Imperilled Communities in Edward P. Jones's Lost in the City and Dagoberto Gilb's the Magic of Blood
Kennedy, J. Gerald, Beuka, Robert, Yearbook of English Studies
Proceeding from the notion that short-story sequences construct semblances of 'community' through their interweaving of distinct but related fictional voices, we examine the 'visions of community' offered in these two recent story sequences. Portraying, respectively, the African American inhabitants of Washington, DC, and the dispersed Chicano peoples of the Southwest, Jones's and Gilb's collections depict the tensions experienced by minority groups between assimilationist desires and dreams of ethnic identification and continuity. Ultimately, each collection constructs a vision of community whose values and desires reflect an ironic, supplemental relationship to the national narrative of the United States.
The semblance of community in the short story sequence, its tendency to produce a collective metanarrative through a series of discrete, multivoiced tales, gives this form peculiar relevance to the social transformations of the millennial era. Continuing population shifts and border crossings in a 'polyethnic, diasporic world' (to borrow Frederick Buell's phrase) make the concept of community in its various linkages with multiculturalism, ethnicity, and postmodern nationhood crucial to both cultural theory and to critical readings of contemporary sequences. Many recent collections of stories represent minority peoples inhabiting what Homi K. Bhabha calls the 'unsettling space' between 'the phantasm of rootedness and the memory of dissemination'. If all communities are inherently 'imagined' and socially constructed, as Benedict Anderson has insisted, they nevertheless determine the production and definition of social identity by marking the convergence of shared memories, beliefs, and cultural practices, developed in relation to specific places, landscapes, or homelands. Because story sequences 'construct tenuous fictive communities' through their aggregation of separate yet conjoined narratives, producing at least a simulacrum of composite unity (e pluribus unum), each sequence thus also replicates in microcosm the formation of an imagined national community and the coalescence of its sustaining narrative. Story sequences that emerge as minority discourse consequently have a doubled, paradoxical relationship to the national narrative from and against which they are written, representing community narratives that challenge even as they supplement the dominant discourse of nationhood.
Two recent American story sequences, Edward P. Jones's Lost in the City (1992) and Dagoberto Gilb's The Magic of Blood (1993) illustrate this ironic, supplementary relationship to the national master-narrative, which in the United States idealizes New World settlement ordained by God, heroic revolution against colonial oppression, and establishment of a democratic republic ensuring pursuit of the 'American Dream' of prosperity. These ethnic counter-narratives (both first books by winners of the PEN/ Hemingway Award), present alternate versions of minority life in the United States in the late twentieth century. Without essentializing either African American or Chicano experience, respectively, we can read these texts against each other as articulations of specific histories and cultural identities that differ from each other even as they differ from the 'mainstream' Euro-American narrative of the nation. Each sequence evokes a particular geography and an ambiguous sense of community, one 'located', the other disseminated. Neither text features a recurrent protagonist or interwoven fictive lives (characters from one story encountered briefly in another); both, however, imply commonalities of experience through repetitions of character type, circumstance, and event. In short, both subtly construct from disparate stories an overarching narrative that registers the practices and rituals, the conjunctions and disjunctions, of an ethnic group distinct from the dominant culture. Through the hybrid form of the sequence (between short story and novel), the metanarratives of Jones and Gilb recall the 'strategies of hybridisation' defined by Bhabha: 'They deploy the partial culture from which they emerge to construct visions of community, and versions of historic memory, that give narrative form to the minority positions they occupy: the outside of the inside: the part in the whole. …