I just received my contributor’s copies of the Fall 2010 Southern Literary Journal, which includes my essay “Randall Kenan beyond the Final Frontier: Science Fiction, Superheroes, and the South in A Visitation of Spirits.” I’m really glad to see this in print. If you haven’t read Kenan’s 1989 novel, you absolutely should—one of the best novels about the South of the last 25 years. The book’s protagonist, Horace Cross, is a gay African-American teenager struggling with his sexuality in a conservative religious culture that abhors anything it deems aberrant. That sounds like grim stuff, and in places—in a lot of places—it is, but the book is formally playful as well as emotionally wrenching, and it hits some sweet grace notes along the way.
Visitation has attracted a fair amount of critical attention over the years, including some very worthwhile studies by Robert McRuer, Suzanne Jones, and George Hovis, among others. My essay is about the curious silence in the criticism on the subject of the novel’s dense web of allusions to superhero comics, science fiction stories, and general geekery; while critics have been quick to tie Kenan to William Faulkner, it makes just as much sense, I argue, to tie him to William Gibson—maybe more, given that one of the novel’s epigraphs is from Neuromancer. But ultimately the piece is about how Faulkner v. Gibson is a false dichotomy, about how our notions of what constitutes “southern culture” can be enlarged and usefully complicated if we think of, say, reading Batman comics and participating in a hog slaughter as mutually informing aspects of the experience of living in the South.
The essay was a ton of fun to write and research—I got to dig through old Avengers back issues at LSU’s Hill Memorial Library in search of a particular reference, which Kenan was generous enough to confirm for me. And of course anyone who followed our roundtable on Jujitsu for Christ, or read my interview with Jack Butler in Mississippi Quarterly, knows that this issue is a source of ongoing fascination for me, and one around which I’m hoping to build a larger project.
(This is essentially the academic version of my shorter, quasi-semi-autobiographical piece “Tony Stark in Belzoni,” soon to appear in Lost Battles alongside the work of some swell writers.)
This ends the self-promotion. For now.