Circular Logic

Namwali Serpell’s The Furrows offers a tale within a tale within a tale.

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When you work on a gridded logic puzzle, you look at a set of clues and dismiss certain potential setups based on what you see. The puzzle might ask, for example, How did a 12-year-old girl’s little brother die? Was it (a) by drowning, (b) in a car wreck, or (c) in a carousel accident? If the answer is one, it can’t be another. In her 2014 critical work Seven Modes of Uncertainty, Namwali Serpell describes this logic principle, known as mutual exclusion, as the analogue of an either/or narrative structure in fiction. To illustrate the point, she examines literature in which there is an “opposition between two explanations or sets of events, one tagged as real or true, the other as illusory or false.”

At the same time, the author notes, “it is also a common trick of this kind of narrative to perform a last-minute reversal, to cast doubt on what has taken place.”

Serpell’s intense, palimpsestic antinovel, The Furrows, may best be read, then, as an intensification of the uncertain narrative, in which we come to understand that (a), (b), and (c) are equally and confoundingly true, or that it doesn’t matter which we settle on in the face of penetrating grief. Such uncertainty is a key to the book’s ingenious, off-kilter necromancy.

The Furrows relies on three voices to bring us into an exquisitely rendered nether space where visual likeness, name, and metaphor appear concrete, only to fall away in subsequent scenes. Rather than offer one explanation, or set of explanations, Serpell stacks unstable possibilities. “I don’t want to tell you what happened. I want to tell you how it felt,” a woman named Cee begins the book, words that will become a refrain, turning into recitation, as events unfold.

Cee lost her brother to the ocean when she was 12 and he was 7. Or did she? She believes he died—she saw, or so she claims, his body get dragged out to sea. After years of grief and therapy, however, she meets a charming stranger who shares her brother’s name: Wayne Williams. He also bears an uncanny resemblance to her father and has, in turn, confused Cee’s brother, for whom he’s been searching, with a boy he once fought in childhood. Can Cee lead him to her missing brother? Uncertainty arises, although Wayne’s role in each of the novel’s narrative threads (or possibilities) remains roughly the same. The book is further destabilized by a third voice, that of Wayne’s actual antagonist, who tells his version of what took place.

At first, a confident horror attends Cee’s account of her brother’s drowning. She addresses the dead boy directly at one point: “You swam into the furrows.… On either side of you, those whirring sheets of water, the foam along their edges sharpening like teeth. On either side of you, the furrows chewing, cleaving deeper.”

But as The Furrows progresses, Serpell’s prose places us in the woods without hesitation. “I could,” she writes, “smell my brother—his blood and his cotton-candy sweetness and the soil we had overturned when we dragged him—and I could see his green shirt, wrenched above his belly, and I could see, too, that he was all wrong, the angles of him.”

The more we read, the more we are strung along by competing sequences bound by Serpell’s sleek and unexpected syntax, her unnerving emotional observation and repeated images, including recurrent explosions and the appearance of a mysterious man at the site of her brother’s disappearance. Each sequence relies, we come to realize, on smoke and mirrors, as we are tricked into thinking that this must be what really happened, only to be corralled into a different narrative. “It’s also an undoing that can reconstitute,” Cee tells us. “Dead matter can gather itself together.” What this means is that even as the story changes, the past we’ve experienced through Cee’s consciousness is not eliminated, as it would be in a logic puzzle, but elaborately remade in the course of lamentation.

More than competing with one another, these overlapping narratives coalesce, both in the visual similarity between Wayne and the stranger mistakenly searching for him and in the morphological connection between perspectives. What does it mean to be familiar, to be family, to be of the same group, and yet not—to be, finally, just a self hunting for its familiars, which may or may not exist? The inexpressibility is evoked in images that oscillate between creepy and tender and also in similes, the comparison of things that would seem to be unlike, which mimes the book’s narrative exploration of similarity and difference. After Cee disappears from a diner, for instance, “her one high heel sits on the curb like a punchline.”

The ambiguities of The Furrows superfuse techniques from Alfred Hitchcock films, especially Vertigo, while also suggesting the French author Marie NDiaye’s Ladivine. Yet Serpell opts for stunning emotional deepenings at every turn. Again and again, the novel exploits the literary potential of the Freudian uncanny to construct haunting multiplications rather than the transparent resolutions of traditional novelists. As for Cee, she makes of her overwhelming grief an instrument of desire, repeating, throughout the book, I want to make you feel.•

The Furrows

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