Over the past three decades, John Edgar Wideman has engaged in a literary enterprise of epic dimensions -- an attempt to re-imagine the black experience in the United States. Choosing settings from as far back as Philadelphia's 1793 yellow fever epidemic to the present day, he seeks to merge the divergent strains of contemporary culture and collective memory, as if only in their intersection can we hope to understand ourselves. In Wideman's hands, narrative becomes something akin to mythology; his stories unveil layers of meaning obscured by ordinary life. It's a process not unlike that undertaken by Martin Mallory, a character in Wideman's new novel, "Two Cities." Mallory snaps "photos that invite a viewer to stroll around them ... I want people to see my pictures from various angles, see the image I offer as many images, one among countless ways of seeing, so the more they look, the more there is to see."
At first glance, "Two Cities" seems like quintessential Wideman, touching on issues and situations he's written about in the past. The cities of the title are Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, where virtually all his work is set, and among the book's signal events is the 1985 MOVE bombing in West Philadelphia, the subject of his novel "Philadelphia Fire." Unlike Wideman's finest writing, though, "Two Cities" lacks an incendiary spirit; it meanders through the lives of three protagonists without making any connections that stick. There's Kassima, a widow and the mother of two dead teenage boys, who, as the emotional center of the novel, remains curiously unformed, a spectator even to herself. There's Robert Jones, the man who loves her, an uninvolving, transparent anyman with little history of his own. The one exception is Mallory, who provides some necessary context with his memories and his art. Yet he too seems less like flesh-and-blood than like an expression of Wideman's ideas about storytelling.
"Two Cities" is plotless and largely lifeless. Even Wideman's prose -- which, at its best, combines literary language and the vernacular in an electric mix -- is stilted, a forced reflection of his earlier work. In the long conversations that propel what story there is, the characters often sound like they're mouthing platitudes rather than addressing what they feel. That's most true of Kassima, whose meditations on love and loss present her as a paragon of black womanhood, at the expense of anything resembling an inner life. "Trouble is," she tells Robert, "love's what being a woman's all about ... We can't help it. No more than you can help all that busyass silly business of being a man."
The biggest problem with "Two Cities" is that it feels like a book Wideman's written better before. This isn't the first time he's recycled material. In his last novel, "The Cattle Killing," Wideman reused the yellow fever epidemic of his story "Fever," although in that case, he mostly pulled it off. Reading "Two Cities," however, is like looking at a photograph of a photograph, an imitation of an imitation of life.