(Reviewed by Debbie Lee Wesselmann JAN 29, 2006)
"Well, I can deal with change. I can wander beyond my comfort zones. I been black and I been white. I been alive and dead, rich and poor, clever and stupid, entire and broke, one-brained and two-brained, lost and found."
Leifur Nils Kristjansson Saint Marie du Cotton has a problem besides the unwieldiness of his name: born of a black mother and an absent Icelandic sailor in 1950 Mississippi, his "genes were knitted from rainbow yarns." Nicknamed an androgynous, culturally generic "Lee," he is a blonde, white, blue-eyed nerd living among his black relatives. Both blacks and whites are affronted by his existence, as though he had chosen to rebel against his heritage, something that fires up the locals and makes Lee a tourist attraction to outsiders. Lee's problems are compounded by another oddity, his ability to hear the thoughts of both the living and the dead. If that were not enough to complicate the novel, Lee discovers that his life holds surprising, even shocking, turns that ensure he will never fit in anywhere: "And, I'm thinking to myself, I don't fit in either group. Not precisely. I figure as some freak slider, in between." First he survives a brutal, racially motivated assault that leaves him a John Doe, assumed to be white, in a neurological ward, and then, through a series of events, he undergoes major transformations that always leave him different on the outside than on the inside, a paradox that Lee accepts with fatalism. His willingness to adapt to whatever his bizarre life deals him lends him much of his charm. No matter what guise he assumes, he remains an honest, homespun, good-humored, observant individual––a cross between Forest Gump and Cal from Eugenides's Middlesex. As one character says, "'You're inchoate, Lee. You're plastic; you're protean. What happens next?'"
Some of the other characters are as outrageous as Lee himself: self-destructive Angel who undergoes her own transformations, always one step beyond Lee's; time-traveler Ethan who claims "you can live as many lives as you like, all at once, in parallel"; shrewd reporter and lesbian Fay who wants more than anything to be loved, just once; Angel's father Byron who remains a steadfast bigot despite all the lessons he should have learned; Doc, a mechanic and once famous surgeon who lost his license due to "operative embellishments," who now performs illegal surgery in the back room of a local bar; and grandmother Celeste, a wealthy woman from "N'awlins" who practices voodoo and who later talks to Lee from beyond the grave. The characters, with all their exaggerated qualities, fit well with the tone of the novel, for Wilson is not interested in realism but in theme: no one really belongs in his own world. Lee's "restless skin" could be claimed by any one of the other characters, although to a lesser degree. They are radicals, misfits, and outcasts in search of their own brand of stability.
As suggested by the characters, the novel explores what it means to live on America's fringes during turbulent times. The politics of race, gender, and class become a politics of self, as Lee dismantles stereotypes just by being who he is. After all, Lee Cotton is renamed Lee McCoy, with all the corny implications of his being "the real McCoy" even though he embodies both everything and nothing. At times Wilson stretches the reader's patience with his outlandish plot twists; the sections where the reader must adjust along with Lee to a new reality often cause the narrative to founder. Fortunately for the reader, each time Wilson manages to find his way back to the right balance between character and content through Lee's first person narration and sensibilities which provide an anchor for the reader. Lee's voice ensures continuity even if the narrative details do not.
By the novel's end, the reader learns why Lee has undergone these trials, although the somewhat hokey explanation, not entirely unexpected, falls flat because of the shift from the delightful bizarre to a pat inspirational message. Despite the flaws, Cotton remains an inventive and memorable novel. As Lee tells the reader with his faulty mathematics, "You feel half normal, half charmed, and half persecuted. You just got to take life's blows on the chin. When you got a restless skin condition, you got to struggle on, best you can, and hope to grasp a helping hand along the way, because sometimes it feels like you can help everyone but yourself, for we're all joined up, in this riddle of life, together." This Gump-like message from a character who cannot stay within one identity gives new meaning to taking "life's blows on the chin," as Lee's crises transcend what most people are likely to encounter themselves.
- Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Cotton at Harcourt
(back to top)
Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
(back to top)
- Complete Review on Mischief
- Guardian Unlimited review of Cotton
- Times ONline review of Cotton
- AfroToronto review of Cotton
- Telegraph review of Cotton
(back to top)
About the Author:
CHRISTOPHER WILSON earned his Ph.D. in humor and works as a consulting semiotician (advises companies on the language they use to advertise themselves). His first novel, Mischief, was short-listed for the Whitbread Award and his second novel, Blueglass, was longlisted for the The Booker Prize. His third novel, Cotton, was shortlisted for the 2005 Whitbread Novel Award.
He lives in London.