- “All Stories are True”: Prophecy, History and Story in The Cattle Killing
In the opening pages of The Cattle Killing, John Wideman places his story under the sign of reading, offering a narrative gloss for the novel’s prophetic epigraph: “Prepare your baggage as though for exile . . .” Ezekiel 12:3.
Setting out for his father’s house he leaves everything behind. He even leaves himself behind as he begins the steep climb up Wylie Avenue. He is not himself. Only a character in a story someone else was writing. 1
This exile is a purely fictional one, the writer’s estrangement from his own words. The narrator is offering us not so much a story as a reading of a story or, inversely, a story of reading. The pattern is a familiar one in contemporary fiction, which attempts to retain its credibility in an age of suspicion by mirroring its own devices and concerns. Wideman, aware of the reader’s familiarity with self-reflexive fiction, offers a further gloss for this late 20th-century exercise in exegesis:
Eye. Why are you called Eye. Eye short for something else someone named you. Who named you Isaiah. What could they have been thinking of. Not this story. Not this place. Not this book all the stories bound together might equal if one of the narratologists at the conference decides you’re attempting something like Sherwood Anderson for Ohio or Faulkner for Mississippi . . .(8)
The narrator’s only baggage for this new age exile is an awareness of the reader’s expectations: he offers us a reading of the reading.
John Wideman, like a number of other contemporary American writers, is writing from a place of exile, beyond the borders of a realist illusion. In The Cattle Killing, he demonstrates many of the strategies which have come to be associated with the phenomena grouped under the terms poststructuralism, postmodernism and deconstruction. Yet the title of his novel, although open to a metafictional reading, roots it in a mythical vision which equates speaking with acting, a world at the antipodes of one which equates speaking only with other forms of speaking. Wideman’s particular brand of postmodernism, like that of all practitioners of this sometimes seemingly occult art, needs to be read as an exploration of the limits of fiction itself, an attempt not only to read the world as fiction, but to read fiction as a world. This is, as the title [End Page 629] would suggest, a question of life and death. Wideman is not unlike another contemporary writer, Paul Auster, in his sensitivity to the ways in which fiction can be renewed by an awareness of its own codes and patterns. But he also realizes that at the heart of this knowledge lies death, “a dead still center that is only an imaginary space formed by lanes converging and criss-crossing” (9). Like Auster he tends to use space, as he does in this evocation of a freeway, as a metaphor for the differential relations of language and discourse. Like Auster, he also uses the story of Scheherazade, the life and death struggle of teller and listener, as the frame for his story, although he does not allude to it specifically as Auster does in several of his novels. But the heart, or center, of Wideman’s story is the narrator’s attempt to keep a woman alive by telling her stories. 2
The Cattle Killing can be read as a deconstruction of American history, a gradual disassembling of the discourse which made of the black man an empty signifier, a cipher filling the empty spaces in a history riddled with contradictions. In this perspective, Wideman can be seen as testing the myriad ways in which narrative can be brought within the net of language itself, mimicking its patterns to the point of losing all specificity, all capacity for figuring a world beyond itself. Yet such a reading becomes meaningful only if paralleled by a reconstructive one, which examines the emergence of another narrative, a metafictional shadow of the first, at the horizon where the referential one has disappeared. This fictional double, like the fictional George Stubbs created...