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He Sleeps. (Reviews).

Reginald McKnight. He Sleeps. New York: Halt, 2001. 210 pp. $23.00.

Reginald McKnight's most recent novel He Sleeps as been hailed elsewhere as his most ambitious novel to date. This declaration, is indeed an accurate one, for what seems initially to be just another search-for-identity novel takes us in so many different directions, plumbs such deeper depths, and stretches so many boundaries that we know immediately that this is no mere artistic exercise. Yet there is something curious about the search and what it yields -- one is never sure of the veracity of any of this story or the reliability of its teller. Early in the novel the central character, anthropologist Bertrand Milworth, in Africa to collect and compare urban legends, remarks that "'you've got to let go of the usual tendency people have for believing good stories. You've got to have a fulltilt bulishit detector.'" If the reader is to draw meaningful conclusions from this work, he or she will need to engage the services of the same instrument.

Bertrand has come to Senegal ostensibly on an academic mission. We soon discover, however, that his marriage is on the rocks and that he is not sure who he is. He is native, presumptuous, and inept, and he finds himself orbiting a number of spheres, none of which he is fully equipped to deal with. As a husband, for example, he has always lived apart from his wife so that people won't make the usual judgments about their interracial marriage. As a black man, he feels afraid and inadequate because he has never had sex with a black woman. As an African American, he is frustrated, insulted even, because he is not immediately and fully embraced by the natives once he lands on the African continent. In fact, he is treated as toubob--a black toubob, at that! And as a male, he is not sure of where his allegiances should lie or whether indeed the first law of nature is self-preservation.

Interwoven among these concentric and conflicting cultural circles are some really keen observations, though one is not convinced that Bertrand actually learns very much, for all his trouble and anguish. For instance, on a trip to Goree Island, Bertrand impresses himself with how much he knows about Goree as he recites facts to his presumably white female companion. The reader, though, is impressed with how little Bertrand is able to feel about the black experience at Goree because, we are told, he does not believe in spirits. In the aftermath of this visit, Bertrand is once again duped by his own ineptness. Although he has always prided himself on being able to spot another black person regardless of how white-looking he or she may be--a popular myth--Bertrand is dumbfounded when his companion reveals herself as an "ex-colored girl" who has become "invisible." This revelation, which invokes the forays of James Weldon Johnson and Ralph Ellison into the murky waters of race in America, comes only after Bertran d and Sue have discussed the enigma of race in America, and the possible meanings of blackness, whiteness, and in-betweeness. The woman's claim of an "end to blackness" is certainly shattering to Bertrand, who is trying to confirm the beginning and the essence of his.

Although race and sexuality form a goodly portion of Bertrand's dilemma, some of the most crucial parts of the novel concern the tendency of African Americans to romanticize Africa as their long-lost homeland. The Africans teach him that it is no such thing, telling him in no uncertain terms that " 'you call this home, but most of you would not dream of staying.' " Complicating this matter is the attraction that Bertrand has toward Kene, his housemate Alain Kourman's wife, and the ensuing turmoil and upheaval that this attraction creates inasmuch as it violates a number of cultural norms. Ultimately, Bertrand is summoned before a group of men that tries to keep Alain from killing him. They interrogate Bertrand, using what he has recorded in his journals against him, until he finally confesses to everything, although he himself is unsure of his guilt or innocence. As punishment, Alain Kourman performs a crude circumcision on Bertrand, in the African male tradition, telling him that " 'I could have made you a w oman, but I decided to make you a man. Go in peace.'"

Because Bertrand spends so much time sleeping, the reader is never sure how much of this story is a dream or, indeed, whether any of it actually occurs. Nor is the reader sure whether or not Bertrand and Kene consummate their attraction, although Bertrand reveals a number of intimate details in his journal. Mostly they appear to be the making of Bertrand's own version of an urban legend.

McKnight makes this story all the more complex and all the more appealing by his combination of narrative styles. He alternates between first-, second-, and third-person points of view, and just as often he alternates between omniscient and epistolary narration and frequently throws in some travelogue, seemingly just because he can. Then too there are numerous italicized passages that would ordinarily mark them as having occurred in a dreamlike state, but since it is impossible to determine when Bertrand is asleep and when he is awake--even he doesn't know--there is that added confusion and intrigue. The deft integration of seemingly disparate parts creates considerable interest for the reader. Moreover, McKnight's prose never fails to delight--he is completely at home with precision and surprise, and he has a wonderful ear for dialogue. He Sleeps is clearly a man's novel, as McKnight employs a decidedly masculinist mode of discourse as well as an unquestionably male approach to the dilemmas of manhood and th e various other male factors at hand. McKnight's novel is a much needed, most welcome, supremely enjoyable piece of work that posits that the stories may be different, but the moral is always the same.
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Author:Carson, Warren J.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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