THE FURROWS: An Elegy, by Namwali Serpell
“Have you ever walked between two great big airplane hangars and it made you feel very small and very strange?” the art dealer Richard Bellamy is said to have asked. “Well, that’s minimalism.”
There are no airplane hangars in the Zambian American writer Namwali Serpell’s second novel, “The Furrows,” and the tone isn’t spare. But the book is so laden with odd convergences and there are so many brushes with demons that it does leave you feeling tiny and weird.
“The Furrows” is about Cassandra, or Cee, Williams. When she was 12 she went swimming in the ocean with her little brother, Wayne, who was 7. A storm rose, and Wayne vanished.
The blame falls on Cee, even though 12 and 7 are tender ages to leave children unattended at the shore. Wayne’s apparent death destroys the family. Their parents divorce.Cee, who grows up in the suburbs of Baltimore, works through a lifetime of trauma and elite therapy. “Wayne’s absence in our lives,” she says, “had become the drain toward which everything ran.”
Wayne is gone, but the continuum of Wayne rushes onward. Men who strongly resemble him keep appearing in Cee’s life. She sleeps with one of them. These men tend to be as handsome and charming and scary as Hickey in “The Iceman Cometh,” last played on Broadway to chilling effect by Denzel Washington.
This book review is going to have a disappointed tone that probably isn’t fair to Serpell. She so thoroughly raised expectations with her first novel, “The Old Drift” (2019), that “The Furrows” can’t help but seem to follow halfheartedly in its wake.
“The Old Drift” was a magic-realist epic, a welter of words, set largely in what is now Zambia. It tracked the fortunes of three families (Black, white and brown) from early colonial days through the AIDS crisis and beyond.
The prose was electric. The ambition was outsize. Serpell seemed to have arrived, fully formed, as an heir to writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie. “The Furrows,” on the other hand, is an atmospheric literary novel not so different from others of its kind.
Serpell is interested in effects here more than in truth dealing. With its scrutiny of doubles, of doppelgängers, of déjà vu, of parallel existences, of the transmigration of souls, of hints of incest, of shifting points of view, the book is a mind-twist. (The word I am after isn’t printable.)
It may make you think of the work of filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan and Jordan Peele and, in her latest, Olivia Wilde — alas, not always in a good way.
Other men don’t simply resemble Wayne. Some turn up who share his name. If we’re supposed to read anything into the uncomfortable fact that Wayne Williams is also the name of the long-imprisoned prime suspect in the Atlanta Child Murders of the late 1970s and early ’80s, the clues escaped me.
The book’s title has a twin meaning, too. Wayne disappears into the “furrows” of the waves.Later, the word begins to refer to the way that “time’s got grooves in it. A moment is a needle and time can skip like a record.”
Timelines collapse in “The Furrows.” The world seems to be collapsing, too. There are intimations of the apocalypse. At various moments, buildings buckle and masses of people start running; there is broken glass and helicopters fill the air. We are meant to wonder: Are these scenes real or imagined?
Serpell’s characters appear to long for violent change, the way we all do at times, a feeling expressed in Franny Choi’s marvelous poem “Catastrophe Is Next to Godliness”:
There are many other things on this novel’s mind. Serpell intelligently appraises race and class. Cee — whose mother, a painter, is white, and whose father, an academic, is Black — is hyper-aware of a betweenness (“You’re supposed to be pretty if you’re mixed race,” she says). She has, at times, a centrifugally split sense of self.
Around friends, when young, she cracks a joke about zebras, and she comments: “I often did this — called myself an Oreo or a halfrican or a mulatta or a lightskinned, just to get it out of the way, to take control over a difference that could be wielded to hurt me. I didn’t feel tortured about it. It was kind of a power move.”
There are several scenes set in airports or on airplanes. My eyes and heart and mind perk up when a talented writer (or filmmaker, or comedian, or songwriter) approaches an airport.
Nowhere is so much loneliness and formality crushed together, as are class antagonisms and intimations of doom — the tears, the toilets, the suddenly existential slice of Sbarro pizza, the powering down of communications. “Air travel is like death: Everything is taken from you,” as Elif Batuman has put it.
These spaces are emotional amphitheaters; they turn me into an eager groundling, waiting to see what news a writer has to bring. In the case of “The Furrows,” I was let down every time, doubly so because I know what a shrewd observer Serpell can be.
This novel has a refrain: “I don’t want to tell you what happened. I want to tell you how it felt.” This is, I think, Serpell’s way of saying that while life is what happens to you, art is how you understand it, and sometimes that art takes unusual forms.
“The Old Drift” has stuck with me for three years. “The Furrows” mostly vanished a few hours after I put it down. But I can’t imagine picking up her next one with any less eagerness.
THE FURROWS: An Elegy | By Namwali Serpell | 270 pp. | Hogarth | $27