- “In the Light of Likeness—Transformed”: The Literary Art of Leon Forrest
Dana A. Williams's "In the Light of Likeness—Transformed" is the first single-authored book-length analysis of Leon Forrest, one of the most inventive contemporary novelists. As an African American storyteller, Forrest saw himself not only in the context of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, but also in the larger tradition of Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoevsky, James Joyce, and William Faulkner. He deliberately set about creating work that invited comparisons to the major fiction of high modernism while staying close to the African American vernacular. He blended high literary language with the expressive practices of sermons, black political rhetoric, folktales, barbershop talk, and blues. The shifting of registers, the embedding of stories within stories, the looseness of plots, and the patterns of narrative repetition have made him one of the more difficult recent novelists for both audiences and critics.
In her study, Dana Williams has chosen to focus on his use of black cultural traditions rather than on style or technique. As shall be seen, this choice is problematic. What it accomplishes is a fairly straightforward reading of his four novels and collection of novellas; it also positions Forrest within the generation of Afro-modernist fiction writers that effectively begins with Ellison. Like Morrison and John Edgar Wideman, among others (and unlike Ellison), he moves in the direction of narratives of community rather than individuality. Communal storytelling is less interested in characterizing a distinctive narrative voice than in finding ways to present a range of individual and group experiences. As Williams points out, Forrest found his solution in blues and jazz, where the performer, whether solo or in ensemble, describes an experience shared by the group. The blues singer, for example, while telling what appears to be a personal story [End Page 188] of love and trouble, assumes that members of the audience have similar realities. Forrest also takes from the music the importance of improvisation, what he refers to as reinvention and transformation. His point is to take what is available and remake it into one's own expression. In Forrest's view, given the deprivations and suffering endured by blacks in America, this talent for "making a way of no way" was essential for survival and at times healing.
Having established this overall pattern, Williams then examines each work in a short chapter. I emphasize the brevity because all of the novels are dense with allusions, narrative and discursive shifts, and plot twists. Even if the analysis is limited to one specific category of material, such as black cultural traditions, it is surprising that the entire body of work is covered in less than 150 pages, which include an introduction providing biography and overview. After all, Divine Days (the last novel) alone is over eleven hundred pages, and Forrest saw it as a work to be compared to Ulysses in style and complexity.
The chapter on There Is a Tree More Ancient than Eden focuses on the experiences of Nathaniel Witherspoon as he tries to come to terms with the death of his mother. In this first effort to develop a communal narrative, Forrest uses a centralized black consciousness focalized through Nathaniel rather than the character's voice directly. The effect is that his intense private feeling of motherlessness is made to stand for African American history generally. The stories of various characters reflect the general condition of orphanhood as an effect of slavery. Similarly, key figures, while retaining their individuality, demonstrate the division in black thought between the uniqueness and the universality of African American suffering. This is the conflict historically seen in the arguments between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois and later between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Williams repeatedly notes that Forrest seeks to emphasize the importance of black experience without romanticizing it. In the end, Nathaniel begins to understand that the personal is deeply connected to the cultural and that his recovery is dependent...