Stream of Consciousness
In this story, Wideman uses a stream-ofconsciousness and experimental language, both reminiscent of the work of the Irish novelist James Joyce (1882–1941). Stream-of-consciousness presents an interior monologue of the narrator, allowing us to see inside the mind of the character as it associates ideas and moves along in a flow of thoughts. Writing in stream-of-consciousness allows rapid and apparently unrelated (but in reality, carefully crafted) jumps in focus. This kind of narrative gives no objective information about external events, and readers are forced to rely on and evaluate the narrator’s thoughts which may or may not be reliable. It is left up to readers to decide if the narrator’s thoughts are aligned with objective reality or delusional. For example, when the story ends, readers may wonder where the son is or whether he even exists.
Word Order and Rhythm
Wideman’s experimental use of language has been likened to the improvised rhythms of modern American jazz. It adds to the density and relative difficulty of Wideman’s prose style, but it also creates remarkable effects. For example, in one place, the story presents a letter from the narrator to the son. The letter is a mosaic of original and revised wording juxtaposed without explanation: Elsewhere is a passage in which the narrator imagines Suh Jung making love with the imprisoned son: “Would it be the same woman in both places at once or different limbs, eyes, wetnesses, scents, like those tigers whirling about Sambo.” The insistent, frantic rhythms of this passage reflect both the whirling tigers and the imagined sexual excitement of the scene. In these and other stylistic ways, Wideman locates the action of the story very much in the internal language of a particular person, this narrator, words jumbled together oftentimes as only that person would think of them.
Wideman uses metaphors of imprisonment to describe the free lives of those outside prison, blurring the line between the so-called innocent and the so-called guilty. The narrator’s experience of extracting information about the son from the adversarial prison system makes him feel that he has “done something stupid or morally suspect by pursuing it to its lair.” The metaphor raises the question of who is the hunter and who is the hunted, in a society whose terror of criminals leads to locking them up physically and to isolating them even further behind a mesh of mechanization and computerization.
A metaphor emphasizing the narrator’s restricted, prisoner-like existence is used to describe his home. He lives “in a building in the bottom of somebody’s pocket. Sunlight never touches its bricks.” His life itself has become restricted; it is a “prison I’ve chosen to seal myself within. Fewer and fewer visits paid or received.” He likens himself to a prisoner about to be executed: After he has finished looking at himself in the mirror, he switches off the light, letting “the merciful hood drop over the prisoner’s head.” The Asian character Suh Jung is also described in images that compare her to a criminal, a prisoner, or more particularly, a prisoner of war. She tries to cover up her fear with an “unsuccessful theft” of her father’s blank eyes. She is her father’s victim and his prisoner, “relentlessly, meticulously hammered into an exquisitely lifelike, flawless representation of his will, like those sailing ships in bottles or glass butterflies in the museum.” After her father’s suicide, she tries to protect herself against the Asian female cliché of submissiveness by having her hair cut into a “helmet,” an item of military defense. Her nipples are “twin sentry towers.” When the narrator makes love to her, he describes her in terms of a vanquished enemy: she is “easy to . . . subdue”; he is “capturing her, punishing her.” He realizes that in his power over her, he has become her brutal father and her jailer, “the steel gate dropping over the tiger pit in which she’s naked, trapped, begging for food and water. Air. Light.” This image of the steel gate dropping over the tiger pit is a terrifying one, suggesting not love, but power exercised over someone who is angry yet helpless. Coming from the narrator, it also blurs the line between abuser and victim, just as Wideman blurs the line between those inside the prison and those outside. The narrator is a victim when faced with those in power, such as the prison authorities, but a potential abuser when faced with those weaker than he is, like Suh Jung. Wideman seems to suggest that to whatever extent a person feels himself to be a victim, he victimizes, passing on the prison experience, just as a beaten dog does not bite his tormentor but finds a smaller dog to bite.
Another metaphor pattern uses big cats. When the narrator imagines Suh Jung making love to the imprisoned son, he pictures her as a tiger whirling about him, suggesting both the clichéd expression, the Asian tiger, and the unleashed sensuality that he himself never achieves with her. When the narrator is making love to her, he likens her to a tiger trapped in a pit, suggesting anger denied free expression. The same meaning is implied by his description of the imprisoned son as “A smiling leopard in a cage,” except that the son is in a literal prison, whereas Suh Jung is in a psychological one.
The coyote that prowls around the prison is given significant emphasis in the story. It is a predator, but harmless to the guards. They laugh at it until one of them, who is evidently having a bad day, casually shoots it. The coyote symbolizes both the narrator, in his cautious and fearful approach to the prison, and black people, who are mercilessly hunted down if they encroach on white territory. Their lives, like the life of the coyote, are seen as cheap and disposable.
Wideman deliberately breaks one of the conventions of fiction by denying the reader the longexpected outcome—the meeting between the narrator and the imprisoned son. This inconclusive ending achieves a number of effects. One is to emphasize the frustration of dealing with the prison system: the narrator’s frustration is mirrored by the reader’s. Another is to indicate that the story is not really about this meeting but something else entirely. Possible interpretations of the story include the difficulty of making meaningful connections in a dehumanized, disconnected world and the narrator’s artistic achievement in shining a light into the dark world of the prison system.
The setting of the prison, in the Arizona desert, emphasizes the way in which the prison system is removed and hidden from the U.S. population at large. Also, as the narrator points out, Arizona is the national choice for institutions that house those it would rather forget: the criminals, the retirees, the dying, and the dead. It confirms Angela Y. Davis’s comment in Behind the Razor , that the prison creates an “illusion of inaccessibility,” which Wideman wants readers to be aware of the system that is in place to handle prisoners and what that system does to prevent those on the outside from making contact with inmates. More than that, he wants readers to understand that what distinguishes insiders from outsiders may be more matters of race and class than of free will and law infringement. Finally, bondage and entrapment take various forms. So while Wideman focuses on Arizona for its role in the prison industry, he also makes clear that other settings, both urban and psychological, play their parts in the various kinds of incarceration people experience.
John Edgar Wideman’s work is considered as falling in the literary category of the post-aesthetic movement. This movement is an artistic response made by African Americans to the black aesthetic movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, which attempted to produce works of art that would be meaningful to black people. Since that time, writers of the post-aesthetic movement have placed less emphasis on the disparity between black and white in the United States. African Americans are portrayed as looking inward for answers to their own questions. In “What We Cannot Speak About We Must Pass Over in Silence,” the focus is as much on the internal, psychological prisons of the characters, as on the external prisons.
Ira Mark Milne, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students, John Edgar Wideman, Volume 24-Gale (2006)