Marci Blackman is a time fucker. Her second novel, Tradition is a secular story set in Ohio that begins with a death from which life emerges, twitching and smiling. The narrative flips from the 1930’s to the present, where memories loop and bleed into each other, pointing back to her title, which suggests that there is no present unhaunted by the past because every life is always already stamped by the bloody handprint of history. The singular, complex history that preoccupies Blackman is deeply embedded with racism, injustice, regret and suffering. Tradition smashes our face in this history while at the same time providing solace from it.
Blackman’s unstuck-in-time narrative gives the past and the present equal time in the boxing ring, which reminded me of Boris Groy’s theory of Modern Reductionism and our American obsession with the present. In his essay Comrades of Time, Groy describes Modern Reductionism as a strategy for surviving the difficult journey through the present. He states: “Crossing a cultural border is in many ways like crossing the limit of the present.” Tradition accomplishes this crossing with its clean structure and unique voice, drifting into an animated past, then waking to gunshots and a walker, growing old in 2007.
On the surface, Tradition is about Gus Weesfree ruminating about his life and the violence he witnessed in his youth, but it is also about family dynamics and confession. Gus rekindles a relationship with his estranged, troubled, alcoholic sister, and although we see them when we flip into the past, we get no relief or any solid ground. We float on Blackman’s time cloud, which is both pleasurable and disturbing. Gus is hammered by the past and cannot escape it:
Because that’s what old memories do. They stalk. Especially those we’ve neglected to bury.
Throughout Tradition, Gus Weesfree’s voice is so strong and textured, it seems to sing, saying that we are all products of a doomed culture and cannot escape its ghostly handcuffs. In his loneliness and desperation, Gus seeks his estranged sister. The brother/sister dynamic in the plot demonstrates how loss, love, addiction and community/family are what drive us to make sense of our lives.
Blackman creates a rich and devastating landscape filled with gritty life: grasshoppers cicadas, leaves crushing under heels and the smell of gasoline turning the air— rain that is “insistent and steady as a thousand faucets.” Blackman’s beautiful brevity and multiple-narrator perspective reminded me of both Ernest J. Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men and Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, but Blackman’s treatment of the complex dynamics of race and community is different. She screws with time and memory, playing them like a radio dial that switches from Duke Ellington to Tina Turner and you cannot stop yourself from humming along. Gus remembers the brutal crime he witnessed, but no one else is certain what happened, especially Mabel, his sister. The prose is poised and restrained as memories not only taunt these characters, but torture them:
Do you remember?
She looks at them awhile, at the window, and then shakes her head.
The engines and the beeping on the trucks start up again. Voices holler in the background over the din of it. Inside the house it smells like rain.
Blackman’s Jedi time tricks reflect a universal yearning to make sense of our lives before we pass on, to shirk the tradition of silence and have the courage to peservere, even in times of seemingly insurmountable difficulties. Through her characters Blackman gives voice to a tough, resilient hope: “We get what we get and we handle it or we don’t,” especially when we are covered in blood. Television silent. Radio playing Duke Ellington.