Nobody’s Experimental Novel: On William Melvin Kelley

No doubt the most pressing questions concerning the fiction of William Melvin Kelley are not about its merits, which are considerable and readily enough apparent, but have to be those related to the circumstances of its “rediscovery”: Why did Kelley publish nothing after 1970? (His first novel appeared in 1962, and Kelley died in 2017.) What accounts for the long period of neglect his work endured until recently, when all of his books were brought back into print?

For thirty years, only Kelley’s first novel, A Different Drummer, remained in print, but in 2020 the other books, the story collection Dancers on the Shore (1964) and the subsequent three novels, A Drop of Patience (1965), dem (1967), and Dunfords Travels Everywheres, again became available (all published by Anchor Books). The two most recently published (September) perhaps fortuitously give us salient clues in solving the mystery of Kelley’s disappearance from the literary scene. The stories in Dancers on the Shore are realistic and conventional, and while most of them could stand alone as short stories, they really work together in a dual-stranded portrayal of mid-century African-American experience, one strand focusing on the middle class Dunfords and the other on the working class Bedlows (particularly the brothers Carlyle and Mance). “Chig” Dunford and Carlyle Bedlow reappear in Kelley’s subsequent novels (and one story in the book, “The Servant Problem,” along with its white protagonist, reappears as the core focus of dem, which also features Carlyle), although they play much different roles, less clearly acting as illustrative types.

Indeed, although Chig and Carlyle are also the twinned protagonists of Dunfords Travels Everywheres (also published in September), they have largely been in this book separated from the context in which they are introduced in Dancers on the Shore and employed as the performers in a drama of narrative mutation and linguistic experiment. Chig is presented as a student traveling with others in an unnamed European country, notable for practicing a kind of voluntary apartheid whereby citizens divide themselves according to the color of their clothing (and thus it is possible to switch sides). We also become familiar with the other members of Chig’s group, including a white woman named Wendy, with whom Chig is in love. A second part of Chig’s story depicts his return to the United States on board a ship, one of whose other passengers turns out to be Wendy. Carlyle is a streetwise resident of Harlem who is enlisted in a scheme concocted by his dentist to trap the dentist’s wife in the appearance of adultery, so that the dentist might marry his mistress. Carlyle also helps a friend escape the clutches of a figure the friend claims is the devil (but who turns out to be a conman).

As unrelated as these narratives might seem to be, Kelley brings them together through the novel’s most conspicuous feature, a dream language reminiscent of that employed in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, into which both Chig and Carlyle fall, as if they have merged into a collective unconscious evoked by an amalgam of distorted discourse and vernacular African-American speech:

            The questjung reminds still. Why, when those off us that gowhine that way, run up Hattanhand, waving aisde Malma-Mae to buy boy bye the bearettes—why do skiers flie and fists flight? How do the tampors at Camp Tiwayo get out the shatgrins and flupipointed hats? When do the balls gangle over the palmbreaker’s bedpost? Why such constarenation?

The novel alternates between the two characters, with intermediate episodes related in this dream language, which ultimately invokes a hallucinatory vision of “New Afriquerque” that seems finally to unite Chig and Carlyle in a transformed racial (un)consciousness.

Readers expecting this novel to further develop the story of the Dunford family as initiated in Dancers on the Shore, or even to similarly expand Carlyle Bedlow’s character as introduced in Kelley’s immediately preceding novel, dem, surely found it puzzling at the least, perhaps literally incomprehensible. Although dem had shown Kelley departing from the conventional realism characterizing his first three books, few were likely prepared for the Joycean extravagance of Dunfords Travels Everywheres (the parallels with and allusions to Finnegans Wake are numerous and explicit).     For some critics, while this novel engages with the realities of black life in America just as profoundly as Kelley’s previous work, it evokes its themes with such modernist “difficulty” that the themes threaten to be lost. In these ways Dunfords Travels Everywheres seems to abandon the kind of social analysis to which Dancers on the Shore might be reduced and that arguably represents the approach readers and critics assign by default to the African-American writer. That Kelley spurns this approach could certainly help explain the neglect into which his work fell after the publication of what turned out to be his final novel, as no follow-up book ever appeared.

