fiction, the real life and the imagined.

“Stipulating differences that matter between fact and fiction—between black and white, male and female, good and evil—imposes order on society. Keeps people on the same page. Reading from the same script. In the...

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