Brit Bennett’s New Novel Explores the Power and Performance of Race

No nation can lay lasting claim to a genre, save perhaps one. The story of racial passing is a uniquely and intensely American form. From its earliest avatars, the 19th-century novel “Clotel,” for example, to Langston Hughes’s short stories and Nella Larsen’s 1929 masterpiece, “Passing,” to the melodrama films of the 1950s, like “Pinky” and “Imitation of Life,” it is a story central to the American imagination, re-examined and retold so regularly it seems to enjoy a perpetual heyday.

In recent years, passing narratives have shed their sentimentality and turned surreal (Boots Riley’s film “Sorry to Bother You”), comic (Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”) and playful (Mat Johnson’s novel “Loving Day”). Others have flipped the formula so that it is black identity that is coveted by characters who are racially ambiguous (in the fiction of Danzy Senna, for example) or plainly white (as in Nell Zink’s novel “Mislaid”).

Through all the ways the genre has been rewritten, its potency has remained — its singular ability to enact the notion of race as arbitrary, as a performance, as something seen through, all the while inscribing its power as a source of kinship, pain and pride. Certainly few transgressions are punished so severely in literature. To pass is to court moral ruin; it is an elective orphanhood (in “Imitation of Life,” passing results in actual matricide), depicted as a kind of amputation or suicide.

In her new novel, “The Vanishing Half,” Brit Bennett brings to the form a new set of provocative questions: What if passing goes unpunished? What if the character is never truly found out? What if she doesn’t die or repent? What then?

In the town of Mallard, La., it’s said that “even a blind man could spot a Vignes girl.” The twins Stella and Desiree — wishbone-thin, unnervingly lonely — are the descendants of the founder of a community established for black residents with light skin. (Its antecedents can be found in the 19th century’s elite Blue Vein Society, which required members to be light enough for the color of their veins to be visible, as judged by an expert panel.)

Brit Bennett, whose new novel is “The Vanishing Half.”
Brit Bennett, whose new novel is “The Vanishing Half.”Credit…Emma Trim

Intermarrying, the residents of Mallard have ensured that each generation is successively paler than the last, never mind how little protection their complexion confers. The twins witness their father’s lynching. Their mother, a housekeeper for a white family, is keen to put them to work, but quiet, clever Stella, who dreams of attending college, and dreamy Desiree, enamored with the idea of a life onstage, look at her gnarled hands and flee. No sooner do they land in New Orleans than Stella splits: “Stella became white and Desiree married the darkest man she could find.”

The book opens in 1968, with the return of the prodigal. Desiree has come home to Mallard after 14 years away, without her husband but bearing his bruises on her neck. She’s brought her small daughter, Jude, whose “blueblack” skin the town registers with horror. It will be Jude who encounters the vanished Stella years later, now living in California and married to a wealthy white man. Jude will befriend her aunt’s daughter — a flighty, blonde actress — who, like everyone else, is ignorant of Stella’s origins.

Bennett is a remarkably assured writer who mostly sidesteps the potential for melodrama inherent in a form built upon secrecy and revelation. The past laps at the present in short flashbacks, never weighing down the quick current of a story that covers almost 20 years. Each chapter ends on a light cliffhanger, and the pages fairly turn themselves. Some depth is sacrificed for the swiftness; the book doesn’t burrow into the psychology of its characters so much as map the wages of artifice, fracture and loss across generations. Desiree pines for her missing sister. Jude is tormented by the absence of her father. Jude’s boyfriend, who is trans and trying to save up for surgery, mourns his own family.

The authorial control that so efficiently serves the plot can clip the characters’ wings. They are given such narrow and precise roles to play — abandoned sister, loyal partner, flighty daughter — and they play them so responsibly, never deviating from their scripts, that repetitiveness and flatness creep into the writing. Only Stella, gifted in all forms of escape and wonderfully inscrutable to the end, is permitted the mystery and self-contradiction that allows for the fullness of personality on the page. Bennett’s tendency toward narrative neatness and explication also results in an unhappy tic of tying up sections and sentiments with banalities unworthy of her — “Sometimes who you were came down to the small things”; “The key to staying lost was to never love anything.”

But Bennett excels in conjuring the silences of families and in evoking atmosphere: the claustrophobia of the small town and its scuzzy and beloved saloon (“Cold Women! Hot Beer!” its sign proclaims), the jazz clubs in New Orleans where the twins first taste freedom. There’s something deeply familiar but weightless about her settings. They are conjured not as real places, one feels, but as their mythologies, in how they exist in the imagination. We know these spaces not from life but from literature.

“The Vanishing Half” is a book sashed in influences. Bennett has written about her debt to Toni Morrison. As Jude suffers the viciousness of her color-struck town, it’s impossible not to think of Pecola Breedlove in “The Bluest Eye.” In Stella — with her indifference to convention that can tip into chilling cruelty — we feel some affinity with the heroine of “Sula.” There is a touch of Dorothy Allison in Bennett’s evocation of girlhood and small-town life, and in the book’s most resonant parallel, Stella leans out of a bedroom window to smoke a cigarette at a party, recalling the climactic scene of Larsen’s “Passing.”

These echoes — deliberate and affectionate — are beautiful to behold in a book about suppressed lineages (Pecola Breedlove’s own name invokes Peola from “Imitation of Life”). As old as the story of passing may be, so too is the effort, the history of language and art, to capture its complicated desire and alienating costs. Sometimes only one fiction can untangle another.

Source: NY TIMES

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