Reading Long Division in Mississippi
“Is it a book for dubs or a book for us?”
“Us mostly,” I told her. “But it’s complicated. It’s a book for us and a few dubs, I guess.”
There’s not much I can say about Kiese Laymon’s Long Division that hasn’t already been said. The novel has been well-received critically, and having read it three times now I personally believe it deserves every sentence of these accolades. Zandria Robinson’s take on the novel on New South Negress probably comes closest to my own feelings about it. Like her, I also wanted to sit with the book for a while and absorb it before I attempted to put together any kind of coherent public thoughts on it. Being that it’s a novel written by a young black male English professor from Mississippi, and which deals with hip-hop and time travel and language (among many other things), I knew this was a novel that I would have to read and reckon with. Even now I think I can only provide some partial comprehensions and incomplete understandings. But that feels OK. I think this is a book that invites re-reading and one I will come back to again and again as I hear from others who have read it. It is a novel that I am looking forward to putting it into that all-important laboratory of the classroom, to see how students (especially the ones younger than myself) respond to it.
Long Division is a story about a 14-year-old kid named Citoyen “City” Coldson, and it begins in 2013, in Jackson, Mississippi, where City and his classmate LaVander Peeler are preparing for a televised competition “Can You Use that Word in a Sentence”, a contest that requires students to use an unusual word in a “correct, appropriate and dynamic” sentence. The novel starts with Coldson and Peeler busting crude jokes on each other in the way that teenagers often do. Right away, you get the sense that this is a novelist with an ear for the dialogue of youngsters. Like the best episodes of South Park Laymon captures that dynamic vulgarity that teenagers throw at each other when adults aren’t around. Early in the story the arrogant LaVander Peeler flexes his sentence-making muscles to signify on City:
“African Americans are generally a lot more ignorant than white Americans, and if you’re an African-American boy and you beat not only African-American girls but white American boys and white American girls, who are, all things considered, less ignorant than you by nature – in something like making sentences, in a white American state like Mississippi – you are, all things considered, a special African-American boy destined for riches, unless you’re a homeless white fat homosexual African-American boy with mommy issues, and City, you are indeed the white fat homosexual African-American boy with mommy issues who I shall beat like a knock-kneed slave tonight at the Nationals.” Then he got closer to me and whispered, “One sentence, Homosexual. I shall not be fucked with.”
We learn that LaVander was once caught and reprimanded by their teacher for using the word “faggot” in school, and so henceforth refers to City by the clinical term Homosexual – again, just the sort of inappropriate silliness one expects from school kids, and which is rendered hilariously throughout the novel. The rest of the book is full of examples of the clumsy, awkward ways that the kids deal with big issues like sexuality and race and history. City actually likes girls, but he admits to some attraction to LaVander, and queerness is more than an after-thought in the story. Instead it is written in as an essential part of this complex vision of the South rendered in the novel, a vision which again and again insists upon complexity where monolithic simplicity about the region usually suffices and passes as common sense.
The second chapter introduces us to another version of Long Division, a mysterious book without an author that is set in 1985 and also features a character named City Coldson, and which rings familiar to the 2013 narrative introduced in the first chapter. In the background of the 2013 story is a missing black teenage girl named Baize Shepard, whose face is being flashed on TV screens and passed around on flyers in hopes that she will be found. 2013 City reads Long Division set in 1985 and starts to notice references to himself, to Baize, and other elements of the place where he lives. Meanwhile 1985 City finds a hole in the woods behind his grandma’s house and discovers that stepping down into the hole allows him to travel between 1964, 1985 and 2013. This recursive quality of the novel-within-a-novel reminded me of Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren, where the main character, Kid, carries around a notebook that contains elements of the very novel that we, the readers are already reading. (Certainly there are plenty of other precedents for this metafictionality.) In 1985 City has a crush on a young girl named Shalaya Crump. I immediately knew what Laymon was talking about when he wrote that the surname “Crump” is a familiar name, but one he’s never seen represented in literature. And I immediately felt some affinity for all the familiar things that I found in the novel – the difficult country-ass made-up black names, and the familiar cultural and musical references to the South, and the young black kids coming-of-age in a still hostile South, trying to make sense of the world and their place in it.
Like the characters in Long Division, I too, read a strange book called Long Division while I was in Mississippi. I read it on a trip that I took a couple of weeks ago to my hometown of Meridian. I decided to take the Amtrak this time. It’s a 24 hour trip on the Crescent Line from NYC to MEI. The shoddy airline service into my hometown and the expensive cost of plane tickets in the summer season made me decide to give the train another shot. The length of the trip was a bit tedious, but I enjoyed the ride – the steady rumble of the train on the tracks that gave the ride an almost meditative quality, the sound of the train horn as we sped through the backwoods and small towns of the Southeast through the night, and the familiar country manners of the train crew, mostly Southerners themselves, and the pleasant salt-of-the-Earth passengers, quick to give each other a hand with getting bags down from the racks, or apologizing as they swayed back and forth bumping into other seated passengers, getting used to the unsteady footing of walking around the swaying cars. I read through Long Division during the trip, seated in my assigned coach seat, or back in the lounge car, where I read the novel at one of the big comfortable tables, charged my phone in the outlet next to my seat, and sipped on $2 cups of coffee from the food counter, putting the book down after reading a few pages to scribble a thought or two into my notebook, then picking it back up again. I continued reading the novel when I got back home, lying in my childhood bedroom in my parents’ house, listening to the “Quiet Storm” show of R&B slow jams on one of the local black radio stations at night, just as I did years before.
