Constructing A Nervous System
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Stunning for her daring originality, the author of Negroland gives us what she calls “a temperamental autobiography,” comprised of visceral, intimate fragments that fuse criticism and memoir.
Margo Jefferson constructs a nervous system with pieces of different lengths and tone, conjoining arts writing (poem, song, performance) with life writing (history, psychology). The book’s structure is determined by signal moments of her life, those that trouble her as well as those that thrill and restore. In this nervous system:
• The sounds of a black spinning disc of a 1950s jazz LP as intimate and instructive as a parent’s voice.
• The muscles and movements of a ballerina, spliced with those of an Olympic runner: template for what a female body could be.
• Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Topsy finds her way into the art of Kara Walker and the songs of Cécile McLorin Salvant.
• Bing Crosby and Ike Turner become alter egos.
• W. E. B. DuBois and George Eliot meet illicitly, as he appropriates lines from her story The Lifted Veil to write his famous “behind the veil” passages in The Souls of Black Folk.
• The words of multiple others (writers, singers, film characters, friends, family) act as prompts and as dialogue.
The fragments of this brilliant book, while not neglecting family, race, and class, are informed by a kind of aesthetic drive: longing, ecstasy, or even acute ambivalence. Constructing a nervous system is Jefferson’s relentlessly galvanizing mise-en-scène for unconventional storytelling as well as a platform for unexpected dramatis personae.
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