To live in the United States in 2020—a year marked by a series of cascading upheavals that seem yet to have abated—was brutal. There was the pandemic, of course, and the millions dead. There were the other millions pushed off the edge of precarity into full-blown despair and those who remain in denial of the virus and its severity. There was the murder of George Floyd and the righteous protests that followed. In reaction, some Americans reached for a chamois to polish their jackboots, which they kept gleaming well past Election Day and peacocked at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. A full accounting of these times would include housing insecurity, unequal education, and apocalyptic wildfires.
There has been no shortage of awfulness.
Keenan Norris’s second novel, The Confession of Copeland Cane, seems to have been formed within the pressure cooker of that annus horribilis and takes as fact a wearying bit of understanding: that it was all a prelude. Written (mostly) as the transcript of a 48-hour-2-minute-and-17-second voice recording left by Cope—high school senior, son of East Oakland, and veteran of youth imprisonment, both carceral and scholastic—the book practically fishtails as its narrative zooms, revved by the biting humor and the pointed observations of its protagonist. Cope is trying to record everything before all the details that explain why he’s had to leave his community are irrevocably erased.
In the Bay Area that Norris projects here, less than a decade into the future, the authoritarian powers that be are “steady creating” Cope into some kind of “apex predator.” Far-right media and the surveillance state have achieved singularity in an entity called Soclear Broadcasting. Whenever “a cop’s bullet or choke hold seemed to hand some brother his walking papers,” Soclear and its interminable bulletins “always concluded the same way, which was wadn’t no conclusion to come to but to remain calm and to trust the ongoing internal investigation.”
Private security forces, not subject to reform or regulations, have become the de facto cops for wealthy communities. Police shooting “cases get lost in the sauce a lot easier” because of this. “People who purchase private po-lice protection for they compound or company or whatever,” Cope notes, “ain’t tryna be hella public about every little killing and beating, after all.” And brown and Black Americans, as represented by Cope’s circle—who live in mold-streaked apartment buildings, succumb to the recurring “ghetto flu” we know by another name, and must come up with myriad hustles to keep afloat—are at as much of a disadvantage as ever.
“The fault lies in the manipulation of our legislators,” says Mrs. Greenberg, a teacher at the Versailles-like private school Piedmontagne Prep, where Cope lands after impressing a member of the Prep community with his sales skills hawking Air Jordans on BART. “They used the White House insurrection to pass new laws that mostly impact black and brown people…. It’s part and parcel of a cynical design. They used to deny that a deadly respiratory virus even existed; now the same people use it as a pretext to deny issuance of permits to protest in public space, which of course makes arresting protestors socially acceptable and politically palatable—and Soclear constantly propagandizes its viewers that all this somehow makes sense.”
Piedmontagne is Piedmont, the well-to-do East Bay city that sits, literally, within the much bigger and beleaguered sprawl of Oakland. And Mrs. Greenberg, like many well-meaning people who have a safe and comfortable perch, resists solutions that would cost her something. “You are the student best suited to write about these things,” she tells Cope. “You can become the conscience of our campus community. Let me send you some articles that will serve as inspiration.”
It’s at this moment, midway through The Confession of Copeland Cane, that things get interesting. The oppression Norris is describing looks a lot like the afflictions of our present, a recognition that is bracing. But when the burden to enlighten, to make things right, is placed on Cope—a kid bearing the weight of failures that are vast and collective—his response becomes engrossing. He develops a well-earned pessimism, informed by a nuanced understanding of people’s contradictions and flaws. This is not to say there is no joy or love here. Throughout the novel, there is a lot—for East Oakland, for his parents, for his friends, and for the slain.
By the closing pages, the hot engine that is Cope’s confession has cooled down to a tick. But Norris’s diagramming of a future clearly rooted in this moment—a future that may already be barreling toward us—will leave the reader uneasy. From this vantage, 2020 stretches past the horizon.•