Jason Mott’s Hell of a (Talking) Book

'Hell of a Book,' by Jason Mott book review - The Washington Post

In The Signifying Monkey, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., writes about the trope of the talking book, a double-voiced discourse that speaks in a black vernacular voice but takes the traditional form of a white literary text (an expressive form that was long barred to African Americans).  Autobiography (fictional or historical) is the preferred mode for the talking book, an introspective account that seeks to process a traumatic past, make sense of it, and find a path forward.

Jason Mott’s Hell of a Book, winner of the 2021 National Book Award for fiction, is not just a talking book but also a metacognitive novel, a work of fiction that is an exercise in thinking about thinking–an effort to understand the things that go off in our heads. It weaves seamlessly from reality (the vertiginous book tour for Hell of a Book) to fantasy (the Kid, the dying father, the moribund mother, and much else), for Author (that’s the designation for the protagonist) suffers from a hyperactive imagination, a “pathological” condition (Enjoy your symptom! as Žižek urges us) that makes it impossible to distinguish fantasy from reality.

Hell of a Book begins with an account of The Kid’s (the Author’s imagined sidekick) efforts to become invisible and unseen, a strategy for staying safe in a culture that makes it perilous to have a black skin. Signifying on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, it inverts the trope of invisibility, turning it into something desirable rather than a pariah-like state. Yet what is more important to us than being seen, having a story, and at the same time staying safe even when and especially when you are exposed to the world, with eyes on your face and ears listening to your story?

What I especially admired in Hell of a Book is the reframing of heroism. In a sly allusion to Joseph Campbell, Mott’s Author writes “No matter how much I want to ignore this Call to Adventure, I know I can’t.” Capitalizing that phrase makes it clear that he is alluding to The Hero with a Thousand Faces as he begins a journey, criss-crossing the country, and undertakes a spiritual odyssey as well, one that challenges him to engage with social problems that haunt his past and present and that take on concrete form in The Kid.

Author’s trajectory is closer to that of the old-time heroine than to the paths followed by Campbell’s heroes, who move from the Call to Adventure through an ordeal to a return home, often with a boon or healing elixir. Like heroines from ancient times to the present, Author’s curiosity is aroused by a victim, in this case, the phantom spirit of The Kid, a boy for whom Author begins to care deeply in the course of his wanderings. And how does the care manifest itself? In the way that it does for so many heroines from times past, in an effort to find a voice that will tell a story, one that broadcasts injury and harm done and secures justice, or at the least makes the unseen and unheard both visible and audible. I’m reminded here of Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, a novel that ends with Starr Carter finding her voice and telling a story that begins with “Once upon a time” and ends by memorializing her friend Khalil, a victim of police gun violence.



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