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A coming-of-age novel through a uniquely different lens.
TAGS: Kiese Laymon, Agate Bolden Books, long division, time travel, coming of age
Though Long Division is Kiese Laymon’s debut novel, one wouldn’t know by reading it. The writer, who is an associate professor at Vassar College and has also written searing and moving editorials for Esquire, Gawker.com and ESPN.com, wields language like a seasoned veteran as he paints a surreal picture of what it means for a black boy to come of age in a place like Mississippi.
The story centers on Citoyen “City” Coldson, a young teenager who--after having a meltdown during a nationally-televised academic contest and becoming an overnight Internet celebrity because of it--is sent to stay with his grandmother in a small Mississippi town, the same town where a young girl named Baize Shepherd has mysteriously vanished. During his stay, Citoyen reads a book he acquired before all the chaos began, called Long Division. This particular book also features a City Coldson similar to the protagonist and even a young girl named Baize Shepherd, but this Long Division is primarily set in 1985, 28 years in the past. As both journeys unfold simultaneously, the reader begins to realize that the two tales share a lot more than just character names, and it all culminates with both stories converging into one another.
To say that Long Division is an unusual read would be an understatement. Somehow, Laymon manages to combine disparate elements such as science fiction, satire, historical fiction, and cultural critique to tell this particular story. Iif he had chosen a character other than City to view the world he created, the mix probably wouldn’t have worked. Something about City’s innocent yet worldly demeanor, however, makes all these strange goings on seem perfectly sensible. As Laymon weaves his tale, which takes readers from the Civil Rights era of 1964 to hip hop-influenced 1985, to the tech-obsessed present day and back, it’s City’s biting wit and unique voice that helps anchor the reader, no matter how bizarre things get.
Indeed, things do get bizarre. The usual coming-of-age markers — first kisses, unexpected bonds, familial wisdom — are definitely present, but they contend with fantastical time travel sequences that involve a secret portal hidden in a small patch of woods, the Ku Klux Klan, and an alarming secret that City discovers in a workshed behind his grandmother’s house.
Admittedly, Long Division won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Though quite often humorous, there are moments that can get a bit confusing, especially when the element of time travel is introduced. As well, the story sometimes delves deeply into areas that can make the reader feel a bit uncomfortable. It’s precisely because of those uncomfortable moments, however, that the novel is able to confront themes like racism, class, identity, religion, and even sexuality in interesting and nuanced ways. Though a debut novel, Long Divison shows that Kiese Laymon is a literary voice with much to say.
Donte Gibson is a writer and editor who currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. He has written for Inc. magazine and the Black Web Media's Young Black Professional Guide, and for the websites Okayplayer, Black Web 2.0, and Politic 365. Currently, he serves as Senior Editor for the music and culture website SoulBounce.