So it’s hard to categorize this novel, and in discussing the plot, or conceit, not only doesn’t explain anything much about the novel, but actually makes it seem much more banal than it really is. I tell AP Literature (and I would be fired for teaching this one….not really, but maybe), that irony and tone are absolutely the most important factors in understanding fiction. In this book, the tone is everything. The story is about a young Black woman from Philadelphia whose mother is Black and whose father is white and Jewish, goes off to New York City in order to look for her absent father.
So on its face, this is not very different from a lot of books, minus some of the particulars. And in fact, as I was reading, I thought a lot about how similar this novel is to Song of Solomon in a lot of ways. And then at one point, Ross even references the bible book itself. It’s also a lot like the Telemachus sections of The Odyssey. And also, it’s nothing like these books. This book plays around with language and expectation, it’s super weird, it’s weirdly violent, it’s uncomfortably comical, and plays around with a number of different stereotypes within American underclasses in ways that I am not really going to parse out.
So the experience of the book is being a little off-kilter and off-balance, while the book plays with everything you can imagine. It’s both a very 1974 novel, but also one that sometimes feels like a American Jewish novel from the 1930s or 1940s. It’s interesting in the way that it keeps you off-balance in a lot of ways, but then feels falsely familiar in other ways. Imagine Paul Beatty writing a Henry Roth novel….or Kathy Acker writing a Ann Petry or Dorothy West novel.