What would Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” have looked like if the nebulous figure of Kurtz was revealed as a work of the main character Marlow’s imagination? What would that say about white men’s continued obsession with adventure in war-torn parts of the postcolonial world, and their desire to discover themselves in unknown spaces?
Deni Ellis Béchard’s fifth book blends fiction, literary and cultural criticism, parody and memoir to address those questions, recasting Marlow’s quest for Kurtz as a journalist’s search for a story about a corrupt conservationist in the Congo.
“White” is narrated by an author surrogate, a Canadian-American journalist with the same name as Béchard who has an interest in writing novels but hasn’t had the early success with them that the actual Béchard has (two award-winning novels, a memoir and a book of journalism). The fictional Béchard is a sensitive self-conscious 40-something white man who often scrupulously checks his privilege and avoids micro-aggressions, although uncertainty and bitterness brew under the surface along with the white guilt.
When he meets a racially ambiguous anthropologist named Sola on the plane to Africa, he avoids asking where she is from so as not to make her feel like he is making assumptions. When the gaze shifts to him, he takes care not to be perceived as a white savior or an exploiter.
Interestingly, his disavowal of white male narcissism belies his true ambitions: “ ‘What are you doing in the Congo?’ she asked. I smiled, suddenly uneasy, trying to hear my answer before I spoke it. … ‘A Kurtz?’ she said and laughed. ‘Yes,’ I admitted. … ‘I wish it were otherwise.’ ” Yeah, right. Béchard has struck gold.
The fictional Béchard may wish that the search for the conservationist — an alleged child abuser, murderer and land thief named Richmond Hew — doesn’t implicate him in some kind of ancestral colonial saga, but he’s a journalist in need of a story.
The anxiety of becoming a cliché is put in perspective when he discovers the cartoonish, overwrought writings of another American who may have had dealings with Hew, a self-described “writer-adventurer” named Alton Hooke who aspires to become “a cold fusion of Jack London, Hemingway, Kerouac, and Cormac McCarthy, only better, truly on the edge.” Béchard knows Hooke’s type all too well; they both grew up on the same books.
The encounter with Hooke’s writing drives Béchard further inward. The transition tests the reader at first, diverging from a compelling literary fantasia into a creaky dramatization of Béchard’s writing process. Gradually, however, the memoir-within-a-novel takes on momentum and clarifies why he makes Kurtzes out of almost everyone he meets. Just when the book threatens to disappoint, threatening the reader with portents of inconclusiveness and solipsism, its true purpose reveals itself, and it is as unsettling as it is thought-provoking.
David Varno is a writer and book critic in Brooklyn and a member of the National Book Critics Circle board.