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Friday, December 4, 2015

Note on Satire

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A Note on Satire

 

The so-called Age of Obama may be a time when satire refuses to be distinguished from ordinary communication.  There's a hint of this possibility in a commentary on Mat Johnson's recent novel Loving Day.  In his urbane assessment of the book  "Forward Passes" (The New York Review of Books, December 17, 2015, pages 68-70), Darryl Pinckney invites us to think with some care about how satire may work as a description of fact. Johnson's title refers to the case of  Loving v. Virginia 388 U.S. 1 (1967).  That fact invites us to consult Legal Fictions: Constituting Race, Composing Literature (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014) by Karla FC Holloway.  The subject matter of the novel, however, invites a study of the premises articulated in Emine Lale Demirturk's How Black Writers Deal With Whiteness: Characterization Through Deconstructing Color (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2008).

Addressed to readers who may know absolutely nothing or very little about African American fiction, "Forward Passes" incorporates a mini- literary history, one necessary for understanding how it is that Mat Johnson "is able to interrogate black history."  In one paragraph Pinckney suggests

You could think of Mat Johnson alongside Wesley Brown, Paul Beatty, Colson Whitehead, John Keene, or Percival Everett.  To call them black satirists or humorists wouldn't quite cover it.  In their ease with genre and their consciousness that the language they're after is literary, they descend through the allegory of Ralph Ellison, not the realism of Richard Wright.  But they have inherited Wright's social vision, not Ellison's . "I know you're beige, but stay black," a friend says to Warren Duffy (70).

 Duffy is the mix-raced protagonist, and by James Joyce's "commodius vicus of recirculation" we may travel into the heart of interpretation.  Pinckney's playing the familiar Wright/Ellison binary is deliciously problematic.  If Ellison owns allegory and Wright possesses realism, can one read allegory without being haunted by its rootedness in realism?  Does disjunctive juxtaposition of allegory as narrative device or metaphor with realism as a mode of representation take us out to lunch on a date with satire?  And does Pinckney insinuate there is treason afoot in Ralph Ellison's social vision and a redeeming clarity in the one Richard Wright willed to us?

Perhaps in the Age of Obama, satire consigns writers and critics to a system of hell so that they may have an epiphany of race.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

 

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