Yet Kelley’s fiction was never, in fact, either straightforwardly realistic or obviously rhetorical. Not even A Distant Drummer, no doubt his best-known book, could really be described as social realism, despite the fact it is the most direct treatment of racial conflict. The conflict is, at least at first, expressed in the absence of confrontation between blacks and white, in a situation that could be considered fanciful: One of the novel’s main characters, Tucker Caliban, suddenly leaves town (located in an imaginary Southern state squeezed between Mississippi and Alabama) after burning down his farm, prompting most of the rest of black population in the area to exit as well, although their motives remain obscure—at least to the white population—and their destination equally uncertain. Thus the novel’s white characters are left to ponder the ramifications of their own future existence without black people, a prospect that throws them into a kind of confusion that ultimately does prove deadly (in the most provocative twist Kelley performs on the “race novel” as many readers would have known it), but the exodus of the novel’s black characters necessarily makes it a story about the behavior of whites, to whom the behavior of Tucker Caliban, the narrative’s ostensible protagonist, looms mysterious, his “protest” undeclared.

If Kelley’s emphasis on the race consciousness of white people was a daring enough move in the midst of the civil rights era, his second novel, A Drop of Patience, seems to deliberately reject the temptation to follow up A Different Drummer with a more unqualified protest novel. It could be described as a character-driven novel largely restricted to the consciousness of its protagonist, a blind jazz musician named Ludlow Washington. Indeed, so confined is it to Ludlow’s circumscribed verbal awareness that although Ludlow becomes an acclaimed practitioner of the “new music” (presumably bebop), we get very little sense of the actual music he plays—no extended descriptions of its sound and texture, little effort made by Ludlow himself to explicate his own music. Much of the novel, rather, is taken up by accounts of Ludlow’s failures with women—several women enter with him into long-term relationships that all go wrong. Ludlow is essentially portrayed as a radical innocent whose affliction is in some sense a source of his talent but also, given his earliest experiences as a child abandoned to the custody of a group home, has made him ill-equipped to negotiate the expectations of a world where the motives of those he encounters are just as veiled to him as their physical visages.

Ludlow is far from a saint in his own behavior toward the women with whom he becomes involved, but the cumulative distress he suffers when every one of his romantic relationships falls apart is real enough (at one point a breakup actually drives him insane), and the prevailing atmosphere of A Drop of Patience could be called melancholic. In this it differs from A Different Drummer, which, if anything, at times verges on the comic in its tone—it would not be altogether a mischaracterization to say that this novel has a satirical edge to it, except that both the characters (the white characters) and the situation project a kind of absurdism more than they suggest the corrective impulse of satire. Certainly Tucker Caliban seems to have abandoned any expectation that the white people among whom he finds himself are likely to alter their attitudes or behavior in any meaningful way, such that simply leaving his life there behind him is the most sensible action. Aside from Tucker, the black character who has the most substantive role in the novel, Reverend Bradshaw, a civil rights leader from the North who picks exactly the wrong time to arrive in town in an effort to better understand his black compatriots in the South, is also portrayed somewhat satirically, although arguably this only underscores the unequivocal horror of his lynching at the novel’s conclusion.

If all of Kelley’s fiction provides a palpably off-kilter perspective on the narratives they present, dem is the work that could most accurately be called absurdist comedy, although the absurdism is tinged as well with something closer to surrealism, and at times the effect is less comical that just strange. That the wife of the protagonist, a white man named Mitchell Pierce, would give birth to twins, one black and one white, purportedly from different fathers, is certainly sufficiently bizarre, but that Mitchell’s response is to try and track down the father of the black child and persuade him to adopt it only compounds an initially preposterous situation. (Few other people seem to regard Mitchell’s plight as incredible, nor does Mitchell seem to consider his wife’s apparent infidelity with alarm or anger, while the wife believes Mitchell’s indifference toward her only encouraged her to be unfaithful in the first place.) The complications Mitchell encounters when on his quest hardly bring him serenity: at one point Mitchell injures himself and must spend several weeks in bed, during which time he becomes addicted to a daytime soap; later he sees a woman in an Automat (she turns out to be a prostitute) whom he insists is actually a character from the show, and he proceeds to follow her around the city.