From reading interviews with Kiese Laymon online, and reading the other book he published in 2013, a collection of essays titled How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, I know that he grew up in Jackson, MS and that his mother taught at Jackson State University. My hometown, Meridian, is 80 miles to the east of Jackson along I-20, close to the Alabama border. I saw in the novel’s main character City my own younger self, looking in the bathroom mirror, turning my head from side to side worried about whether the barber got my line straight enough, trying to brush out those waves and look fresh going to mall, about the only exciting teenage activity for a preacher’s kid in Meridian. City, and Shalaya, and Baize and LaVander reminded me of my own nephews now, 14 and 16 and 22, carrying around their own wave brushes, walking around the mall the way I did years ago. It reminded me of the awkwardness of being a black teenager in that city, and it filled me with sadness knowing how they are being judged and will continue to be judged, and how they’ll have to learn to steel themselves against the constant slights and dismissals that will come their way, in the same painful way that I did growing up in that most white supremacist of white supremacist states, where muhfuckas never loved us and never will.
I have to admit, I started reading Long Division with some healthy skepticism. Was this just another one of those black literary fiction novels marketed as an authentic take on the black experience, but which turns out to be a guidebook for white liberals on Negro folkways? Was this just another a saccharine coming-of-age story about lost innocence or some shit? Basically, I had all my defenses up going into this thing when I first read it, and page by page Kiese just knocked them all down. I laughed out loud at its craziest lines, I ruminated over the meanings of its most challenging scenes (I’m still not sure what to make of Jewish Evan Altshuler and The Klan in 1964, or Pot Belly chained up in the shed in 2013, or what happens to Baize Shepard in the end), and I reminisced on the memories it conjured up from my own awkward Mississippi childhood. This is a novel full of the blues, the Holy Ghost, the crunkness, the lying, the testifying and the signifying. It brought to mind Oukast’s Aquemini (quoted in the epigraph), and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Octavia Butler’s Kindred, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Long Division is a novel about fatness, blackness, time travel, fantasy, digital technology, language, sexuality, religion, compassion, retribution, and forgiveness. It is a vibrant expression of the power of the written word, about the art of fiction, about the novel’s persistence against the technological odds. Yes, it is also a reckoning with our home state’s ugly past and present, still festering in white resentment about being forced to change their “traditions.” That resentment was unmistakably on display in the Republican primary campaigns that were going on while I was there, as I watched the 10 o’clock news broadcasts showing gray-haired fat old white folks sitting in community centers and churches around the state, listening to all the bullshit promises made by their Godly, respectable politicians in suits, and shaking their fists at Obummer and his gay liberal Muslim gun-haters coming to enslave the white Christians with their socialist health care system, or something. (Also, Benghazi.)
All the while the novel is shot through with wicked humor. In an interview at the back of the book Laymon says: “I don’t trust people or writing that are afraid of laughter.” The comparisons to Invisible Man are abundant in the reviews I’ve seen, and I know every black male writer with even a whiff of satire in his work ends up being compared to Ellison sooner or later. But in this instance the comparison is apt, and I suspect that picking apart the connections between Ellison’s writing and Long Division will keep the critics busy for a while.
But this is not just a novel for me and my own subjective reminiscences about life in Mississippi. It would be a mistake to take this only as another “identity” novel. Laymon has gifted us with one of the most innovative novels to explore our complicated relationship to the Internet. The book pressed upon me an idea: Perhaps the only way we can understand how we live now in this media-dense environment is to alienate ourselves from it long enough and from enough distance to get any kind of perspective on it. The network is so immersive, so demanding of our attention, so totalizing in its saturations, that it seems increasingly difficult to contemplate the fullness of the thing since we have become so dependent on it for so much of our information. 1985 City’s trip into 2013 really captured the strangeness of the way we live now; just how much we are emotionally invested in our devices, the way we use language on social media, the immersion in the constant barrage of frivolous spectacles on the screens in our homes. This is not just a novel about 21st century Southern life, but one that also pushes toward understanding the technological quandaries that humanity continues to put itself in with every new invention.
Long Division is a richly textured novel that rewards re-reading, with a complexity that doesn’t reveal all of itself to you right away, that expresses what Walt Whitman meant when he wrote that “for all is useless without that which you may guess at many times and not hit.” This is the kind of novel that keeps you guessing about its many allusions and meanings, that is seductive and elusive in all the best ways. The episodes in 1964 hearken back to Freedom Summer, as the 50th anniversary commemorations of that summer are upon us. Laymon just did an insightful interview for Guernica with filmmaker Stanley Nelson, director of a new PBS documentary about Freedom Summer. 1985 Long Division gives us a taste of the South in the crack era, and that familiar scapegoat that I grew up with, of youngsters raised up North in the wild streets of Chicago (and other cities) being sent back down South and allegedly bringing all their gang ties and violence back with them. 2013 Long Division gives us youth culture filtered through the Internet with its YouTube-fueled microcelebrities, and all its strange linguistic formations created by the compressed text of Twitter and Instagram and Vine, and the ever-shifting, improvisational slang of the viral Internet.
Reading Long Division again on my return trip back to NYC, as I looked at the book sitting there on the formica table in the lounge car, I thought about how the book addresses the very object of the book itself. Long Division as a material text is a character in the novel. It was Ezra Pound who said that “Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.” Yeah, that all sounded so much more profound before a person could actually walk around with an actual “ball of light” in her hands in the form of a glowing, dynamic digital device that connects you to a global communications network full of endless information and amusements. At its best Laymon’s Long Division helps us to recapture the idea of the book as an object of wonder and mystery, as something apart from the network, imbued with its own unique magic. It attempts to make that magic accessible to people who have never really been included in literary culture. Repeatedly I’ve heard Laymon say in interviews that he wanted to write a book to people who have not been written to. Long Division cuts right to the matter of why we read novels in the first place, of why we need stories, of the place of the book in our digital lives, and of the beauty and pleasures of language, all filtered through a Southern way of seeing the world.