- Brother Figures: The Rift and Riff in John E. Wideman’s Fiction*
Again and again, the reader of Afro-American texts in general and of John E. Wideman’s fiction in particular is brought back to W.E.B. Du Bois’s famous statement on the fundamental “twoness” of Afro-American consciousness: “One ever feels this twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (Du Bois 45). With Wideman, the “twoness” or “doubling” finds a variety of textual inscriptions—with the figure of the missing brother or child foremost among them. Of course, the central place of the brother figure stems from the autobiographical tragedy which John Wideman has related in Brothers and Keepers (1985), and which reverberates through the novels. Still, novels such as Sent For You Yesterday (1983)—whose opening sentence, “Hey Bruh,” significantly designates the brother figure as the addressee—or Reuben (1987)—whose protagonist Reuben keeps fingering “the trinket, his twin” (23) attached to the gold watch nested below his heart—make clear that the function of the brother figure exceeds its biographical dimension.
Indeed, this ghostly twin, to begin with, plays the part of the significant double to which the fiction is addressed: the part of the imagined reader, in particular, who stems from the author’s mind. It also figures the author’s ability to project himself into his characters, those brainchildren of his that act as so many fictional personae. In other words, the br/other is of course a peculiar, closer-than-usual intimate figure of the other. An Other who is so close to its author that, although distinct from him, this alter ego sometimes speaks in his very voice. But mostly, the br/other figure, as indicated by its being attached to Reuben’s gold watch, is a figure of time, rising from the past and pointing to the future. As far as Wideman is concerned, it seems, time is the constitutive element of double consciousness. The brother figure, the one who, as Brothers and Keepers makes clear, has been left behind and now returns to claim his due, is a survivor from another time, a vital trace, a reminder. He is the one who bridges past and present, memory and consciousness. The one who makes clear that consciousness involves looking at the present through the prism of the past, looking at what one is through the eyes of what one was. But he is also the one who makes clear that the past can only be retrieved as the future. [End Page 615]
In this respect, of course, Reuben’s twin—“a man, severely stylized, African style, all torso and brow and arching crown” (65)—is an artistic miniature of someone who was once stolen from Reuben’s side—“He thought his heart had been broken in two when his brother was stolen from his side” (64, emphasis mine)—and a representation of one of the functions of artistic representation: restoring symbolically—and, therefore, at a significant distance—what was lost. The carving in “African style” of Reuben’s twin also makes clear that the stolen brother is a reminder of what was lost just before and during the middle passage. The ghostly twin here thus appears as an obvious elder brother to Morrison’s Beloved, this emblematic figure of the “Sixty Million and more,” who were cut down, pushed, or made to throw themselves out. Beloved’s subliminal recollection of the sister figure who “goes in the water with my face” (Morrison 212) is a striking echo of Reuben’s remembering of his stolen brother. Fiction revives those that went down, or, more often than not in Wideman’s case, went up (in flames). It restores them, although not quite, so that a tiny margin of absence remains in the work of re-presentation—and this is what Wideman chooses to describe as “syncopation”: “Two hearts beating, the slightest syncopation, this brother or himself off by a quarter beat as he discovered he was two, not one” (64). In other words, the brother...