from “Sam Spade”

[posting this for our colleague “Sam Spade,” who is having login troubles–AG]

There are a lot of mysteries that remain unsolved at the end of *Assumption*. Not the least of these, to me, is the role of race in the novel. One of the review excerpts on the back of the book, touting Everett as “America’s preeminent post-racial novelist,” certainly cues the reader to search for racial themes. On the other hand, that qualifier “post-“ sure is troubling, and the other excerpts emphasize his inventiveness, his slipperiness, and his use of genre. To use McGurl’s terminology, is this high cultural pluralism, technomodernism, or some combination of the two? I’d argue the publisher’s ambiguous framing suggests they had about as good an answer to that question as I do.

The beginning of the novel certainly seems more like some variant of the high cultural pluralist mode, genre trappings notwithstanding. Ogden’s racial identity is made a central issue in the novel’s first section, where his father’s hatred of white people seems tied to Ogden’s self-hatred and self-doubt—“it was hard for a son to think that his father hated half of him,” Ogden thinks (13). Seemingly the only black person in the area, Ogden also encounters plenty of racism in this section of the book. “Maybe she was acting strange simply because she was strange, because she had never liked Ogden’s skin colour, though she had never said as much,” Ogden thinks to himself with regard to Mrs. Bickers, and we’re inclined to believe him, especially once we learn of her involvement in a violent racist organization (9). But the novel’s ending upsets all this—it may be that Mrs. Bickers has a great reason to act strange toward Ogden that has nothing to do with his race, and the indeterminacy introduced by the conclusion makes me think that ominous hate group may itself be a fiction. The exploration of racial identity seems undermined by the ambiguous game playing of the conclusion; is this technomodernism winning out?

Or perhaps the cultural pluralism and technomodernism reinforce each other. Perhaps we can understand the confusion surrounding Ogden’s character—and the book as a whole—as an expression of Ogden’s own confusion about his racial identity. “Nothing makes sense and that’s the only way that any of it can make sense,” Ogden says at the end of the book (225). Reading this line as a comment on racial identity seems appealingly concrete.

But—yet another reversal—perhaps this is falling into Everett’s trap. A little research into Everett reveals his skepticism of the “assumptions” underlying the typical reception of a black novelist and his penchant for parodying these assumptions (see his novel *Erasure*). We get such a parodic scene in *Assumption*, involving a mural depicting refrigerators dressed like dancing Native Americans. “[M]ost people were offended by it,” we learn, “but [the owner], being Native, claimed that every detail was accurate, except for the fact that the dancers were appliances” (107). This small vignette, parodying the position of authority and authenticity from which writers of minority cultural identities are presumed to speak, suggests that perhaps, for Everett, trying to make race the key to the book is itself wrongheaded and limiting.

But perhaps…

Author: AG

Associate Professor, Department of English, Rutgers University, New Brunswick