lunes, 16 de noviembre de 2009

Reflecting on a review of A Glance Away by John Edgar Wideman

When reviewing a book I try to keep myself out of the argument. The purpose is to reflect upon the work, to enter its world in its own style. It’s a process that often clarifies issues and prioritises arguments for the reviewer as much as it helps inform the review’s reader. Whether I liked or disliked the book in question is an opinion that’s perhaps less than irrelevant, because it adds a double confusion. You, the reader, don’t know the book, but then you know even less about me, so what price my humble, unexplained, unjustified recommendation?

I used to work on a market stall. Alongside household cleaners and soap powder, the stall also offered kitchenware and fancy goods, items to be considered considerably less often than weekly. Running up to Christmas, we also carried large, high cost toys, such as board games, construction kits and the like. The stall’s owner handled that end of the business, leaving the dealings in shoe polish, soap, bleach and toilet paper to his minions at the other end. The minions, incidentally, were his daughter and me.

If a potential customer dithered over a purchase, the vendor’s shock tactic was to offer the reassurance of solidarity. “We’ve used it” or “We have one at home” were the phrases he used. “And we are happy with it” then followed in judgment. Often – more often than not – the punter smiled, purchased and so profit was pocketed.

But there was nothing cynical about this process. The stall-owner came weekly to each pitch. He would take things back if they were broken – but usually not if they were merely disliked. People didn’t bring things back if that was the case, except, of course, to exchange. And, given his household’s general pursuit of novelty, he probably had tried out the products in question, at least for a while.

He had, personally, what twenty-first century capitalism calls a brand. He was a trusted face – not a name, because none of his customers knew anything other than his first name – and his recommendations carried the authority of that trust. He did good business and made a good living, his punters’ trust being well-placed.

But as an internet reviewer, what might my opinion be worth to a browsing punter? If a reader regularly follows my opinion, of course, then a pattern might emerge and some conclusion might be drawn. The chances are, however, that you are not that reader, that you have stumbled almost randomly upon my thoughts and thus what I say is potentially worthless. I present a double unknown, an unread book and an untried, untrusted opinion.

I am prompted to reflect on the nature of the internet book review because I have just finished A Glance Away by John Edgar Wideman. It’s a short book but far from succinct. The style is often sparse, its words deliberated over, even missing for effect, unsaid on behalf of communication. On the fly-sheet it’s a novel at the front and, in a quoted review at the back, an autobiography. I too was confused.

But not by the style… There’s a family. There are brothers. With apparent prescience of some stylistic devices used later by Toni Morrison to both define and characterise a specifically black culture that is both part of but also separated from the general, John Edgar Wideman allows the reader into a family’s passion, conflicts and confusion. The brothers live different lives, meet different people and aspire to different ideals. There may be reasons, explanations, but what people think is largely hidden by a profound opacity. Perhaps the characters themselves are confused. Perhaps that’s also the point.

As an experience, A Glance Away is a powerful, sometimes provocative novel. But its detail often reads as obfuscation, demanded by its lack of continuous thread. Perhaps it’s a book to read again, its challenge not met by a punter who was unfamiliar with its brand.

View this book on amazon
A Glance Away