Marc Anthony Richardson
FC2/ University of Alabama Press, 2017
Released to high critical acclaim but scant attention last year, Marc Anthony Richardson’s Year of the Rat is a slim novel excavating the inheritance of generational trauma, violence, economic struggle, and institutional racism that defines much of contemporary life in the US. At a time when Black America is actively embracing its (super) heroes, Richardson’s book is an anomaly. Evoking the antihero, it tells the story of a disaffected artist who “returns to the dystopian city of his birth to tend to his invalid mother only to find himself torn apart by memories and longings”. Black outsiders (and insiders) like Jean Toomer, Dambudzo Marechera, and Samuel Delany are obvious literary brethren here, but it’s in the “experiential and real cross-disciplinary spirit” of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA) that Richardson finds his true family.
Year of the Rat is a book that reads like a musical composition that reads like a painting. More than tell a story, it proposes a method, a way to sustain and share, in sound and images, the capacity to live, and to live beyond one’s means and beyond the accepted and expected. “Squinting is god,” Richardson’s nameless artist narrator advises, “It negates detail and yet proposes it. It reduces everything to simple geometric shapes, the building blocks of a good drawing, revealing only the foundation, the very thing that makes a thing what it is.” He goes on to caution: “Stop before perfection. Walk away. For although most realists – imaginary beings obsessed with literalisms for lack of imagination – will commonly agree that the drawing has turned out to be an incongruous mess…”
Richardson openly embraces this “mess”, refusing the traditional linear narrative and well-rounded characters of literary realism in favour of shapes and shadows, angular lines and frenetic brush work that he weaves into incantations and patterns that radicalise the heart and the eye, and force us to see the world and ourselves anew.