This episode, like a previous one in which a man from Mitchell’s office turns out to be a killer, is related and then dropped, with no subsequent references to the events and no indication they have affected the characters in any fundamental way, as if these are lives of disconnected moments, the characters unprepared to think about the consequences of their behavior since their experience consists of random and impulsive acts without continuity or purpose beyond their immediate occurrence. Mitchell Pierce makes strenuous efforts to locate Cooley, the supposed father of the mismatched son, but there is little sense that he understands his own motivations (his marriage is surely over, anyway), nor that he even believes that success in his efforts will solve his problem—he doesn’t really have a coherent conception of what his problem might be. In his portrayal of Mitchell Pierce, Kelley shows white racism to be less the expression of considered beliefs and more the product of disordered impulses, along with a need to dwell in a fantasy version of reality.

We could regard dem as Kelley’s attempt to align his fiction more closely with the increasingly adventurous practices introduced by American writers in the 1970s—from “black humor” to the surrealism of Donald Barthelme to the metafiction of John Barth—practices that would later be loosely affiliated as “postmodern,” although both dem and Dunfords Travels Eveywheres might be more precisely described as “neo-modernist” than postmodern. Indeed, even if a reader might consider dem to be primarily satirical   , its satirical message is not so easy to pinpoint, and what lingers most from reading both this novel and Dunfords Travels Everywheres are the unconventional formal and verbal devices Kelley employs, not really any specifiable themes. This is especially true of Dunfords Travels Everywheres, which is clearly an experimental work, albeit the experiment—the novel’s linguistic transformations—is recognizable as variations on the similar dream language of Finnegans Wake. If the expectation of an African-American writer in 1970 was that his work would inevitably foreground “content” (implicitly becoming some variety of protest novel), then certainly it would have been difficult to maintain that dem and Dunfords Travels Everywheres clearly meets such an expectation.

Writers such as Ishmael Reed, of course, also during this time wrote formally and stylistically unconventional novels, but Reed’s books as well exhibited a kind of thematic militancy that few readers could miss, and thus he was able to maintain a published presence in contemporary American fiction, although even Reed has suffered a relative lack of attention, given the level of his achievement. The same could be said now of Percival Everett, whose audacious and outrageously satirical novels do receive their share of critical praise but lamentably remain undiscovered by most readers. Kelley’s final two published books (he did not stop writing, but no further fiction has been posthumously published) show a writer moving increasingly toward artifice and experimentation, and we can only conclude that publishers’ reluctance to accept any subsequent work indicates he was continuing in that direction. Until and unless Kelley’s unpublished work is made available, of course, we can’t be sure, but the impatience with the difficulty of Dunfords Travels Everywheres expressed by reviewers at the time seems a telling sign of the response he would likely have continued to receive.

Fiction that is considered difficult or dissonant is generally deplored (when not simply ignored) by the preponderance of American readers, but it would seem that such fiction is regarded as especially problematic when indulged by an African-American writer. Perhaps this is merely the corollary of the notion that experimental fiction itself is a derogation of the writer’s duty to directly engage with social realities and to be “accessible” in doing so, and thus any writer is subject to this judgment. But surely not all readers and critics who might have found Dunfords Travels Everywheres puzzling or frustrating harbored this sort of intolerance of all norm-defying literary works. It’s just that in Kelley’s case the norm defied goes beyond the craft-based norms associated with the conventional novel. Instead, Kelley violated the cultural norm—held mostly by white readers—attached to African-American writers, the requirement that they be, if not strictly social realists, then writers of aesthetically transparent fiction, the value of which is above all sociological and political. Kelley’s work has such value, to be sure, but none of his fiction, going back to A Different Drummer, has as its purpose to reinforce this requirement: these are novels and stories whose achievement rises first of all from aesthetic invention and surprise, and have a thematic complexity to match their narrative dexterity.

At the moment, literary culture is permeated with calls for the inclusion of multifarious “voices,” voices that have previously not been heard (or not heard enough). If in referring to these voices we mean that more writers who are not white males should be published, these calls are certainly appropriate. By this measure William Melvin Kelley is a “voice” from the recent past to which more readers should attend. But the most common use of the term literally evokes voice as the opportunity to “say something,” often implying that the saying itself is even more important than the “something,” the declaration made or message delivered. Kelley is not a writer inclined either to “speak” in this immediately expressive way or to “make a statement” through the more indirect agency of fiction. He is more interested in the surprising things fiction might be made to do than the platitudinous things it is usually made to say. In addition to a voice, we should grant an African-American writer like Kelley his preoccupation with the medium in which he works, even when this makes some readers and publishers uncomfortable.                                                                                     


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