Wilson, Kai Ashante (2015), The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, Tor
This book is very good. Very good. Unbelievably so, for a debut. An exceptional novel. Now, somewhere to the left or right of this paragraph will be a picture of the book under review. I considered not including one, but then, upon ordering it, you’d see it anyway. The cover is awful. Tor is doing a lot of things very well, many of which involve the editorship of Ann VanderMeer. Guessing from The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, cover design isn’t one of them. This book looks tacky and cheap (the book as object is nicely produced, however), but any guesses based on the cover regarding the book’s content would be way, way off. This appears to be Kai Ashante Wilson’s first novel and what a novel it is. For a fantasy novel, it is fairly short, but no line, no page, nothing is wasted within its covers. This is a truly masterful novel. Not: “a great fantasy novel” – this is a masterful novel with a fantastic setting. Look, there is a tendency to judge genre texts on a curve. That’s how I end up praising Brandon Sanderson‘s excellent work – its immediate compatriots are not Otessa Moshfegh, Sinan Antoon or A.L. Kennedy, but Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan and Peter Brett, and Sanderson’s intelligence, inventiveness and productivity put him above these writers. So if you like epic fantasy, read Sanderson. If, on the other hand, you don’t like it, many of his books won’t be enjoyable for you. Kai Ashante Wilson’s novel is just plain good, whatever awful ideas may have driven this cover design. There’s no “if you like this sort of thing” here because everybody except those who will only read hyperrealistic fiction will enjoy this, and those guys can go to hell anyway. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is smart, it is written with a keen intelligence, and an enormous care for words that is too rare in contemporary fiction. Wilson draws on a broad literary tradition, but closest, I think, are writers like Toni Morrison, Samuel R. Delany and James Kelman. Not that I think he drew specifically on those writers (the Kelman in particular is a bit of a reach), but the way his book approaches speech, dialect, power and bodies reminded me of them. As the Nobel Prize for Literature announcement is approaching (my (terrible) picks here), Wilson can remind us of what we need to be praised in World Literature and that’s not the precious little miniatures by unoriginal little Frenchmen. Writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Wilson Harris write work that, with exquisite literary skill, interrogates questions of language and power, and unlike writers like James Kelman (who should be on Nobel lists) and László Krasznahorkai, who address similar questions with at least equal skill, writers outside of Europe can address them differently, with a different, much needed perspective, especially given the lack of imagination and empathy in European (and American) politics today. Kai Ashante Wilson is no Ngugi wa Thiong’o, but his novel makes me excited to read more. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is excellent, important and deserves a better presentation by Tor.
Already, Wilson has surpassed work by American novelists like Michael Chabon, whose Gentlemen of the Road (I talk about it a bit in my review of The Copper Promise) is a surprisingly close analog. Yet unlike Chabon, Wilson’s novel isn’t a simple version of “fun and games with Leiber and Burroughs” – he draws, with some specifity, I believe, on novels like H. Rider Haggard’s She and Beckford’s Gothic classic Vathek, as well as on the towering literary figure of Samuel Delany. While Chabon, who has written beautifully on the value of genre writing, clearly brings to bear a great love and understanding of the genre, Wilson’s achievement is greater. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a novel that manages to have a fantastic setting that is both essential, and strangely irrelevant. Yes, there is an adventure in it, with a properly suspenseful finale. There are the characters you’d expect from adventure fantasy, gruff, funny, taciturn, irate. There are characters who like to talk and characters who are mysterious and brooding. There are fantastic beasts, Gods and monsters. Yet Wilson is in no way interested in doing the “worldbuilding” that is common and expected of fantasy. The world the novel is set in feels complete and entirely coherent, but it is not alien to us. The way we know this is Wilson’s use of language and dialect. The majority of the book is written in a clear, elegant, yet ever so slightly off-kilter English. It is hard to put my finger of it, but in recent fiction, I do think Samuel Delany comes very close to Wilson’s extremely deliberate English, which carefully modulates register ever so mildly. Sometimes it switches to poetic, sometimes it is more precise, sometimes it appears to be citing genre expressions, sometimes we are offered a very modern, clear tone. Yet this is not what is most important. The clincher is Wilson’s use of AAVE, or African American Variety of English, in his novel. The novel’s protagonists are, in modern parlance, of color. They are marked as black by other characters in the novel, but importantly, while the world of the book is not North America today, the characters employ different varieties of current African American slang, from “Nigga” to what is known as “th-fronting” where /θ/ is pronounced as [f] (“stremf,” in the novel, for example, for “strength”). Writers of fantasy, or just fiction in fantastic settings do frequently use today’s dialects of English to signify something about a culture. Many fantasy writers opt for some version of faux Irish dialect sometimes, for a certain kind of simpleton. What Wilson does is substantially different. The dialect he uses is so strongly connected to a specific culture and a time (ours, some details about the dialect are rather current) that it is hard to see it as just signifying any old kind of dialectical speech. What’s more, Wilson ties it to race.
