LONG DIVISION by Kiese Laymon

An interesting first novel by  an American writer, editor and a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi. What you think of it has a lot to do with who you are, your age, your race, your gender.

It features a young black 14 year old, who is a participant in a YouTube contest, Can You Use This Word in a Sentence, or something like that.  It is not a spelling bee, but rather a contest to highlight the most articulate students. Citoyen “City” Coldson is a clever kid, definitely more intelligent than most of his contemporaries in   Post-Katrina Mississippi.  He has a fast mind and often an even faster mouth.  The title of the book comes from:

“City, speed that up.  Why you gotta   be so long division?  For real, you don’t have to tell me all the background.  The story doesn’t have to go on and on and on.  “It doesn’t?”  “No.” Shalaya Crump said.  ·Everything with you is long division.  You busy trying to show all your work.  Just get in and get out.”

City has an on-camera melt down during the finals of the contest, railing against the system, against racism.  He has humiliated his family, and is sent to stay with his grandmother in a small coastal town.  As he is collecting his things from school, a teacher gives him a book titled, Long Division.  In it, all the characters are him and his friends and family, but set in 1985.  The small town is the home of a teen who has disappeared.   In the book he received, the characters find a portal in the woods which take them to 2013, or maybe even farther in the future.

OK, so we have time travel, fantasy, an ongoing theme of racism in America, an ongoing theme of being a young black male in America, an ongoing theme of being a teenager, all told in first person black southern teenage slang and rhythm.  It is just beautifully written.

My issues with this debut effort:  (1) too many themes.  It is hard to examine a serious and painful issue as racism in a short book that includes time travel and finding portals.  I have read many books where the idea of racism in a fantasy world was examined very successfully, but in this one, it is hard to reconcile. Are we readers supposed to be seriously contemplating the pitiful state of race relations in America today, or are we supposed to be having fun popping around the time line?  One or the other.

(2) Because of the intertwining of the current events (2013), and the events in the ‘book’, (1985), it was hard to follow.  I have an e-copy of the book, so maybe in print, there was some kind of differentiation — different fonts for each, perhaps.  It was a really fun idea, and a clever vehicle to carry the mystery of the girl’s disappearance, but definitely confusing to the e-reader.

(3) Because of the number of themes, and none of them layered sufficiently to work, none of the themes was explored enough.  It is a long novella length book, almost as if a story idea had been spun out long enough to create a bookish length.

(4) Essentially, the plot wasn’t all that and a bag of chips. What really shone in this work were the characters.  They were perfection.  They were real.  We didn’t need a plot.  We could have just followed them around for a few days of their quotidian lives, being enchanted by them.  All of that time travel was frankly just distracting.

So whether this was aimed at young black people, who all seemed to love it, as it represents their reality,  or at the general reading public, for whom I think it misses the mark on several literary levels, I don’t know.  Being an old white lady, I am surely not the target demographic.  I think it is a literary mishmash, but we all have to start somewhere.

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