Another Kind of MadnessFiction
Reviewed By Nandini Bhattacharya
- Milkweed Editions (2019)
- 504 pages
All too often tropes in literature about the African-American experience are seen as representative of the affective “condition” of racial experience and travail, as in music for melancholy, vivid colors for ethnic life and violence, and so forth. In Ed Pavlić’s remarkable and groundbreaking novel, Another Kind of Madness, literary tropes and images are pried loose from such strict moorings and used to depict character, story, and affect in dissociative ways. This means that the interiority of character is inseparable from experiences of music, color, form, and movement, so as to pack the content and interpretation of experience with components that are normally thought to be exclusive to the arts.
The protagonist Ndiya Grayson doesn’t hear music, see colors, sense movement, or feel form. Rather, her sensations and impressions of these things are essential to what and who she is as a raced and gendered body and being, but through experiences of dissociation rather than association. Examples of such dissociations of sensibility occur throughout the novel: “Immediately upon her arrival she’d [Ndiya] found that ‘here’ was a verb. She felt ‘hered.’ The first thing she noticed about this verb is that it hurt.” Again, we read, “When memories like that came to her, it felt like she could blink with her arms and legs.” As we read this, the experimentation of this prose becomes visibly ekphrastic. Here language, touch, smell, movement, temperature, etc., create the experiencing body, not the other way around: “A pastel of music melted in her body.” While on the one hand, such dissociation can be seen as a pathology of trauma, on the other, the language doesn’t let go of the possibility of therapeutic, recuperative possibilities.
Sometimes, the overcrowding of the space on the page by multiple sensations can almost produce a blinding effect. The discordance and disjuncture of lyrical yet postmodern syntax, phrasing, and vocabulary create an excess, almost, of stimuli and impressions. This near blindness creates an insight, a hallucinatory quality that holds reality ransom to other possible interpretations, or what Jane Alison has called a “wavelet” structure—almost stream of consciousness—in her excellent book Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative.
Affect itself is crafted into an aesthetic, and vice versa, in genre making as well as genre bending ways that Lauren Berlant has discussed in her book Cruel Optimism. In other words, affect and genre produce one another. Genre and gender are also interleaved in the two protagonists, the lovers Ndiya Grayson and Shame Luther. Ndiya’s interiority and proprioception contrast Shame’s out-boundedness. Her response to music as a listener is perfectly synced with Shame’s response to it as a maker, as in the fact that Ndiya does not always know what she is hearing just as Shame does not always know what he is playing. To both of them, song and sensation come unedited and unpredictably, but music is not a matter of the senses for Shame, while sensation is not musical for Ndiya. Existing as these two do in the affective realm of the aesthetic rather than of the personal, interpersonal, or even impersonal, there is nothing sentimental about sensation or music (or art), because these characters experience music (or art) cerebrally, not sentimentally.
Last but not least, Pavlić takes us gently by the hand into a splotchy interior world such as that of Dostoevsky in Notes from Underground. In that work too the protagonist experiences the world as symphony and cacophony of radically unalike sense experiences: shapes, temperature, bodies, movement, gaze, and brutalization. This world of Dostoevsky’s protagonist can be called splotchy because nothing in it is so clearly discernible in outline or content as to make moral or ideological judgment incontrovertible. The meanings of enshrined words like “humanity,” “love,” and “friendship” are troubled and disturbed in their recurrent mutilation by gratuitous cruelty, degradation, and beastly laughter. Though Pavlić’s protagonists exist in a world of similar disjointed divergences, the essential Dostoevskian quality of doubt is embodied in another character in Pavlić’s novel: the crime boss, Junior, who doesn’t speak to someone, most particularly, when he wants to know them. Instead, he stays silent and watches. Midway through the novel, Junior’s world overlaps with Shame and Ndiya’s in a sinister yet fascinating way. This leads Junior’s female companions to articulate for Junior the question Junior will not voice about Ndiya: Who is she?
A more wonderful, poignant, and evocative novel about Chicago as dystopia—or rather an “elsewhere”—has not been written in recent years. Pavlić’s linguistic alchemy makes this “elsewhere” itself a character in the novel in the very way that the novel exceeds the frameworks of sentiment in reaching toward the tough-mindedness of art. An ode to Chicago, Kenya, and soul music as humanity’s worldwide hum, Another Kind of Madness is nevertheless clear-sighted about the intensity and tenuousness of human connection and condition, especially in an increasingly unheimlich America.
Nandini Bhattacharya was born and raised in India and has called the United States her second home for the last thirty years. Wherever she has lived, she has generally turned to books for answers to life’s big questions. Her short stories have been published in the Bacon Review, the Bangalore Review, Ozone Park Journal, Storyscape Journal, and Raising Mothers. She was first runner-up for the Los Angeles Review Flash Fiction contest (2017-2018), a finalist for the Fourth River Folio Contest in Prose (2018), long listed for the DISQUIET Literary Prize (2019), and a finalist for the Reynolds Price Fiction Award (2019). She teaches literature at Texas A&M University. Love’s Garden (forthcoming 2019) is her first novel. She is at work on her second novel, The Twice Born.