The visual metaphor of the novel as a hall of mirrors has its verbal equivalent in Wideman’s relay of narrative voices. Cudjoe, for example, plays the part of the Pied Piper. Magician and musician, he is also the one who writes and the one about whom is written. “Why this Cudjoe, then?” Wideman (now as narrator) asks. “This airy other floating into the shape of my story. Why am I him when I tell certain parts? Why am I hiding from myself? Is he mirror or black hole?” The novel serves as both mirror and black hole, reflecting and devouring, shedding light (wisdom) and preventing its escape, its real subject being an absence (Simba, for example) detectable only by virtue of the bodies (planetary or human) caught in its gravitational pull. Wideman’s characters are similarly constructed. They are mirrors and voids rather than stable subjects: shifting, shapeless, voiceless (insofar as they have no voice of their own), and disembodied. Having no (one) voice of its own, the novel, like its characters, speaks in an amazing multiplicity of ventriloquized voices and interpolated styles and forms: nursery rhymes, biblical echoes, the radio monologue of a rapper, a dialogue between two mayors (one black, one white), and passages from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623) and other texts. It also uses more conventional narrative devices such as dialogue, description, indirect discourse, letters, and a notebook passage. Cudjoe’s thinking and remembering often takes the form of editing, and much of Margaret Jones’s story takes the highly mediated form of a tape recording that Cudjoe plays and fast forwards at will. The narrative discontinuity reflects and echoes the discontinuity of the characters’ (especially Cudjoe’s and Wideman’s) lives as well as a postmodern conception of the human subject and the part narrative plays in its formation.
The second part of the novel, for example, begins by forgoing even the minimal continuity evident in the novel’s opening section, intruding a second narrative presence that both merges with and diverges from Cudjoe. It...
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Cudjoe, an aspiring writer. Having failed his first (white) wife and children and having not yet succeeded as a writer, he leaves Philadelphia to live abroad, primarily on the Greek island of Mykonos, working as a barman and dating attractive female tourists. Upon learning of the May, 1985, police attack on the MOVE headquarters that destroyed fifty-three houses and killed eleven people, he returns home, not so much hoping as needing to find the sole survivor, Simba Mintu. He needs to find the boy in part to understand the irrationality of an attack ordered by the city’s black mayor and in part to atone for his own past derelictions.
Simba (Simmie) Mintu
Simba (Simmie) Mintu, the young boy orphaned by the police attack. His adopted African name means “Lion Man.” Simba is pushed to safety by his mother, Clara/Nkisa, who dies in the conflagration. In a play on the Christian hymn “Amazing Grace,” Simba first is lost, then is found (saved), but now is lost again—he has disappeared but also is condemned, socially, politically, and economically. He symbolizes “kid power” in a double sense: literally the power to survive but figuratively the power to avenge past wrongs. Significantly, Cudjoe has no idea what he will say to Simba if he finds him.
Margaret Jones, Cudjoe’s sole direct link to the fire and therefore to Simba. She met MOVE’s leader, John Africa, one year earlier; three months after that, she moved into the MOVE compound, leaving behind her two children. John Africa, she says, did not brainwash her; he did not need to. He only told her what she knew: that all she had to show for all her hard work were the same sore feet that her mother had after fifty years of cleaning for white people. Although she talks reservedly to Cudjoe, she is skeptical of both his motives and his commitment.
John Africa, formerly James Brown and also...
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