Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 306

John Edgar Wideman’s novel is primarily concerned with the ideas of disease and epidemic. The author combines the physical, medical manifestations of disease with the larger social causes and effects of harmful behavior. Wideman joins past and present, as well as the United States and South Africa, in linking humans and animals as objects of sacrifice. He implies that dominant groups sacrifice the people they subordinate in ways that seem less meaningful than other people’s sacrificing animals. He also creates a story within a story, as one novel emerges as the creation of a late twentieth-century writer, and within it, a late eighteenth-century storyteller shapes the narrative. The contrast includes the 1990s epidemic of homicides, of which African American male youths are the majority of victims, and the 1790s yellow fever epidemic, in which Africans and African Americans, most of them enslaved, were scapegoated for “causing” the disease. Furthermore, the Xhosa people of South Africa are introduced as cattle herders who the British colonizers tricked into killing their animals, allegedly to prevent the spread of disease but effectively leaving them without subsistence.

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Wideman raises a number of significant issues that join the time periods. Racism and the attendant disregard for human life remain contemporary problems, he shows. Both lack of knowledge and deliberate misunderstanding contribute to the spread of illness. His treatment of these subjects brings to mind Albert Camus’s novel The Plague and Susan Sontag’s analytical essays, Illness as Metaphor. By placing a writer and a storyteller in central positions, he also points to the importance of creativity in helping us move beyond prejudice and fear. Similarly, he contrasts the visionary aspect of the artist in Liam’s character to the coldly analytical approach of Stubbs, who finds destruction necessary to understanding the body but in doing so neglects the spirit.

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