Saturday, May 8, 2010


Finally got around to finishing Nella Larsen's Passing. A writer of the Harlem Renaissance, Larsen produced only two novels and a few stories. The short novel reminded me of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, a book full of thoughtful revelations that has too many essayistic qualities to be a fine novel. Larsen's book is actually better, in that there's a narrative arc derived from the interactions of particular characters, but much of the book's dialogue involves the stating of ideological or ethical positions. Very little happens in the book, which moves slowly, much of it taken up with interior reflection by the narrator, and said reflection involves pausing the course of events to let thought processes be fully spelled out. The male characters are not credible. The protagonist never stands back enough from herself to allow us to see the particularities of her own situation. Though the title of the novel refers to how American blacks "passed" among whites, the narrator, Irene, spends more time observing with horror how her friend Clare has passed than detailing how, at times, she's done it herself. She makes oblique references, in conversation, to how blacks can not only identify one another but also how they can't spot an "ofay," a white who's trying to disguise his or her racial identity; however, the narrator never lets us in on the finer points of how to remain hidden or how to find the fakes. It does offer, at least for this white reader, some fascinating insights into a cultural moment, but it doesn't say as much as it should. (In this, it's weaker than Gilman's "first-wave feminism" novel, which, though bogged down in exposition, is more bold and direct in detailing the differences between men and women and the difficulties in their attempts to live together. Gilman's book also has the fun conceit of a land which has seen no men in centuries.)

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