The Short Version: In 2013, a young boy in Mississippi named City becomes an internet sensation after an outburst during a nationally televised contest. He goes to stay with his grandmother and takes a book along with him, also called Long Division – with a main character also named City, but this one lives in 1985 and may just be able to travel through time…
The Review: What a curious and complex novel. As I’m sitting here, having finished the book, I almost don’t have anything to say. Or, it’s not that I don’t have anything to say, but I feel like the words haven’t quite arrived yet – I’m not supposed to receive them until, say, tomorrow or something. As though the book ended unexpectedly, before it was supposed to, and the universe got caught flat-footed.
Which might, I realize, have been the author’s intention. After all, the in-universe copy of Long Division that City2013 picks up has, apparently, blank pages at the end – perhaps this indeterminate ending is the whole point.
But, also, maybe the point is to return to the text immediately upon conclusion – a sort of Dark Tower-style loop. Without delving into spoiler territory, the novel deals out information cautiously and carefully and while some readers might spot certain ‘twists’ coming, it’s hard to tell whether or not your guesses will be rewarded because Laymon does such a great job at keeping things mysterious. You genuinely cannot be sure how things will connect simply because the rules of this universe are fluid – it’s anyone’s guess as to how those rules will apply themselves at any given moment.
But Laymon also has a real-world application for all of this quantum-narrative loop-de-looping: he wants to talk about race in the South. He wants to talk about how a contest can be thrown by calculating organizers while seeming still racially forward-thinking. He wants to talk about how the actions of the past resonate through the future. He wants to talk about Katrina, about internet fame, about religion. But he addresses each of these things without ever actually taking aim at them – he lines up but then diverts, the issue at hand sliding away, only to have it appear later from an oblique angle and create perhaps a bigger impact for it. Hell, he’s even addressing the complicated questions of sexuality in childhood – how you can love how somebody makes you feel without actually being “in love” with the person. City2013’s grappling with that question regarding LaVander is just spot on – and City1985’s attempts to grapple with the same question, regarding both Baize and Shalaya, bring the lesson home for our present-tense character.
The thing is, though… I’m not entirely sure Laymon manages to bring his readers to the point of understanding. For all of the individual issues addressed, the novel’s abrupt ending leaves the reader with not so much a dangling plot but a dangling resolution of the concepts addressed. Again, is this perhaps the point? Are we meant to go out into the world and attempt to at least recognize the inequalities and tragedies that surround us, as pointed out by both Citys and their storylines? Is that all Laymon wanted? I say that like it’d be a bad thing, to have greater recognition, but I have the unshakable sense that there should be more here. Perhaps I just need to think on it longer – to think on the specific moments that have lodged in my mind, like the last scene between City1985 and Baize. The last scene between City2013 and Pot Belly. I am reaching for but failing to quite grasp something at the end of this book. Is that a personal failing or a failing of the book? I’m quick to judge a book but just as quick to judge myself and I think, genuinely, it might be the former. Perhaps the book does require a second read in order to come to terms with the deeper issues at hand.
If nothing else, it would be entertaining to revisit the sassy sentence war that opens the novel – LaVander and City2013 trash-talking each other in the most erudite of ways, setting a humorous tone for the novel that never entirely goes away, even as things get serious and strange. Both Citys are sharp observers and have a way with words (gifted, of course, by their creator – whose own skill with words might get overlooked by folks talking about his creations… funny how that happens sometimes) but even in the face of horrible things, they manage to retain a sense of childish…. not wonder, per se, but a sense of openness to the world. City1985 and City2013 both grow up considerably over the course of the novel – er, novels plural, I guess – but the thing you take away is that earlier sense of something that looks almost like (but isn’t quite) hope. If only the adults of the world would see that kids like City, City, Baize, LaVander, and the rest don’t benefit from the games of the system, then perhaps we could allow ourselves to have faith in the next generation. But you adults don’t, do you? And so the Baizes of the world go missing, the Citys are seen as money-making vehicles instead of prophets, and all the while another storm might be brewing…
Rating: 4 out of 5. Originally, I was going to rate this a little lower – again, due to my own frustration at not quite grasping the what of it all. But as with the excellent mindfrak of a film Primer, I’m not sure you can know this book on one reading. Unfortunately, I’m guessing I probably won’t get a chance to crack it again (the pace of modern life, am I right?) – at least not for a while… but I find myself haunted as though in a dream by aspects of the book. Hazy confusions, unexpectedly clear images, thoughts about the interconnectivity of the books within books…. One thing is for sure: Kiese Laymon might’ve passed me by if it wasn’t for the ToB – but he’s unmistakably on my radar now.
(This review originally appeared at TNBBC – check it out: http://thenextbestbookblog.blogspot.com/2014/01/drew-reviews-long-division.html)