Don’t be fooled by the fact that Anthony Grooms’s latest novel The Vain Conversation (University of South Carolina press, 2018) is inspired by the 1946 Moore’s Ford Lynchings. Like fantasy and gothic tales, we read historical fiction not just to learn about the past, but also to understand our present lives. The Vain Conversation is especially topical, challenging us on nearly every page to consider just how much progress our society has actually made since then.

Grooms is an immaculately skilful writer. He opens the book with a pastoral scene, portraying the beauty of Georgia with the eye of a naturalist, and employing convincing psychological detail from childhood. Violence quickly shatters the peacefulness, though. Perspectives change, conversations grow more desperate, and the novel winds unrelentingly back upon itself, chasing resolution. This polyphonic work is really a collection of related novellas triangulating around a central question: what does it mean to be human? Is it more human to die for our beliefs, or to stoically suffer inhuman treatment, including death? At what point do those who abet or commit evil themselves become evil, and how far does the responsibility for abhorrent crimes spread throughout society?

The Vain Conversation is social archeology, digging strata by strata below the surface of our modern world, unveiling what we’ve buried in our collective bad consciences. The book is layered with horrific stories: US slavery; the pogrom of black Americans in Rosewood, Florida; the concentration camps of WWII; racial lynchings; post-traunmatic suicide; poverty and prostitution; and towards the end, drugs, crime, workplace-related sickness, and vengeance. Bertrand, one of the main characters, wonders at one point, “What Negro had a happy story to tell?” There is happiness in the book, flashes of friendship and love and true enlightenment –– but thwarted, always. The shorter, final chapter of The Vain Conversation is the most brutally paced for the reader. It shifts genres as the foundations of society itself shift, and brings to mind the urban post-apocalypse of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren.

Reading The Vain Conversation reminds us that the US has in fact been a dystopia for much of its past. I recently read Uncle Tom’s Cabin (why? because it was there, and I couldn’t avoid it any longer); the two books are equally unforgiving in their portrayals of inhumanity, and the folly of believing in providence.  The Vain Conversation is a painfully balanced novel which will hopefully take its rightful place in the ongoing societal discussion of who we think we are.

Annonser