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35-July-Aug-2008
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A-FanonBest known for his 1984 memoir Brothers and Keepers, John Edgar Wideman, a prolific, award-winning writer of short fiction, novels, memoirs, and essays is the only writer ever to have been awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction twice—for Sent for You Yesterday (1984) and Philadelphia Fire (1990).

The Story: Fanon is named for its ostensible subject, the psychiatrist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon (1925–1961), who wrote two highly influential works about race and colonialism (The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks) before his death at age 36. Fanon interweaves portions of the real Fanon’s biography with the story of a narrator—at times named Thomas, at other times named John Edgar—who is himself trying to write a book about Frantz Fanon. Also making appearances in this genre-bending novel are characters based on Wideman’s imprisoned brother and ailing mother, and, strangely enough, on film director Jean-Luc Godard. As the characters transcend boundaries of time, space, and identity, Wideman meditates on literature’s ability (or lack thereof) to capture the human experience.
Houghton Mifflin. 229 pages. $24. ISBN: 0618942637

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[W]hat Wideman has rivetingly achieved, among other things, is to find a path out of the cul-de-sac of self-consciousness that plagues the contemporary novel. … [T]his [is a] thrilling, important novel, which is by turns eloquent, crude, despairing and heartbrokenly hopeful." Lee Siegel

Dallas Morning News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Wideman’s lineage makes Fanon a demanding, high-art novel. It will frankly, unfortunately, leave some readers confused, others unmoved, cold. But the payoff for those who invest in Fanon … is intense and liberating." Walton Muyumba

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This is a John Edgar Wideman novel, and if you’ve had any acquaintance with such creatures, you’ll know before turning the first page that whatever Wideman’s ostensible subject may be, he will write about many other things besides, and often brilliantly. … In the end, Wideman’s Fanon is not so much about Fanon the man as it is about writing about Fanon, about writing in a world in which revolutionary hopes have soured, about writing, period." Ben Ehrenreich

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In the heightened consciousness [Wideman] brings to issues of narrative point of view, representation and language, he pushes literary conventions almost beyond their limits, and perhaps beyond some of his readers, too. But the brilliance of his language, the power of his storytelling and the sheer bravado and unexpectedness of his riffs exert considerable charms." James A. Miller

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3 of 5 Stars
"For all my reservations about Fanon, there is no denying how interesting a literary experiment it is. Just because it wanders a little too much into a narrative morass for my tastes doesn’t mean Wideman doesn’t know what he’s doing." Tony Norman

Providence Journal 2.5 of 5 Stars
"I like the probing and the questioning—‘What’s in a metaphor anyway. What’s in an image. What language does it speak’—but I ached for more of Fanon, the person, the preacher and the psychiatric healer. The brilliant episodes startle and delight, but the telling all too often upends the tale." Sam Coale

Philadelphia Inquirer 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Wideman disserves his icon [Fanon], because this rambling, self-indulgent, oppressive novel … refuses to moderate Wideman’s rampant (and long-employed) literary modernism—confusing shifts in perspective, unquotable run-on sentences, and paragraphs that tumble on for a page or more, stream-of-consciousness rambling that’s endlessly repetitive and boring." Carlin Romano

Critical Summary

Reviewers’ reactions to Fanon seemed largely based on their willingness to go along with Wideman’s postmodern experimentations and to be swallowed up by his labyrinthine prose. Critics who expected a more straightforward biography of the fascinating, but often overlooked, radical Frantz Fanon were inevitably disappointed, and more than one reviewer accused Wideman of indulging in a tedious level of self-reflection. However, reviewers who were willing to take the historical figure of Fanon as a mere jumping-off point for Wideman’s ruminations on the nature of mortality, human experience, and storytelling found the ride a rewarding one, and nearly all reviewers agreed that the scenes featuring the narrator’s interactions with his incarcerated brother, Rob, and his ailing mother were exceptionally touching and effective.

Also by the Author

Brothers and Keepers A Memoir (1984): Award Star National Book Critics Circle Award nomination. Wideman, then on his way to becoming a college professor after escaping the Pittsburgh ghetto in which he grew up, reflects on his relationship with his younger brother, whose bungled robbery resulted in a life sentence in prison.