Kiese Laymon's Novel Explores the Messy Complexity of Race in America
Agate/Bolden, $15 (paper)
“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it,” wrote James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time. Kiese Laymon’s new debut novel, Long Division, proves Baldwin’s point. Playing with time in an act of historical interrogation, the novel rejects static racial inequity and straightforward progress alike, expressing all along a deep dissatisfaction with the supposed triumph of multiculturalism today.
In a multilayered, allusion-packed, time-traveling plot set in Mississippi, Long Division takes us, nesting-doll-style, from 2013 to 1985, 1964, and back, engaging complex questions of race, violence, gender, sexuality, and our relationship to history. More than anything, Laymon shows with surprising lucidity how American racialized inequality is persistent but mutable, that the past is not the present, but isn’t, either, entirely past. The book provides a through-line between deceptive “post”-ideologies and the cynical belief that change is always co-optable, never worthy of celebration.
In Long Division two main characters of the same name, Citoyen “City” Coldson, both literally (by way of a magical underground portal) and literarily (via a novel-within-the-novel, also named Long Division) time travel down a rabbit hole of self-referential reflection. Intertwined plotlines feature 2013 City, our narrator, and 1985 City, the narrator of Long Division-within-Long Division, both of whom are visiting their grandmothers in rural Melahatchie, Mississippi. Despite their shared name, they tell two very different coming-of-age stories, raising questions about the nature of authorship, literature, and the relationship between nonfiction and fiction.
In 2013 City reads Long Division while awaiting baptism, his Grandmother’s punishment for “acting a fool” in the televised “Can You Use That Word in a Sentence Competition.” Alternating between cogent reflection and teenagery considerations of his penis size and uncertain sexuality, he contemplates the disappearance of a local girl his age, Baize Shepard. We read along with 2013 City as interspersed chapters of Long Division-within-Long Division tell us the story of 1985 City, who, with his friend Shalaya Crump, discovers a time-traveling portal. City and Shalaya—expert slang innovator, futurist, and skeptical object of City’s adolescent affection—travel to 2013, where they encounter a mysterious rapper-poet named Baize. Then they’re off to 1964, where they meet “Jewish Evan Altshuler,” a strange, “chappy”-lipped boy who needs their help changing the future. At an especially surreal moment, 1985 City wonders “if everything I’d experienced in the last day and a half was a dream, or if somehow, some way, I’d gotten trapped in someone else’s story.”
If this sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Long Division’s reflexiveform expresses the messy complexity of American history.
• • •
The novel opens with the Sentence Competition in 2013 City’s hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. He and his nemesis, LaVander Peeler—a fashionable bully with a sensitive side and aspirationsto marry Malia Obama—are two black contestants competing against Mexican and white students. The pressure to represent one’s race is high. LaVander, overdoing his emulation of ultra-proper English, has a humorous habit of peppering 21st century disses with the anachronistic “shall” and introducing non-sequiturs with “all things considered.” A self-defined “exceptional African American,” LaVander has finely crafted his persona in a tireless attempt to prove his exceptionality to the white world, necessarily competing with other people of color for that title.
Both LaVander and City are clearly taken by the white judges and crowd to be exemplars. Each is seen as a “model minority”—a category often reserved for Asian Americans—and as the symbolic legitimation of broader race-based exclusion. As Imani Perry explains in More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States (2011), the “particular racialized brand of American exceptionalism: Black American exceptionalism. . . . sustains American mythologies of perfect democracy and unfettered possibility” with a notion of multiracial equality that is at once self-consciously “diverse” and “colorblind.” The familiar term “diversity” today evokes boardrooms and bureaucracy more than an active and sustained investment in equality.
A self-defined 'exceptional African American,' LaVander has finely crafted his persona in a tireless attempt to prove himself to the white world.
Indeed, in City’s competition, the Mexican and black contestants are pitted against one another in a spectacle of diversity that recalls the humiliating and symbolic fist-fight forced on a group of young black men competing for a scholarship in Ellison’s Invisible Man. In both scenes the performance of inclusion is shown to be not only superficial but also insidious.
When given the word “niggardly,” City disrupts the contest in a rebellion that culminates with “and fuck white folks!” The outburst instantly shoots City to viral fame on YouTube. He later Googles “niggardly” after he’s derided by commenters for being unknowingly sensitive, a brilliant demonstration of the often-convoluted nature of everyday racialized interaction.
