At the end of Namwali Serpell’s 2019 novel “The Old Drift,” the choral swarm of mosquitoes who narrate the story describe their literary theory: “The best kind of tale tells you in the end, unveils the unsolvable riddle.” Though “The Old Drift” runs 567 pages up to this point, Serpell repays your attentive reading on every page with fine prose, humor, brilliant fabulation, European colonial histories, African and Indian postcolonial dreams, and the Zambian Space Program. Serpell’s galactic vision points us toward the Milky Way — “the oldest of drifts” — as it “spirals inward and outward at once” and we “spin into the heart of the void, the darkest heart of them all.”
Serpell’s new novel, “The Furrows: An Elegy,” seems to emerge from the wrinkles and grooves of that pulsing void. In the opening sentence of the novel’s ninth chapter, Serpell’s protagonist, Cassandra “Cee” Williams explains, “My little brother died when I was twelve. He was seven.” The preceding and subsequent chapters iterate, extend, and embellish this two-sentence mourning song. Each of the narratives Cee crafts about her brother, Wayne, his death, and disappearance, sends readers drifting further away from the facts-of-the-matter and deeper into the jagged contours of her pain.
Cee addresses her brother in brief missives tucked into the narrative’s pleats: “Dear Wayne. You swam into the furrows. At first, you didn’t know it because you were under the surface and you faced down as you swam, staring at the vault of the sea below. Then you felt the sky darken above you, a shadow passing, and when you came up to breathe, you were suddenly inside them, the great grooves in the water, the furrows. On either side of you, those whirring sheets of water rose, the foam along their edges sharpening like teeth. On either side of you, the furrows were chewing, cleaving deeper. They ate you up. You were alone out there and the world took you back in, reclaimed you into its endless folding.”
Repeating the story with variations — sometimes a speeding car rams Wayne’s scrawny-boy body; sometimes he’s flung from a speeding carousel — Cee creates her own furrows trying to peel her pain to its atomic basis. Her interracial family falls apart: her parents, Bernard and Charlotte, dissolve their marriage and Cee begins years of psychological counseling. What the doctors, therapists, and their catechisms pulled from her took on a consistent, worn smoothness: “I felt him die. He was dead . . . . I didn’t want to believe this. My mind, in fact, seemed to refuse it. How many times did I undo it? How many times did I dream, with relief, that my brother was alive, then wake to the crisis of him dead?”
While Bernard moves to Georgia and marries again, Charlotte actively refuses to believe in Wayne’s demise. She launches Vigil, a nonprofit organization aiding white parents “middle-class enough to afford to keep looking for” their missing children. Though Cee will eventually work alongside Charlotte at Vigil, she regards her mother with suspicion. In the wake of Wayne’s vanishing, Charlotte’s grief slipped her “into some other groove, some other reality.” Watching Charlotte enveloped in her own pain, weeping to Nina Simone’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” Cee notices her mother “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.” Embittered because Charlotte has rejected her account of Wayne’s death, Cee cries more for her “mother’s betrayal than [she] ever cried for [her] brother’s death.”
Still, the creased, mobius curve of Cee’s storytelling avoids detailing what happened to Wayne in favor of describing “how it felt” to grieve his death. Years after he’s gone, Cee still finds Wayne alive in the motion-picture flicker of her nighttime REM and moving through the waking-dream-world of Baltimore and San Francisco cityscapes where the novel is set. When she meets one beautiful young man who resembles what an adult version of Wayne might look like, the earth ripples and bends, waving until it breaks open. Surviving the shuddering ground beneath them, Cee retreats with the man to a hotel where they become lovers. Entangled in coitus, staring into each other’s eyes, only then does she take him in full: “I see Wayne,” Cee says, “I see him,” Then the novel flips itself and folds as though on a hinge. The novel’s second half is not as taut as the first, but it is weirder and darker as the story spins toward the void.
As well as being a gifted fiction writer, Serpell is also a tremendous literary critic. Her subtle, intimidating intelligence powers these sibling talents. We might read “The Furrows” as the abstract experimental outcome of Serpell’s own “strong and crucial curiosity about alien modes of feeling,” as she writes in “Seven Modes of Uncertainty,” her first book. “The Furrows” employs several modes of uncertainty, including Cee’s repetitions which “destabilize meaning, event, and temporal continuity,” thus compelling us to give ourselves over to the novel’s own ethics.
One need not read “Seven Modes” or any of Serpell’s exceptional essays to enjoy or understand “The Furrows.” However, recognizing that it extends her ongoing artistic/intellectual project may help us better understand why she’s challenging readers to rearrange our ethical and emotional expectations for the novel. Admittedly, I expected and desired Serpell’s new fiction to work the same groove she dug with “The Old Drift.” But “The Furrows” — speculative, strange, and ambitious — has forcefully destabilized that desire and folded me into its wide open, ravenous black heart.
By Namwali Serpell
Hogarth, 288 pages, $27
Walton Muyumba is a writer and freelance critic. He covers music, art, visual media, and books. He’s the author of “The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism.”