Long Division, by Kiese Laymon
Publisher: Agate Bolden
276 pages, paperback
Published June 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads
True or False: If you haven’t read or written or listened to something at least three times, you have never really read, written, or listened.
So reads one of the ‘questions’ in a test given to Citoyen (City), the protagonist of “Long Division”, a test that appears both near the beginning and the end of the story. Or perhaps one should say, stories. With the qualifications of ‘for me [dot dot dot] for this novel’ the above statement is most certainly true. On the surface Laymon’s debut novel is filled with straight-forward social commentary on race, age, and family. These weighty topics are dealt with moments that are humorous and a style that shows joy at playing with language. But I also get the sense that there is more behind that surface, a trove of thought-provoking bits that could easily fuel dissection in some academic setting. This is a novel that one finishes, and decides to return to again one day.
You can read the summary of what this novel is about, so I won’t go into its complexities here, but it is indeed a book with another book called “Long Division” within it. And that secondary “Long Division” even has yet another “Long Division” within that. We the reader don’t delve into that level, though one gets the impression that it may circle back into the world of the primary “Long Division” one holds in his or her hands. Thankfully, this complexity does not detract from the novel, it is actually an integral part that drives the whole. The fantastic aspects of the novel (time travel across historical eras) actually take place in the secondary “Long Division”, while the primary work stays rooted in a realistic manner until the end when a bit of magic possibilities enter in, at least how I interpreted things on a first read. I felt some uncertainty in both events of the plot and what ideas to take from the novel upon concluding it. On the one hand this fuels thinking, reconsidering, and rereading. On the other hand, some readers may not like doing this at all.
Laymon desired (from what I can tell) to write something unique that spoke to a particular audience, but still capture certain essences of ‘classic’ Am literature that we all grew up with in school. He has surely achieved this kind of balance both in story and characters. On the back cover of the book, Tim Strode is quoted “…City…feels totally singular and totally representative.” This statement is dead-on, both in characters and the overall style of the work. Layman’s most impressive achievement is that of voice. The City of “Long Division” prime is both similar, and quite distinct from the time-traveling counterpart of “Long Division” secondary. In a book that focuses commentary on stereotypes, clichés, acting a part, etc, it becomes essential that the author stays well-clear of falling into the same trap. Laymon manages to keep each character utterly believable and sincere: simply human, whether young or old, male or female, black or white. Primarily focused on issues of race, it was profound to see Laymon also masterfully handle those other considerations such as gender.
The varied styles and personalities of each character really does make this novel go beyond being a clever social commentary or homage to classic literature; it makes it art worth consuming. That fact, along with the book’s easy flow, strong plot, and tendency to make one chuckle make this something well-worth your reading.