Namwali Serpell’s New Novel Reinvents the Elegy


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Grief is a magnet for metaphor. Grief is—let’s fill in the blank—a maze you can’t exit. It’s the monster within that maze, feeding on your flesh. It’s a ghost, haunting the recesses of your mind. It’s a disease that inflames and enervates. It’s an oil spill, seeping into the spirit’s fragile ecology. It burns like fire and drowns like water.

The Furrows” (Hogarth), the fourth book and the second novel from Namwali Serpell, batters against the fixities of language like a moth at a windowpane. “I don’t want to tell you what happened,” the novel opens. “I want to tell you how it felt.” The narrator is Cassandra, or Cee, who recounts the story of how, when she was twelve, her seven-year-old brother, Wayne, disappeared beneath the ocean’s waves, “the great grooves in the water” like furrows in a field. The two kids had been playing on a Delaware beach when Wayne set off swimming; she saw him struggle, and swam after him, almost losing her life in a failed effort to save his.

That story is, it turns out, a story, one account of how Wayne went away; whether or not the going away was a death cleaves the family. “When I was twelve, my little brother drowned,” Cee begins, telling the story for the first time. Later: “When I was twelve, my little brother got hit by a car.” And so on. “Dear Wayne,” she addresses him. “As you stepped forward unaware, it came and knocked you out of your furrow and into another, plowed you up and over, put you in another place, elsewhere, where.” It’s soon apparent that Serpell isn’t delivering yet another symbol for loss. Rather, “The Furrows” enacts the physics of becoming lost.

Serpell writes in rhizomes—extended subterranean stems that send up shoots at unpredictable intervals. That’s true of her critical work, too. A recent essay of hers in The New York Review of Books snakes from Émile Zola to “Zola,” a 2021 film about a pair of strippers on a “ho trip” gone wrong, the playful coincidence of names routed through her subjects’ shared aversion to the pleasure principle of whoredom. A professor of English at Harvard, Serpell demonstrates how criticism can stake its own claims to artistic attention. In her previous book, a collection of essays entitled “Stranger Faces,” she writes, “Stranger faces . . . ride the line of legibility, and compel us to read them even though we know we are doomed to fail. I think we compensate for that failure by taking unexpected pleasure in it.”

Serpell’s début novel, “The Old Drift,” from 2019, unfolds a history of the place now known as Zambia, confounding colonial linearity by enlisting magic and chance—the resisters of the supposed rationalizers. A bright young woman named Matha falls in love with a fellow-revolutionary, who abandons her when she becomes pregnant. One night, her tears fall and do not stop, rendering her blind and mute. Her personal and political history is dissolved by these tears: “Weeping was just what she did now, who she was.” Before long, the community forgets why she weeps and loses sympathy for her. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” James Baldwin declared his distrust for the untruthful “wet eyes” of sentimentalists, but, as Serpell’s tale reminds us, wet eyes can arouse our distrust for other reasons. What are we to make of the mourner who cannot produce evidence of a loss?

In “The Furrows,” a family is left without a body; the only evidence of the child’s death is a young girl’s word. It’s soon evident how much that’s worth. “Where’d you put that boy?” demands her grandmother, who doted on Wayne and never took to Cee. A policewoman asks for testimony, but after Cee tells her what she remembers the officer still prods, “Do you know where your brother is?”

Serpell discloses the dynamics of this once nuclear family by means of fission. Cee’s father, an engineer, is Black, and her mother, a dilettantish painter, is white, and the idiosyncrasies of this particular interracial casting are sharpened upon the loss of a brown son. The mother, Charlotte, had always filled their summer living room with “dignified pietàs” featuring Black women; as the search for Wayne’s body begins, she lies on the sofa, listening to Nina Simone singing “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” Cee tells us, “I felt I was seeing her truly for the first time—not only the way we all come to see our parents as fallible humans, but also the particularities of her whiteness, the way she seemed to seek expression of her feelings only through black art.”

The mother acknowledges merely that her son is missing; the father accepts that he is dead, or at least gone for good. Neither sustains an unconditional faith in their daughter’s story. Instead, Cee reflects,

There was this lore, but it split in two where Wayne had left it. It split, then circled around the empty space where he should have been, and joined back together at the point when I walked into the house without him. The lore was a loop at the end of a rope, a lasso endlessly tossed, catching nothing.

Charlotte spirals into pathological mourning: “Wayne’s absence in our lives had become the drain toward which everything ran.” Then she sets up a foundation called Vigil, for parents of missing children—enlisting Cee in its work—and its publicity materials come to include a “prophesied face,” a charcoal portrait of Wayne as he was projected to look in the present. “This hypothetical portrait,” Cee muses, “was another way his death had skewed us all apart, the way a missing tooth grows gaps between the others. Our memories of him now conflicted in dire ways.” Her father responds to the loss of his son—and the emotional paralysis of his wife—by moving on and remarrying.

Cee will be the lone recipient of what psychotherapy has to offer. There’s a therapist who’s fixated on her brother’s drawings; another seems on the verge of crying when Cee, in the bored pose of a teen-ager, talks romantically about cutting. “I didn’t feel that fucked up,” she tells us with a shrug. And yet she keeps seeing Wayne everywhere, regenerated from memory. He’s at the mall, on the sidewalk, in her dreams, a boy made of sand, pinched into reality before reality intrudes:

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