by David N. Odhiambo
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2008; 383 pp; $17.95
The first thing that needs to be said about The Reverend’s Apprentice is that it’s a pain in the ass to read. This is because the third novel by David N. Odhiambo comes to the reader through a confusing variety of voices, points of view and genres. Certainly, many readers will find the disarray of Odhiambo’s novel frustrating, but through all the literary murk it willfully stirs up; The Reverend’s Apprentice gets around its own opacity by offering a harrowing and often hilarious account of contemporary North America.
The novel deals with several big ideas at once: freedom, trauma, success and loyalty among others. But if The Reverend’s Apprentice can be reduced to a single theme, it is that of identity: specifically the identity of one Jonah Ayot—black African graduate student living in fictional Curranvale City in the industrial heartland of America with his Latin-spouting Grandfather, Reverend Nehemiah Ayot. For Jonah, finding his identity is especially difficult, for he is constantly under pressure from certain expectations others have for him. Perhaps the strongest of these is the expectation that Jonah will follow in his Grandfather’s footsteps and become a priest. However, even the influence of Jonah’s up-bringing in Africa, which comes to the reader in short, unstable, dream-like interludes hinting at some buried trauma, and can be described as strictly Christian, has been supplanted by his present secular preoccupation with sex and plenty of marijuana. Added to this are Jonah’s ambitions to be a writer.
It is with Jonah’s literary aspirations that the novel draws attention to itself as “writing”—as craft, genre and style. The better part of The Reverend’s Apprentice can be recognized as a “novel,” but, for example, the regular appearance of seemingly unnecessary and idiosyncratic footnotes gives it the feel, at times, of an abandoned thesis. And the appearance of hard to identify and anonymous voices running the gamut from first to third person destabilizes the story and leads to an often ungrounded reading experience. Perhaps expecting readers’ confusion, Odhiambo offers empathy for his audience by way of Jonah’s analysis of one of fellow MFA student Eliza May’s stories:
He hates it. Maybe… Yes the grammar is sound; she makes good use of the compound sentence. But she refuses to help her reader through the unfamiliar and unrecognizable. The tone is impersonal, and the gentle reader has no idea which situation calls for what emotional response. Characters don’t speak in completed thoughts. There are footnotes, and endnotes, and no unifying consciousness. As for the style, the figurative language performs in ways that say, Hey folks, look at me, I’m a writer.
Definitely in choosing a fractured style, Odhiambo runs the risk of alienating his audience—and for what purpose? Any aesthetic effect seems to get lost in a narrative treatment that refuses to connect the dots—in essence leaving the reader up to his or her own powers of imagination and analysis to uncover meaning. At the same time, however, this refusal to help the “reader through the unfamiliar and unrecognizable” could be taken as a gesture on Ondhiambo’s behalf to “democratize” the text and consciously hand over a part of the creation of meaning to his audience.
All postmodern literary devices aside, Odhiambo shows a writing style strong in its evocative and descriptive powers—especially when he describes the passing scene of Curranvale City:
Sin goes bumpbump against hedgerows, gas stations buzz with those who usher in the apocalypse by using credit cards to load up their tanks, and who knows what illicit acts are being contemplated by those leaving convenience stores blowing into hot cups of coffee. Among them, cops, tainted by the Blackout, sit in their cars, eager to bust the chops of anyone who rolls through stop signs.
Perhaps recalling his childhood in Africa—which seems to hint at the atrocities that took place in the center of that continent over a decade ago—Jonah regards his new city through the eyes of one who has been witness to terrible acts of violence on a scale unheard of even in a country used to its share of tragedy.
Just as Jonah follows a life different from the one his grandfather has in mind for him, The Reverend’s Apprentice’s convoluted approach will thwart expectations for an easy read. Odiambo’s style, or styles rather, is a metaphor in itself perhaps for the fluid nature of Jonah’s identity. One just wonders if he could have been less exacting in the demands he consciously places on the reader.
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From Issue #51