Forget the Grand Thematics

Kirn and Staples

Forget the Grand Thematics

Kirn and Staples

Forget the Grand Thematics
New books dissected over email.
Sept. 8 1998 2:30 PM

Kirn and Staples

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Dear Brent,

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Since every novelist has one, and almost all of them use it in some way, I tend to discount the factual autobiography. Still, I'll admit I'm familiar with part of Wideman's; though not, it seems, as familiar as you are, Brent. As for 'transcending' real-life tragedy, I don't know that that's a fiction writer's job. I like it when they go inside and under stuff--pull the rugs up, sift the dust, empty the drawers on the floor and turn the bed sheets back. I'll take a thorough burglary any day over the misty redemptions and transformations my English professors were always gabbing on about.

Two Cities, for my money, burgles worthily, and if you hadn't told me it's based on actual people, I'd guess that it had to be. It's so detailed, and Kassima's misfortunes (every guy she brushes up against dies, horrifically and from headline-worthy causes) border on overkill. Overkill's a brave choice here, though; I like it. It smacks of mythic realism, not artful set-up. I can't say the same for Mr. Mallory, though, Wideman's outsider-artist street-photographer who writes letters to Giacometti, his idol, that are full of naive aesthetic theory and awkward manifestoes about emptiness. It's just the kind of stuff I hate in novels--those clever breakouts into Grand Thematics that are meant to bring together pieces that are better left tenuously connected by simple time and place. When Kassima and Robert, the lovers, unite over heaps of evocative old photos I feel the skimming urge. Too much meaning. Too much.

I sure do agree with you about the scenes, though. That one in the mortuary. And in the post office, when Robert observes Mallory standing in line behind a clutch of hooded gangsters and wishes he could just blow the punks away. It tweaks the ultimate white boy side of me (raised in Minnesota, residing in Montana) by letting me into thoughts and situations not normally found on MTV, my chief source of info on African Americans. Two Cities is full of surprises for me that way. Feeling surprises. Attitude surprises. I know: Walter's shocked that old black men fear young ones. How out of it. But Wideman takes me into it.

Brent Staples writes editorials on politics and culture for the New York Times. Walter Kirn is the author of My Hard Bargain, a collection of stories, and She Needed Me, a novel. He lives in Montana. This week Staples and Kirn discuss John Edgar Wideman's Two Cities (Houghton Mifflin; 256 pages; $24).