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In the Hour of Chaos: The Grim Parables of Charles Johnson

Somebody–I hope a commenter will remind me who it was–has suggested that the Left typically thinks in terms of an opposition between oppression and liberation, whereas the right typically thinks in terms of an opposition between civilization and barbarism. I would reframe the latter opposition as order vs. chaos; if we do that, it’s obvious that both oppositions are unrelentingly relevant, yet few thinkers or artists are able to hold both conflicts before our eyes at once.

I just finished Charles Johnson’s 1986 short-story collection The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Tales and Conjurations, a bag of broken glass which is equal parts liberationist and reactionary, yearning for freedom and knuckling under to fatalism. Centering on black American lives, mostly set within black communities, his stories shouldn’t be missed—he’s an intensely intellectual visionary, a reader of Plato who remembers that the heart of Plato is in the Symposium, a black Buddhist for whom education is not so much self-improvement as self-abnegation.

The prose is heady; I gulped it down. This is just a great description of a certain kind of hangover, from the chaos-partisan story “Aletheia”:

Hours later, when I came out of this drug coma, the building was full of daylight, quiet, the loud party long past. Things, no longer hazed, had a stylized purity of line. Was there more to come? Was I done? I wondered if I had dreamed the connectedness of Being the night before, or if now, awake, I dreamed distinctions. I didn’t know where I was for an instant.

Then there’s this depiction of alienation (so to speak) from “Popper’s Disease,” a science-fiction parable which reads like Walker Percy crossed with Ralph Ellison:

[The flying saucer’s] strangeness seemed to trigger in me the same primordial feeling of thrownness that every Negro experiences when hurled into a society that simultaneously supports and, I am saying, annihilates him, because he can find reflections of himself nowhere in it–like a falcon exiled, say, to the Lifeworld of fish, always off-balance, but finally embracing the alien in all its otherness, yet never sure if he’s got it right.

But these excerpts probably make the stories sound too academic and theory-damaged. They’re actually gripping, tense stories: In “The Education of Mingo,” a ramshackle white loner buys an African slave and does far too good a job of teaching the slave his ways. (Education, its paradoxes and its defeats, serves as one of the collection’s strongest recurring themes.) “Exchange Value” is a brutal little parable about the unquenchable emptiness of desire, by which I mean that it’s a story about two young toughs who break into a dead hoarder’s apartment and steal all her stuff. “Menagerie, A Child’s Fable” is practically right-wing Orwell, an animal tale about a pet shop which descends into anarchy after the disappearance of the horrible, drunken owner. “China” is the story of an unhappy bourgeois marriage redeemed by the husband’s sudden interest in the martial arts—or is the catty, needy wife the story’s real hero?

Each story is memorable and surprising, and while they fit together into a coherent collection, they never seem repetitive. These are stories with a hundred shades of sadness. The only triumphs these characters achieve are the triumphs of self-overcoming and surrender.

about the author

Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at Patheos and has written for Commonweal, USA Today, and the Weekly Standard, among other publications. She is working on a book on vocation for gay Catholics. Her email is [email protected] and she can be found on Twitter at @evetushnet.

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