Tom LeClair reviews 'Mosquito' by Gayl Jones.
So says again and again Nadine “Mosquito” Johnson — truck driver, Bud
Light drinker, TV documentary watcher and narrator of Gayl Jones’ novel
“Mosquito” — as she listens to the diatribes of Delgadina, an intellectual
Chicana bartender in Texas City; to the polemics of Ray, a polymath black
activist; to the advice of childhood friend Monkey Bread, now a bookish
assistant to a Hollywood star; and to the conversations of other
African-Americans whose ideas the high school-educated Mosquito doesn’t
understand. She also doesn’t fully understand these characters’ actions.
Her eventual lover Ray may or may not be a priest. He and Delgadina may
have manipulated Mosquito into assisting a new Underground Railroad that
smuggles refugees from Latin America.
“Mosquito” is a midlife Bildungsroman that Mosquito’s tutors try to
make into a Künstlerroman — a novel of the artist’s development — as they tell her what kind of book to
narrate. Maybe it’s “Don Quixote” from Sancho’s point of view or a
border-town “Tristram Shandy”; perhaps it’s an improvisational jazz
autobiography or trickster satire; probably it’s an archive of the
Daughters of Nzingha (the African woman warrior), because “Mosquito”
includes the group’s newsletters, poems, letters — and, the author
helpfully notes, a play by her mother, Lucille Jones.
These models discourage plot and welcome everything else. Jones refers to
the history of blacks in Mexico and to her own family; alludes to real and
invented African-American novelists from Ralph Ellison to her own creation,
Amanda Wordlaw; discusses languages that Mosquito doesn’t speak but seems
to understand; reports reminiscences from Mosquito’s childhood in Kentucky;
retells dreams and throws in Delgadina’s cantina sink while she’s at it.
At first Jones’ main character has the appeal of Huck Finn, fresh talk from
a naive, good-hearted outsider. But after 50 pages and with little
narrative momentum, her “confabulatory” charm wears off and “Mosquito”
reads like 2,000 pages of Gertrude Stein’s “Melanctha,” aggressively
digressive, frequently vapid and stupefyingly repetitive.
Mosquito says, “You can’t trust everybody with every story. You can’t trust
people with every story. You don’t tell everybody every story. Even them
stories that is satires ain’t to be told to just everybody. You don’t even
tell everybody everything in the same story.”
Jones — famously reclusive, particularly since witnessing the death of her
mentally unstable husband in a February 1998 href="http://www.salonmagazine.com/media/1998/02/26media.html">confrontation
with police — has Mosquito explain this kind of discourse while
commenting on a minor character who “recontextualizes the subject matter of
Elvis to create a new storytelling form whose express purpose it seems is
to insult the intelligence.” In her academic study of oral narration,
“Liberating Voices,” Jones advocates replacing “intelligence” with affect
and wisdom. She used similar yarning methods in “The Healing.” I thought
that book should have won the National Book Award last year, but “Mosquito”
is twice as long, Mosquito is half as articulate as Jones’ earlier
narrator and the simulation of orality is now constricting rather than
I’m not arguing with the multiethnic, multiracial, multiclass and
gender perspectives of “Mosquito.” They deserve more affecting, wiser, less
self-promoting treatment. Jones creates interesting characters and pressing
situations in a charged landscape, then maddeningly occludes them all with
the hyper-realism of Mosquito’s meandering and maundering voice. We hear
little from the refugees. Instead, we get pages and pages of second-hand
opinions about colonialism. Then paragraphs of implausible literary
commentary explaining why these opinions should be in this book. Ostensibly
the oral history of Mosquito’s inquisitive “I,” “Mosquito” turns out to be
an echo chamber where Gayl Jones can say “me, me, me.”
Tom LeClair is the author of five novels and two critical books More Tom LeClair.
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