This author gets it

Tomorrow in Race and Fiction Writing we will discuss the question: How Do We Write Characters Whose Race Is Different Than Ours? Meanwhile, I struck gold on the reading-copy shelf a few weeks back. I got fourteen books! Plus Charles Bukowski, On Cats, which I gave to a friend.

One you can’t see in the picture is The New and Improved Romie Futch, by Julia Elliott. Romie is a South Carolina taxidermist who undergoes a sort of flowers-for-Algernon experiment and emerges with greatly enhanced mental capacity. He throws himself into creating avant-garde animal dioramas that illustrate “the trans-human ecology,” hunting down a mutant monster known as Hogzilla, and the odd drunken funk. The writing is great. I was going along enjoying the book well enough, and then I came across something I’ve never seen before.

Romie and three other experimental subjects—Trippy, Skeeter and Al—are killing time in the lab dormitory. Since none of them are in the control group, their way of killing time is to discuss Foucault:

“Y’all get Discipline and Punish yet?” asked Skeeter, his huge eyes aglow with enlightenment.

“Aw hell,” said Trippy. “Don’t get me started on the Panopticon, the perfect metaphor for my punked state of subjection, my socially constructed soul bugging under the weight of hierarchical observation, the prison guard internalized. The Man inside of the man, man. Just watch any male of color walking down the street, eyes on the lookout for the hobgoblin Man, frequently materializing in the form of an armed cop. . . .”

Al suggests that Foucault’s work compliments that of Angela Davis, and he and Trippy go on to discuss “the prison-industrial complex, the punitive corporatization, the commodification of punishment.” “Skeeter and I stared at our shoes,” Elliott writes.

[W]e were wretches, yes, and Skeeter had even done time, but we still enjoyed some of the perks of white privilege, particularly the luxury of growing up without constantly watching our backs. Plus, there was no telling what kind of deeply embedded racist societal shit tainted our unconscious minds.

OMG! Antiracist activists spend years of their lives on Twitter trying to convince people of everything Elliott just laid down in that last paragraph! There are at least three things I love about this scene.

I. Before it, I wasn’t sure which characters were Black and which white. Elliott doesn’t fall all over herself trying to signal race by “casually” mentioning hairstyles or skin tone. If anything, she relies on language—how Al and Trippy speak in this scene makes it clear that they’re Black. If race isn’t important to the reader’s understanding of a scene, she’s confident enough to leave it in the background. To me, this bespeaks an author who isn’t hung up on “diversity” or trying to sow (or sew) brown characters into a largely white story for the sake of appearances. (And I’ve been there, believe me.)

II. After it, race recedes from the story for some time. Romie returns home and busies himself with his taxidermic artwork and various bad dreams and conspiracies. He’s a white man with white friends and a white ex-wife. He understands the realities about race and racism in America—that’s clear from his response to Al and Trippy—but they don’t figure largely in his day-to-day thoughts. There’s an honesty here that I like a lot. Another way of saying this is that Julia Elliott gets it but doesn’t make a federal case of it. Personally I favor making a federal case about racism in my fiction whenever possible, but not every white author has to be that way.

III. It’s genuinely weird and funny. And the race angle only deepens and sharpens the humor as well as the narrative itself.

The New and Improved Romie Futch is out from Tin House books in October, 2015.

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