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Callaloo 23.1 (2000) 366-381

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Reading Melvin Dixon's Vanishing Rooms:
Experiencing "the ordinary rope that can change in a second to a lyncher's noose or a rescue line"

Vivian M. May

Part 2: Plum Nelly: New Essays in Black Queer Studies

Melvin Dixon's Vanishing Rooms troubles readers in many ways. To be "troubled" can mean to be confused, disturbed, deviant, even "crazed." To be troubled in this way is to be marginalized, even institutionalized, in our culture: it is a state of being/thinking we attempt to control by developing explanatory devices--medical, psychoanalytic, genetic, and otherwise--to satisfy our need to control trouble. Yet to be "troubled" can also mean to be unsettled, suggesting an unfamiliar or uncomfortable state of being which allows us to be open to new possibilities beyond the familiar and safe.

But Dixon does not separate one kind of "trouble" from the other: he writes at the intersections of differences, on the boundaries between "opposites," delineating how fragile and constructed are the lines that demarcate difference. Reading Vanishing Rooms is an experience of seeing, engaging with, and identifying with contradictory subject positions, desires, and psychic boundaries. As Diana Fuss writes, "identification sets into motion the complicated dynamic of recognition and misrecognition that brings a sense of identity into being, [but] also immediately calls that identity into question." Fuss therefore contends that identification "renders identity profoundly unstable and perpetually open to radical change" (2). Reading Vanishing Rooms can be uncomfortable because it destabilizes, drawing readers into ambiguity and undecidability.

Dixon's narrative structure reinforces his social and philosophical critiques: form and function interdepend. Vanishing Rooms has three narrators: Ruella (or "Rooms" as Jesse names her), a heterosexual black female dancer; Jesse, a black gay 1 college-educated dancer; and Lonny, an Italian working-class teen ambivalent about his sexual identity who is complicit in the gang rape and murder of Jesse's southern white middle-class lover Jon-Michael Barthé (or Metro, as Jesse names him). In the four sections of the novel--which are like four walls of a "room"--the narration moves (or dances) from one voice to another. This narrative format not only allows multiple voices to tell the story/stories: in the telling, very different worldviews and therefore narrative understandings unfold. "Experience," "subjectivity," and "truth" are highly contested territories: readers oscillate among and between various simultaneous realities, each in tension with the others. As feminist geographer Gillian Rose suggests, "the goal of such a critical mobility [is] to deconstruct the polarities that it oscillates between" (84).

Dixon layers multiple and shifting narrative points of view, transgressing the boundaries between supposedly individual stories, private desires, and "different" people. Vanishing Rooms troubles because its layers, tensions, and ambiguities destabilize many foundationalist [End Page 366] binarisms. The novel disrupts: philosophical distinctions between fact and value, knowledge and emotion, mind and body, self and other; polarized identity/bodily categories, including black and white, masculine and feminine, gay and straight; conventional oppositions between love and hatred, desire and destruction, empathy and appropriation; and spatial-geographical boundaries between inside and outside, home and street, heteronormative and queer spaces, and the Village, Harlem, the docks, Riker's Island/prison, and the Manhattan(s) in between.

Negotiating Space and Subjectivity: Textual Geographies of Power

Ruella: "There was no more space inside me. . . . No more spaces to give." (176)

Metro: "There's hardly any room. . . . Why the Afro pick in the bath room? Why are all the criminals in the streets black? Why are we in New York--?. . . . I'm scared, Jesse. I'm really scared." (112-13)

Lonny: "It was just a blowjob. Just a crazy running in the streets. My knife was clean. . . . I made room for myself. I got the hell out of there." (119)

Jesse: "The fourth wall broke open into a gathering wave of hands clapping. . . . Then quickly, the fourth wall burst into light, and the room holding us there vanished." (211)

Maurice Wallace reads Dixon's...


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