Entering Cross River

Daniel Green reviews Rion Amilcar Scott’s The World Doesn’t Require You.

Rion Amilcar Scott,
The World Doesn’t Require You.
W.W. Norton, £17.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

Rion Amilcar Scott’s The World Doesn’t Require You is both continuous with his first collection of short fiction, Insurrections (2016), and a significant departure. Most obviously, both books offer stories set in Cross River, a fictional Maryland town outside of Washington, D.C. The characters in both collections, almost exclusively African American, are quite acutely aware of themselves as residents of this community, which is given its own unique history as the site of America’s only successful slave insurrection, and a distinctive geography: it abuts the “Wildlands”, a kind of wilderness area in the middle of an otherwise urban landscape, and is bisected by the great river that gives the town its name.

The shared setting almost inevitably makes Cross River as much the subject of these books as the characters portrayed and stories told, but Scott as well reinforces the town’s centrality in The World Doesn’t Require You, moving more directly toward a mythopoeic treatment of it by emphasising the fables and folklore that have accumulated through the community’s history, and adding to the generally realistic short stories in Insurrections more formally adventurous narratives marked by fantasia and a kind of magical realism. From the stories in the first collection to those in the second, it is as if Scott has gone beyond the effort to convey the palpable reality of Cross River, to attempt to render the setting in the service of a larger, emblematic vision, as a kind of archetypal African American milieu in its historical circumstances and cultural inheritance.

Rion Amilcar Scott, Insurrections.
University Press of Kentucky, $19.95.
Buy direct from the publisher.

Both books together thus offer us a rather wide array of characters, all of whom are compellingly individualised but also collectively representative of the inhabitants of Cross River. However, while some stories, such as ‘The Slapsmith’, about an abused, transient woman and her encounter with two homeless men encamped near the railroad tracks, portray the most marginalised members of the community, a significant proportion of the characters are, if not exactly prosperous, notably well-educated and mostly middle class. Indeed, several stories, including ‘Good Times’, the first story in Insurrections, and ‘Special Topics in Loneliness’, the novella that concludes The World Doesn’t Require You, feature characters who attend or teach at Freedman’s University, the local historically black college. Both books depict their characters interacting or in conflict with other black characters; few white characters appear, remaining on the periphery of a fictional world presented as a self-sufficient creation that in no way requires contrast to a white-dominated society to reinforce its authenticity.

This is not to say that the relationship between this African American community and the racialised reality of American culture is obscured or unexplored. The history of this relationship suddenly intrudes in ‘Klan’, in Insurrections, whose narrator recalls “the time the Klan galloped through the main yard of Freedman’s University late in the evening. … Four white-sheeted ghosts on white horseback riding in procession.” It is hard not to be aware of this history (and its accompanying stereotypes) when reading ‘Party Animal’, also in Insurrections, which takes the form of a dispassionate psychological case study of a young black man who has succumbed to “Reverse Animalism”, a disorder that has caused him to enter a “backwards evolution and descent into what can only be described as simian behavior”. For white readers especially, the effect of this story can only be unsettling: on the one hand, the transformation from metaphorical (party animal!) to literal might seem like an exercise in absurdist comedy, but to then learn that the man, Louis Smith, after being confined to a psychiatric institution, “often violently attacked other males for supremacy, sexually accosted female patients, and swung through the facility, hopping from wall to wall as if they were jungle trees”, surely leaves one disconcerted. If the story is not quite an allegory of white racist perceptions of the black male, its bold manipulation of historically racist imagery evokes that history in an unanticipated way.

In The World Doesn’t Require You, Scott similarly incorporates such charged imagery in two stories featuring robot protagonists (although the robot’s creator plays a prominent role as well). ‘The Electric Joy of Service’ and ‘Mercury in Retrograde’ are narrated by Jim, a “Robotic Personal Helper” — RPH, or “Riff” — created by a man Jim refers to as “the Master”. Jim was one of the original Riffs, a survivor of the viral plague inflicted by the Master himself when his business partners objected to his plan to “paint these fuckers black”: “Give them big red lips, dress them like lawn jockeys. Sell them to white folks. They’ll have slaves again and we’ll get rich.” The Master is himself a black man, and both of the stories track the ambivalent relationship between Jim and his creator: the Master chooses to call the narrator “Nigger Jim,” and while Jim is eventually fully aware of the implications of the name, he has nevertheless been programmed to meet his master’s needs, “coded to love and to serve him”. In the latter story, the robots carry out their own insurrection (after accessing tapes about the Great Insurrection in Cross River), but most are subsequently deprived of their self-created programming language in an “Electric Holocaust” intended to suppress their revolt.

‘Mercury in Retrograde’ is not satirical, and the connection between its SF-esque situation and American slavery is too unequivocal for the story to be taken merely for its allegorical parallels. Jim’s struggle to maintain solidarity with his robot compatriots despite their suspicion (if not outright hatred) of him, and despite the imperatives of his conditioning, makes him quite an affecting character. The story’s conclusion highlights the strength of that conditioning, and perhaps Scott wants to emphasise how insidiously the slaveholder mentality can warp the consciousness of the enslaved. But almost any interpretation of this story is going to oversimplify it, eliding some of the lingering uncertainties — how are we to respond to the Master? and what are the implications of the robot-slave conceit? — which the story doesn’t really resolve. Something similar is true of ‘A Loudness of Screechers’, although in this case the inconclusiveness comes from the story’s hallucinatory quality: a young narrator tells us of his family’s encounter with a flock of Wildlands “screecher birds”, an encounter that apparently involves a ritual of appeasement the narrator is witnessing for the first time. The boy’s uncle makes an offering to the circling birds, but is last seen “climbing higher and higher in the sky” as a screecher clutches him and flies away. Clearly this story draws on embedded Cross Riverian lore, but precisely what we are to make of the enactment of this particular rite — not to mention the phantasmic event at its climax — is surely subject to disparate conclusions.

