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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.

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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, New Jersey. The city is not represented in a conventionally accessible way, and the author is clearly at pains not to provide readers with a road map. What for readers are simply street names and other purely nominal tokens of the urban landscape are for the author countersigns and landmarks of experience. Through their repetition, however, the urban landscape becomes for readers a tissue of associations and possibilities that reflects the potential of experiencing without ever attaining the concrete finality of fully achieved experience. The names and other elements that compose various Newark neighborhoods are articulated as a matrix of desire, striving, and various other related processes of consciousness rather than reproduced as the lapidary emplacements of an objective reality.

The System of Dante’s Hell does not have a plot. Instead, it has a pattern of experiencing, the features of which are repeated with variations throughout. From the protagonist’s perspective, it is misleading to point out a pattern, since none exists for him. He appears to be caught in the flow of urban experience, which may be erratic in its rhythm but is incessant in its pace. From a reader’s point of view, it emerges that Roi’s experiences not only are confined to a relatively narrow section of Newark but also are restricted to a small number of psychological and cultural areas consisting of having sexual encounters, restlessly walking the streets, being with his peers, playing basketball and baseball, recollecting or witnessing acts of violence, reading, and being self-absorbed to a degree predictable for an adolescent. The problematic influence on development of many of these areas is brought into critical focus when, toward the end of the novel, Roi leaves Newark, joins the United States Air Force, and is stationed somewhere in the Deep South. His encounter with Peaches, a prostitute, operates as an incisive critique of the codes of manhood that he learned on...

(The entire section contains 1857 words.)

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Themes