Milkweed Editions ($26)
by Julian Anderson
When Ndiya Grayson, the young black professional protagonist in Another Kind of Madness, journeys to see the musician Shame Luther in an unfamiliar Chicago neighborhood, she misjudges her step off the bus and plunges into a puddle. Now, rather than appearing cool and collected at his door, she arrives post-puddle and soaked. But her vulnerability allows for a connection with Shame. For Ed Pavlic’s new novel, which is deeply invested in exploring its characters’ inner worlds, disorientation is part of the point.
Along with Ndiya, Shame too feels off-balanced. Having been on the road for ten years following a friend’s death, he discovers on moving back to Chicago that
without his noticing, all his senses had begun to work basically like the glass blocks he’d installed in the bedroom wall. . . . As soon as he returned, he noticed things and, even more, people would approach into magnified focus and bend out of range in a rhythm that changed constantly but didn’t seem to alter in response to anything he could determine or control.
Shame accepts this distorted perspective as a way of coping with the world he cannot control, but as he tries to find a path forward, the city presents its own deadly potholes. While driving, Shame is pulled over by police, designated as Man One and Man Two, who interrogate him bafflingly and then, with vague but serious threats, force him to drive for hours, according to their directions. He can only obey, rendered helpless in an African-American version of Kafkaesque dehumanization.
The present and the past also control people, sometimes metaphorically. Asleep, for instance, Shame is steadily bitten by a spider, which breaches the surface of the skin he has grown over his grief. In a description alert to language, the spider herself is “poise: tangent instant on the inside skin of grief, a stance in the wind of one’s own history, a still shot of experience, a sip of poison.” In this unlikely linking of poise and poison, the spider dances along one of the thousand magical strands, spun of sound and rhythm, which make up the story.
Not only a writer of fiction and essays, Pavlić has a considerable reputation as a poet, and he is attuned to language’s inner music. When a drug dealer is introduced to Ndiya, for instance, he experiences a shock of recognition relating to a horrific childhood crime. His subsequent escape to drugs is rendered in the statement, “And an instant was the time it took a bent mirror of the time it took to take it.” This declaration pushes the boundaries of syntax and grammar into a logic of vertiginous sensation that a reader can understand only by surrendering control.
As they try to cope with a world they feel they cannot properly perceive and trust, the characters’ responses powerfully drive the narrative. Just as Shame lives in his music, naturally and unselfconsciously, the narrative breathes poetry, augmenting descriptions of interior states with riffs of complex musicality. A reader must be prepared to suspend traditional expectations of sidewalks and street signs as they step off a bus into a story that moves with a heart’s deep longing from Chicago’s dangers to a small coastal village in Kenya. Ndiya Grayson’s smooth exterior is a veneer, after all; arriving wet and left-footed at Shame’s house, she is rendered vulnerable and human in her search for connection.