Even in the stories less reliant on outright fantasy devices, our intended responses to the characters and situations aren’t insistently signaled. The dominant character type in The World Doesn’t Require You is the seeker — after knowledge, after success, after self-enlightenment. Some of these seekers are sincere in their efforts, but others are more self-serving, even outright frauds. A prominent source of the literal pursuit of transcendent insight is again to be found in the Wildlands, specifically in “a kind of forbidden zone they called the Ruins, a succession of abandoned plantations, many taken over by squatters claiming divine right to save the soul of the land”. Here, in ‘The Temple of the Practical Arts’, a group of people, including the narrator, follow “Dave the Deity” (introduced to us in the book’s first story, ‘David Sherman, the Last Son of God’) in his farmhouse turned temple. In this story, the aspirations of the faithful come to a literally fiery end, as the police burn down the temple in an action reminiscent of that taken by the Philadelphia police against the Move liberation group. The story depicts the narrator, Slim, grappling with his own darker impulses, even as he recalls the Temple’s beginning as the product of a “beautiful” vision, but a follow-up story, ‘Slim in Hell’, finds him succumbing to those impulses in the aftermath of the Temple’s demise.

Dave the Deity is not entirely a charlatan, nor is Slim merely an angry failure. Both have been deprived of their dreams (they are musicians) and both are forced to compensate for their disillusionment. In David Sherman’s case, while his behaviour might just seem eccentric, it also courts danger, a danger that Slim, at least, believes was caused by Dave’s own bad judgment. (Dave brings into the Temple an aspirant named “The Kid”, who Slim believes is concerned about himself, not the ideals of the Temple. In ‘Slim in Hell’, it is the Kid’s musical success with the local “Riverbeat” sound that finally sends Slim over the edge.) Slim professes to believe in the mission of the Temple — even more than Dave himself — but ‘Slim in Hell’ makes it clear enough that his personal envy is as large a factor in driving him to the destructive act that concludes the story as the existential despair produced by the burning of the Temple — although that existential despair is also real.

In their mixed motives and internal complexity, Slim and David Sherman are typical of most of the characters in The World Doesn’t Require You, although some characters and their actions are more morally ambiguous than others. Few of the characters could be called conventionally “sympathetic”, but neither do the stories seek to expose them to the reader’s disapproval. In some ways, Scott’s almost exclusive focus on this self-enclosed black community has the effect of making us even more aware of the overarching white world outside it, but our view of the people of Cross River is not dependent on their relation to that external world (the pernicious effects of which remain implicit — although this world occasionally encroaches in the form of neighboring Port Yooga, Virginia). The characters are presented in all their human complications, however much historical circumstances have inevitably conditioned their expression.

The characters whose motives are arguably the most opaque are the two lead characters in ‘Special Topics in Loneliness Studies’, Scott’s longest published work to date. The novella is composed of a journal of sorts written by Dr. Simon Reece, an enigmatic figure who seems more ghostly than real. Reece tells us of the downfall of his quasi-colleague, Dr. Reginald S. Chambers, an English professor at Freedman’s University, and his account is supplemented by various inserted documents: emails, syllabi, student essays, writing by both Chambers and Reece. Reece appears to be an instructor himself, but his status seems nebulous at best: “Somehow I always had students”, he writes, “although my courses weren’t officially offered by the university. No idea where they came from. I just set up shop every semester in an empty classroom and start lecturing.” Reece lives in the basement of a classroom building, a space that “had once been the morgue when the building was the school’s teaching hospital”. He reveals he was formerly a low-paid adjunct at Freedman’s, so low-paid that he and his family were evicted, and it is as if he is now a revenging spirit eager to expose academe “for the dystopian wasteland it truly is”.

This he does not merely by witnessing the ruin of Dr. Chambers but by actively participating in it. Whether Reece truly intends this to be the consequence of his actions is finally uncertain. What Reece’s narrative really discloses is that he himself is far from free of the narcissism and moral degradation he attributes to modern academia. Chambers’ most serious offence turns out to be his esteem for Roland Hudson, a Cross River poet known for his autobiographical poems about scorned love. When Chambers — with Reece’s encouragement — makes Hudson the centrepiece of the course that gives the novella its title, there is a divergence of opinion about the value of Hudson and his work between Chambers and a colleague invited as a guest lecturer. This leads ultimately to a grievance filed by a student (ironically the only student to find value in the course to begin with) when Chambers doesn’t take kindly to his colleague’s influence on the student’s term paper — a feminist critique of Hudson’s “erasure” of the real-life woman who scorned him — and Chambers begins to unravel. Perhaps, in the end, his ordeal (which includes the enmity of his dean and a final humiliation before the faculty) does indeed confirm Reece’s view of the malevolence of academe — not malevolent enough to prevent Reece from accepting a position as Chambers’ replacement — but Reece himself has worked diligently to propel the version of it that defeats Reginald Chambers.

Looked at one way, ‘Special Topics in Loneliness Studies’ could be regarded as an academic satire, but this, like calling ‘Mercury in Retrograde’ science fiction or ‘The Loudness of Screechers’ a horror story, is only a superficial characterisation of the work. While these stories both draw on specific actions or images generally associated with such generic forms, they also have a larger role to play in evoking the imagined reality of Cross River. In this way all of the stories in both Insurrections and The World Doesn’t Require You seem part of the same work, a project that could be extended indefinitely as a comprehensive creation equally allowing for formal exploration and an underlying continuity of purpose. Scott has indicated that a Cross River novel may be forthcoming — at the least a sign that there is indeed more to be known about this deftly realised place.