Discussing The System of Dante’s Hell in the light of conventional expectations regarding fictional form and content is misleading, since one of the fundamental effects the work seeks to achieve is to abolish such categories by showing them to be inadequate, suggesting thereby that they are irrelevant to the world that the author desires to depict. Rather than being a reliable narrative, the work reads as a series of variations on a scattered network of themes. As a result, the appeals to conflict and resolution that novels usually make are overridden in favor of appeals to more immediate experiences that readers will find less easy to incorporate into an overall pattern of development. The avowedly experimental nature of Amiri Baraka’s The System of Dante’s Hell is not only a fundamental fact of its character but also a crucial expression of an attempt to call into question the basis of familiar fictional discourse. The novel’s method also attempts to render what might be called the presentness of the material, drawing attention thereby to the texture rather than to the lessons of experience.
Although it moves at an unusual pace, articulates itself in an unusual rhythm, and possesses a challenging structure, The System of Dante’s Hell is by no means consumed by its own artifice. On the contrary, its experimental elements make unavoidable the author’s clear desire to be heard and to have the distinctiveness of what he has to say appreciated. Much of what he has to say draws less on individual experience than on a sense of the common experience in which individuality finds its social and cultural foundations. Although the voice of the narrator in the novel reflects upon his own experience, it also presents that experience as both part of and resistant to the common run of human activity.
Much of the novel is centered on certain areas of the author’s hometown of Newark,...
(The entire section is 790 words.)