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A Visitation of Spirits
Randall Kenan

A Visitation of Spirits
Randall Kenan
London 1996

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After the success on both sides of the Atlantic of Randall Kenan’s second book Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, Abacus have released his first novel A Visitation of Spirits, in the UK. It is a composed and impressive debut which will both cement and enhance the reputation Kenan has already made for himself as a gifted and inventive magic realist.

Horace Cross is a brilliant young black boy. He is known in his small North Carolina town as a studious, upright, hard-working, if somewhat square kid, who will one day be a successful scientist and a credit to the black community. He is, as his Cousin Anne points out, "the Chosen Nigger". The novel begins, however, with Horace in a state of acute turmoil. For reasons which we only come to realise as the novel progresses, Horace can see no other respite from the pain and alienation which plague him than to enact an ancient mystical ritual in the hope of changing himself into a bird. As a red-tail hawk, he believes he will be free from the choking morality of his aunts and his grandfather, and from the sinful demands of his own body, demands which both torture and delight him.

If only it were that simple. Horace’s incantation does call up the demons he needs, but rather than liberate him they take him on a journey into his own, brief past. A voice inside him leads Horace naked around the fictional town of Tims Creek: to his mixed race school, to the theatre he worked in one summer, and to a cemetery where Horace must finally confront his own reflection. In each place Horace is shown scenes from his life, a device which allows Kenan gradually to colour in our knowledge of Horace and to build up to the climactic moment when Horace must answer the simplest, and most difficult of questions: who are you?

The "problem" Horace has is his homosexuality, or rather the setting of his homosexuality against the attitudes of his inflexible, church-going family, and the moral values which the have instilled in him and which he cannot ultimately discard. His existence is a continual battle between repression and desire, each at some point having its way, but never exclusively. In desire he hears the voice of repression, and when he tries to fight what his uncle insists is only a "phase", he is tortured by the beauty of male bodies.

The theme of possession has possessed American fiction from Poe, through Burroughs and Toni Morrison, here to Randall Kenan. It is an excellent model for Kenan, because it aptly expresses the dissolution of stable patterns of social and psychic identity, the lack of cultural belonging experienced by the young gay black male. Horace is "possessed" by his sexuality, but also by the history of his race and the models which have been drawn for him, all of which and none of which seem natural to him. His fractured and oppositional personality comes from another place. It seems to invade him, leaving him with no sense of control. To have control and thus truly be himself, Horace would have to choose whether or not to allow his true sexuality a central place within him. This choice is too great a burden for a young boy of fifteen and Kenan brilliantly shows the schizophrenic effect of such a choice in a world where homosexuality is a sin, and a sin of which white people are guilty. He also demonstrates the far more seductive charms of voices which only need to be adhered to, without choice, even when adherence leads to destruction.

Kenan’s themes of mourning and memory, which are underlined by the interwoven narrative of Horace’s Uncle Jimmy, owe a great deal to psychoanalysis. It is memory which is crucial, not experience. Memory fits past events into a matrix of the present, constantly readjusting and informing the lived moment. Horace’s midnight journey into his own self is a self-induced psychoanalytical attempt, through memory, to piece together an image of himself which he can be content with in the future. The question of whether or not Horace will achieve this goal gives the novel its tension, a tension not quite expected from the initially alienating stop-start narrative. The beautifully understated conclusion is perfectly handled, and provides no easy solutions.

A Visitation of Spirits is a very honest, moving book, which takes big risks in both its subject matter, and in its fantastical form which could have appeared contrived or sensational in less capable hands. Kenan’s portrayal of the failures of the black community of Tims Creek, the racism and intolerance Horace rails against in his own family, are shown with understanding. It is love of Horace which makes his aunts tell him not to hang out with the white boys who are simply using him. It is an unswerving love of scripture which would make them appalled by his sexuality. Kenan refuses to judge any of his characters. Instead he demonstrates the blind alleys which certain attitudes lead people down, especially when the world has moved on from those attitudes. He does this with frankness and compassion, and an uncluttered prose style which is a pleasure to read.

Reviewed by Adam Baron


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