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
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