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Commentary: Familiar Companions and Deep Dives

Janice Welsch

I like to read. As I was growing up I couldn't put down a Nancy Drew mystery once I began it. I was driven to find out what happened; the narrative was all.

I still read mysteries that way, compelled to find out what happens. Actually, I often read the first few chapters of a book and then skip to the final chapters, so anxious am I to find out how the narrative plays out. Once I know, I can go back and enjoy the intervening chapters, the twists and turns of the plot and the writing itself. I am most likely to follow this pattern when reading a Sara Paretsky or Louise Penny mystery.

I rarely read a book a second time. If I do, it’s usually non-fiction. An exception is a novel by Carol Shields. Shields won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel, The Stone Diaries, but it’s not that book I keep going back to. It’s Unless, a novel about Reta Winters, a Canadian, a writer, a wife, the mother of three teenage daughters, who is confronted by the inexplicable decision of Norah, her oldest daughter, to drop out of university and spend her days on a street corner in Toronto holding a sign that says simply “GOODNESS.”

It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of the explanation for Norah’s action, but on the way to that explanation, Reta continues to live a life of wife, mother, and writer. Her role as a writer is among the aspects of the book that intrigues me. Reta is the narrator in Unless; within that novel she is writing a novel. She is also translating the memoirs of a well-known French scholar and poet. And periodically Reta will dash off a letter to a literary critic, inevitably noting their focus on long lists of male writers, scholars, and musicians, overlooking, save a single exception, the work of women. Reta describes herself as “a woman writer who is writing about a woman writer who is writing . . . affixing small words to large, empty pages. . . . [I]t matters so much I can’t stop doing it” she says. (p. 208).

Unless has become a familiar companion that I can pick up and savor as I enjoy Shields’ sharp wit and beautiful prose. A couple of examples: her take on obituaries as “so personal and authentic and odd that they are able to reinforce the thin tissue of predictable fiction and bend it into unlikely shapes” (p.271) or “. . . [T]he tiny piping voice of goodness goes almost unheard; no matter how felt and composed it is.” (p. 310).

I remember the first time I read a nonfiction book more than once. I was in grad school and found the text, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, incomprehensible, but reading it again in the context of a film theory course, it made sense; it offered one “aha” moment after another. I loved the experience.

Recently I’ve read Frank Wilderson’s Afropessimism twice. Like Signs and Meaning in the Cinema it focuses on theory, in this case, critical race theory, but the author surrounds the theory with autobiography. At one moment one is reading a narrative about events and personal interactions; the next, examining those events and encounters from the perspective of a scholar who is unpacking their deepest meaning in a world that has consistently undervalued, even denied, his humanity. Having grown up the son of African American professionals, the only African American family in an affluent suburb of Minneapolis, Wilderson was conscious of his difference on some level when still a child, but by the time he entered a doctoral program at the University of California at Berkeley, he was so profoundly conscious of how negatively that difference determined his place in the world, he broke down mentally, emotionally, and physically. Today, a Professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Irvine, he continues to search for meaning in a world that denies his humanity. The logic of his perspective and insights, coupled with the details of his life as a child, a college student, an anti-apartheid revolutionary, a writer, and scholar, is riveting.

Carol Shields’ Unless is a self-reflexive exploration of feminism in the guise of a novel about a writer and her family. Afropessimism is a “deep dive,” in the words of a friend, into the lived reality of racism. Shields’ offers comfort and reassurance; Wilderson offers discomfort, a challenge to rethink who is human. Both are worth reading, and then reading again.

Janice Welsch is a Western Illinois University faculty emerita.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.