As gun and police violence ravage so many U.S. cities, and gentrification pushes people out of their homes, veteran poet and scholar of African-American culture Ed Pavlić offers a debut novel that explores the displacing and dehumanizing effects of these forces. Chicago, specifically, which Pavlić renders in synesthetic rhythms, tones, tastes and colors to show how a person’s hometown codes their consciousness. At its best, “Another Kind of Madness” is a 500-page prose poem, and the heights it scales are worth the bumpy ride toward the boundaries of fiction.
Ndiya Grayson (pronounced Áh-ndiya, “soft like the opposite of ‘off’ ”), back home in Chicago for a paralegal job after law school, hesitates to settle into her new apartment, a “provisional, no-lease townhouse sublet” where boxes remain unpacked. Although the South Side projects she grew up in have been razed for development, she is constantly aware of the space they inhabited because of a traumatic attack that took place there when she was 12.
Traveling by bus to the old neighborhood, words signal memories through her “like a flashlight waving around underwater.” Ndiya presses on, slowly abandoning her new life to face the past. Pavlić has written extensively on James Baldwin, and here he embraces Baldwin’s belief in the value of facing one’s pain. Madness is about what can be found when you go back to the place you started from after it drove you away.
One thing Ndiya finds, despite her better judgment, is love. Shame Luther plays piano in South Side jazz clubs and works in construction at a job site called Joycelan Steel (Joycean, Joyceland?). The name points playfully at the book’s recursive structure, which echoes Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” (although it’s far easier to read!) as well as Charles Mingus’ theory of rotary perception. Characters feed off one another like improvisatory musicians, and, like “Finnegan’s Wake,” the book begins at the end and ends just before the beginning.
The Joyce reference feels generous rather than obtrusive as it passes over the head of the unread but intuitive Shame, who initially thinks “Invisible Cities” was written by someone named Vintage Calvino.
Inserted in the Mingus-esque circles drawn around Ndiya and Shame is a troubled, shady character named Junior, who sticks to different parts of their past and future selves and disrupts the equilibrium. After a series of abusive encounters with Chicago police officers and a murder they try to pin on him, Shame flees to Kenya.
Speaking of unbalanced, the long African section of the book is not nearly as taut and controlled as the Chicago chapters, but it’s worth reading to discover why it’s so important for Shame and Ndiya to lose and then find each other.
David Varno reviews for the Brooklyn Rail and other venues. He is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.
Another Kind of Madness
By: Ed Pavlic
Publisher: Milkweed Editions, 485 pages, $26.