Some of Wilson’s characters speak a variety of AAVE, and they are seen as black. Black not as color (although skin color is a topic of conversation), but more importantly: black as a cultural and colonial signifier. The book’s plot is about a group of, I guess, mercenaries, paid to escort a carawan of rich people (a culture clearly Arab inflected) through a dangerous area. A significant portion of the novel is set in an Oasis, where the mercenaries are treated with disdain. Not just by the rich merchants, but also by the fort soldiers (known as “fo-so’s”) who also speak in AAVE. Thus, we hear complaints like “Naked-ass bush savages. Shouldn’t even let they ass up in here.” I reviewed, a while ago, David Anthony Durham’s Acacia fantasy novels set in a kind of African mirror image to the usual fantasy worlds. Durham, like his genre compatriots, treated class and race with a broad and imprecise brush, but the exciting element of his book was the way he upended the usual home/invader paradigms. Usually, the “normal” people are English or European, the invaders dark, black or Asian (even outspoken liberals like Tad Williams cannot escape this). So that’s what Durham did and for the genre it was set in, it was nice and well done. Kai Wilson’s view of race is closer to the complicated worlds of Toni Morrison. From the acidic treatment of race and colorism and self hate in The Bluest Eye, to the densely colored conflicts of Paradise, which famously starts with a black/white conflict but then turns interior, Toni Morrison (a truly deserving winner of the Nobel Prize, unlike that French exploitative tourist of limited linguistic gifts Le Clèzio) has written one of the sharpest treatments of race in English outside of Africa (where racism is a frequent topic among the many writers the current Nobel academy does not consider white enough or genteel enough for a Nobel prize). The world of The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is, like ours, a world dense with conflict, but Wilson has removed all the nonlinguistic specifics and replaced them with an Oriental fantasy world. This is doubly important. It allows him to display some conflicts relevant to us on a canvas that does not distract us, and makes us see causalities that we would otherwise link differently; it also drives home a point about how, much like orientalism, as Said many decades ago has stated so accurately, is a way to structure knowledge about the “oriental other”, so are certain accepted fictional and linguistic strategies.
Prof. John Rickford has called AAVE “spoken soul” and closed his landmark study of it with the following remark:
“True, the vernacular has been abused. […] But we must reclaim it. We must stop importing this shame that is manufactured beyond our communities […]. We must begin to do for language what we have done historically (in some cases only very recently) for our hair, our clothes, our art, our education, and our religion […]. The crucial thing is that we hold the yardstick, and finally become sovereign guardians and arbitrators and purveyors of our culture.”
Otherness, identity and shame loom large over this novel and the focus is not just race, but also, in equal measure, queerness. I haven’t touched on it because this is a brief review I am typing during a lunch break, but queerness is important here – two of the protagonists, the most physically strong and masculine, have a sexual relationship. Wilson builds on Delany’s sexually charged fantastic fiction set in the world of Neveryon, and like, Delany, also on a large tradition of gay literature that was sometimes explicitly gay, and sometimes more implicitly so. To me, the secret-but-passionate love affair between the two men recalls novels like Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund or E.M. Forster’s Maurice. If the (recalled in a memory) moment when the two men admit their mutual attraction doesn’t make you think of Alec climbing up to Maurice’s window, I can’t help you. To get back to my point: the central concern is with otherness and self, both in terms of race and sexuality. Famously, Emmanuel Levinas’ ethics of alterity do not include animals (I believe there is a very readable critique by Derrida) – but scholars have used his approach to also discuss animals and animality. For Levinas, the self, the “I,” is created in a confrontation with a “Thou,” a you. Building on Martin Buber, Levinas rejects Buber’s concept of reciprocity in that encounter. The Other, for Levinas, is completely, radically, Other. The encounter with it creates both an ethical responsibility and, with E.S. Burt, a sense of self. You cannot kill, because killing is an encounter with a face (cf. Abraham & son). Not so with animals. Yet Wilson offers us something else. Not an animal, but a leviathan, something that is inherently other, so much that it is capable of shifting and changing realities. Many of the characters’ actions are about dealing with yourself, with who you are, what role you are expected to fulfill and how to cope with all of that, but the book’s big showdown is a literalization of an encounter with an Other for two people whose sense of self is complicated and tender. It asks of them to fully embrace who and what they are, and it shows how dangerous that is.
It is impossible to convey how well crafted this book is. The brevity itself is an example of formal mastery, as is the density of allusions and theoretical and philosophical ideas. The careful writing, the extraordinarily deliberate and beautiful prose, it is really all very good. The prose easily beats the one written by recent Booker nominees or winners (*cough* Barnes *cough*), for example and when I say easily, I mean it. Hard to believe that this is Wilson’s first long piece of fiction. What he managed here is enormously hard to do, and even harder to sustain, but I am hoping for great things from this amazing writer. One would hope that the label “fantasy” would not mar his reception, because this book is just plainly excellent literature, among the best novels I read this year, but the presentation by Tor certainly does not help. Not just the terrible cover, the comparison to mediocrities like George R.R. Martin (good fantasy writer, mediocre writer overall) in blurbs on the cover also suggests a bad direction. Kai Ashante Wilson is an unbelievable writer, period. He is part of a coterie of excellent young African American novelists that include Colson Whitehead, the incandescent Paul Beatty and Mat Johnson. If you’re tired of the pale literary culture that brought you Jonathan Safran Foer, “The Help,” Ayelet Waldman and a million trite MFA products, read these writers. Read Kai Ashante Wilson. He’s on fire.
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