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M. M. Silva

Reckoning with Ever-Changing Reality: ‘John Woman’ by Walter Mosley

9780802128416In his newest book, John Woman (377 pages; Grove Atlantic), Walter Mosley reflects on truth versus perception as embodied in the life of a man who reinvents himself into the novel’s title character. Raised by a white mother with a habit of running away and a bedridden black father nearing death, Cornelius Jones experiences a childhood that is nothing if not difficult. As a boy he’s forced to pay his family’s bills by posing as his father (the first of more alter identities to come), assuming his job as a projectionist at a silent movie theatre. The pressure of covering up his identity leads to a fateful encounter with his boss one evening in the projection room, resulting in a crime that will dog Cornelius.

From this opening, the novel leaps in time to when Cornelius has become John Woman, a professor of history at the New University of the Southwest. His class is titled “Introduction to Deconstructionist Historical Devices,” a subject seemingly prompted by his father’s interests in the validity of history. In his lectures, Woman focuses on the reliability of history and how it ties into each student’s individual life.

Though his insight is renowned and admired by students and teachers alike, Woman is nonetheless admonished by many in the same community, creating no end of trouble for him, trouble made even more pointed by the specter of what happened in that projection room years ago.

As the narrative often returns to Woman’s scholarly lectures and conversations, one particular observation could serve as the core concern of the entire novel:

History is only, is always little more than an innuendo, a suggestion that we decide to believe or not … We shall fail because history is that unsteady ground I spoke of. It is not a rigid truth but an ever-changing reality. If it were an ironclad actuality then we would be able to learn from it. But all we can do is learn about its edges, insinuations, and negative spaces.

 This understanding seems to be of comfort to Woman as he undergoes great tribulations near the end of the novel. That “ever-changing reality” of history is directly reflected in his identity, profession, relationships—his life in its entirety. Through the character of John Woman, Mosley demonstrates that truth is nothing more than the perception of itself, which can be terrifying or, oddly enough, consoling.

In the end, the dramatic irony of John Woman leads us to question what we really know to be true, perhaps even bringing us to sympathize with the so-called “criminals” we have been told to vilify by society.

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Post-Consumer Apocalypse: ‘Severance’ by Ling Ma

SeveranceWith Severance (304 pages; FSG), author Ling Ma delivers a fascinating coming-of-age novel, one full of millennial culture, post-apocalyptic adventures, and, perhaps most exciting of all, a zombie-like populace.

Severance opens in New York City, where protagonist Candace Chen works for a Bible manufacturer called Spectra. Throughout the novel, Candace finds plenty of reasons to leave her job, even as she clings to the city that feels so close to her. But after experiencing the strife of the Shen fever, a pandemic which reduces people to automatons who slowly waste away, she ends up traveling far away from an emptied New York with a group of survivors looking for safety.

Interestingly, consumerist culture is a big theme in the novel. The story makes constant references to specific skincare brands, products, stores, and other consumer-related items, giving in-the-know readers something to connect to. However, Ma seems to raise the question of whether even having this connection is a good thing. She presents us with characters of contrasting lifestyles, allowing us to reflect on our society’s sense of materialism and attachment. As the characters’ varying levels of consumption and wealth create barriers between them, it’s easy to ask ourselves to reevaluate how healthy our level of consumerism is, and to what extent dependency on the things we buy is permissible.

Throughout her first novel, Ma alternates between multiple perspectives. Candace narrates every other chapter (with one exception), with the timeline jumping between pre- and post-apocalypse, illustrating Candace’s development as a character. In juxtaposing her attitudes before and after the end of civilization as we know it, Ma emphasizes Candace’s diminishing attachment to the city and all it has to offer, and at the same time demonstrate her renewed growth as she takes on challenges with her fellow survivors.

Yet even as Candace becomes more independent, her past continues to haunt her at every turn. There seems to be the implication that nostalgia for what used to be might be putting Candace at risk, as she reminisces on times spent with her her mom, who immigrated to the U.S. from China, and others before the Shen fever destroyed their world. Toward the end of the novel, we wonder how this state of mind will affect Candace as she reaches her final, fateful decisions.

Severance wonderfully demonstrates how the lifestyles we lead now can have a great impact on our future, and not just in terms of what we buy. Ma also takes a unique and sometimes comedic look at the commonly superficial relationships we have with our acquaintances, especially in the workplace. She shows how this lack of depth in communication with others is reflected in our relation to consumerism and the capitalist system as a whole. But its all done with a pleasingly light touch, despite the story being heavy with death and addressing the pressing issues of our times.

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