Wednesday, November 24, 2010

review of Ellison's "Juneteeth"

Here is Michiko Kakutani's review of the posthumous publication of Ralph Ellison's much, much, much delayed second novel, Juneteenth - the first few paragraphs followed by a link to the whole text, which was published in the New York Times on May 25, 1999:

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'Juneteenth': Executor Tidies Up Ellison's Unfinished Symphony


Over the years, Ralph Ellison's unfinished second novel has assumed the status of a literary myth. His first novel, "Invisible Man," published in 1952, established him unequivocally as a modernist master, and over the next four decades he labored to produce a follow-up to that masterpiece. In 1966 a fire at his home destroyed a portion of his manuscript, and during the ensuing years there were reports that the work in progress was slowly changing shape, evolving into an increasingly ambitious saga that, in the words of his literary executor, John F. Callahan, was "multifarious, multifaceted, multifocused, multivoiced, multitoned."

That manuscript was unfinished at Ellison's death in 1994, and from some 2,000 pages of typescript and printouts, Callahan has extracted "Juneteenth," the one narrative he says that "best stands alone as a single, self-contained volume."

"Aiming, as Ellison had, at one complete volume," Callahan writes, "I proceeded to arrange his oft-revised, sometimes reconceived scenes and episodes according to their most probable development and progression. While doing so, I felt uneasily Procrustean: Here and there limbs of the manuscript needed to be stretched, and elsewhere a protruding foot might be lopped off, if all the episodes were to be edited into a single, coherent, continuous work."

The resulting book provides the reader with intimations of the grand vision animating Ellison's 40-year project, but it also feels disappointingly provisional and incomplete. Given all the cutting and tidying up Callahan has done, the book's opaqueness and attenuation come as little surprise: after all, he has effectively changed the book's entire structure and modus operandi. Instead of the symphonic work Ellison envisioned, Callahan has given us a single, tentatively rendered melodic line. Instead of a vast modernist epic about the black experience in America, he has given us a flawed linear novel, focused around one man's emotional and political evolution.

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