City makes a dramatic exit, reflecting that even “considering all things” had not prepared LaVander for the truth: the game is always rigged. They’d both known it made the white folks feel good to have them there as “decoration,” but they hadn’t bargained for “what it would feel like to not be given a chance to really lose.” This is the 2013 edition of a historically uneven but ever-changing playing field. Long Division demonstrates how white supremacy in the age of establishment multiculturalism allows people of color to play, even to “win,” but always on its own carefully controlled terms.
The novel’s time travel enables its vision of the present’s relationship to its many pasts: an unmethodical, often messy balancing act of preservation and supersession. Long Division shows the mutability of racial categorization and assimilation, as evidenced by Evan’s insistence in 1964 that he’s not white but Jewish. His plan to change the future involves the Freedom Summer, the KKK, and City’s grandfather.
This evocation of the Klan’s murder of three Mississippi civil rights organizers in 1964—an event often cited as having galvanized white national support for the movement as well as for the Civil Rights Act—is a good example of Long Division’s grounding in specific historical moments. Resisting linear historical development, the novel instead dips into different temporalities to form an alternative sense of comprehensiveness.
1985 City is rightly anxious about the whole KKK scenario, but his anxiety stems mostly from his fear of losing Shalaya to Evan. Having grown up only twenty years later but an eternity removed from the reality of the Klan, City doesn’t initially get the seriousness of the situation. “You think I’m crazy, right?” he narrates in typical fashion:
Well, I know that you can’t travel through time with a girl and save folks from the Klan and not kiss them unless you’re slightly deformed or unless you smell like death. And even then, there’s still gonna be some serious grinding going on. Serious grinding.
Laymon manages to parody City’s trivial (and yet compelling!) concern as belonging to another historical moment, illustrating the difficulties of historical retrospection in general.
The novel works imaginatively with the past to balance painfully sober material with humor and farce. At one point, using a computer from 2013 as a distraction tactic, 1985 City and his friends engage in a kind of soul train line with the Klansmen, one of whom copies “the Doug E. Fresh dance.” With a nod to Octavia Butler, Long Division feeds the current hunger for magical realism while criticizing the absurdity of our own surreal history.
But time travel isn’t the only way the novel allows for differing generational perspectives to interact. Both the be-twice-as-good narrative of 2013 City’s parents’ generation (as represented by LaVander’s father) and Principal Reeves’s disappointment that City lacks the activist spirit of the Civil Rights era are different from his Grandmother’s pent-up, fearful rage, different still from City’s own mix of anger, apathy and confusion. 2013 City’s love of language, like Richard’s in Wright’s Black Boy, allows him to channel and alchemize his experience into reading and writing—the novel’s self-referential nod to the power of (self-)creation. Long Division shows that in response to the historically various consequences of being black in America, black Southern philosophies and strategies adapt, disagree, and communicate with one another, over time and in any given moment.
Shalaya and Evan’s fixation on changing the future raises the question: What constitutes a usable past,and usable for what?
• • •
The distinct Citys of 2013 and 1985 are at once era-specific and generally expressive of the strange throes of teenagerdom.Notably 2013 City has amassed a collection of the past’s slang and cultural reference, always at his disposal, while 1985 City, and those before him, seem in this respect more provincial.
That particular difference between 1985 and 2013 is conditioned by the Internet. Digitalization has created and democratized an immense archive that updates the question of usable pasts for Internet-era postmodernity. How do pasts communicate when spliced and sampled, when improvised over, interrupted, and placed in conversation with one another? In an age when technology has dramatically changed our relationship to time and space, what pasts are usable in creating this mix tape for the future?
How do pasts communicate when spliced and sampled, when improvised over, interrupted, and placed in conversation with one another?
And while Long Division’s form mirrors the Internet’s escalation of postmodern collaging and time travel, a subtle critique of our present moment’s culture of digital over-documentation and its corresponding habits of consumption weaves throughout City’s 2013 experience. Strangers with iPhones constantly record him, as does Relle, his layabout Afghanistan-veteran uncle, who enthusiastically pushes the prospect of a reality show. In one trending video from the contest, City’s voice has been distorted in the popular fashion of rapper/singer T-Pain’s, the total realism of this meme-fantasy illuminating its ridiculousness.
But Long Division also pays homage to older forms that make clear how belated our postmodern play with reality really is. The novel-within-the-novel recalls Cervantes’ 17th century Don Quixote, in which the astonished Don finds a text about himself and wonders, like City, if he’s a character in someone else’s story. Don Quixote is a mad utopian thinker living a disjointed historical fantasy. Believing he’s a medieval knight attacking giants and rescuing maidens, he’s actually tilting at windmills and alienating his friends and neighbors. 2013 City isn’t crazy, but he lives in a world that is itself somewhat insane, operating under the deluded fantasy of a post-racial multicultural society—not to mention the fantastical quality of race itself.
In Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life(2012), Barbara J. and Karen Fields compare our persistent belief that skin color is meaningful to the historic belief that the supernatural can be explanatory. Today it sounds strange to say the crops failed because of witchcraft, but there have been social settings in which that view of causality went unquestioned. The Fieldses, extending our understanding of social construction, would argue that it should sound equally weird for us to explain, for example, that a man was followed by a security guard at The Gap because he’s black.
Long Division questions the logic of “racecraft” by offering a complex mélange of processes by which race—as well as its changing meanings and resulting material, psychological, and emotional effects—has been created. This process is at once collective and individual, historical and quotidian, routine and yet extremely significant. As Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, “Power must justify itself.”
Hurricane Katrina becomes central to Long Division’s plot, bringing to the foreground the salient notion of disappearance—literal and historical—or, from another perspective, of invisibility, again an allusion to the allegorical social invisibility of Ellison’s novel. Considering Katrina from 1985, City wonders “what kind of storm could just make people disappear,” and his silence is met by the reader’s memory of the culture, policies, and administration that co-created the disaster’s racialized aftermath.
Thus, at the heart of the novel, is citizenship, a concept that is also era-dependent. Both Citys, aka Citoyen (“citizen” in French), discover what rules apply and what opportunities are available for which Americans at which points in time. The rules have changed since the Naturalization Act of 1790, which excluded those not defined as “free white persons” of “good moral character.” But even the definitions that have followed have been repeatedly enforced and justified by standards and tests, such as the literacy tests that were central to the original voting rights struggle. The definition of citizenship and the correct answers to such tests are subject to the will of those in power.
The novel’s emphasis on winning competitions and passing tests therefore is no accident: early on, Principal Reeves punishes City with an opaquely instructive true/false test, which returns, completed and graded, near the end of Long Division-within-Long Division (“questions” include: “7. There are undergrounds to the past and future for every human being on earth.” and “*Bonus* 11. You are innocent”).
Beyond urging us to know our history, Long Division searches for a usable present. One recurrent and especially perplexing issue has to do with the desire for revenge, which, the novel shows, can drive one to insanity. So too can it make history safe in a way, just as the one-dimensional, if thrilling, revenge-plot of Quentin Tarrantino’s Django Unchained (2012) might. The opposing extreme is easy reconciliation, like that found in the ludicrous lyrics of the country star Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist,” which crams history under the rug as we stomp about, high-fiving. “If you don’t judge my gold chains,” raps LL Cool J, who co-wrote the song, “I’ll forget the iron chains.”
Long Division explores but resists such extremes. The ellipsis, appearing throughout the text as both punctuation and symbol, represents its own innate wisdom. As Baize explains, “Something more came before it and something more is coming after it.” It’s the elliptical open-on-both-sides non-answer that the historical process actually offers us, as we claim active participation in how our past is to inform our future. It’s the anti-reconciliatory sense of unity that multiculturalism failed to offer.
“Why you gotta be so long division?” Shalaya asks City at one point, telling him in her own inventive way to speed it up and get to the point. “But my favorite part of long division was the work,” City tells her. “I hate the answer. I do. We had this conversation already. You said you hated the answer, too.” What the work involves rarely has the clarity of an equation, much less of a single answer.
In Laymon’s essay (part memoir, part satire) “The Lost Presidential Debate of 2012,” to be published in the collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America later this summer, he describes his mixed feelings on the night of Obama’s first presidential victory. Having shrugged off his mother’s warnings about the too-muchness of the election, potentially dangerous for people of color, Laymon is exhilarated in his flashy Obama shirt. But when Obama wins and the hundreds of students outside his apartment on the Vassar College campus become giddy with celebration, Laymon’s excitement turns “dry [and] pulpy.”
He drives to nearby low-income Poughkeepsie and imagines its residents “smiling from the inside out.” But he also assumes
most of those folks were wondering how retribution for this splendid black American achievement would be played out on their bodies, pockets, spirits and minds. I wondered if the right questions could ever really change anything.
While Long Division is not defeatist, it’s not entirely hopeful either. Total optimism or pessimism would give only a partial view of history’s dialectical discontinuities. Instead, embracing the unpredictability and contingency of historical change, Long Division generously asks that we sit in the messiness a while.