On Reading John Edgar Wideman

One of my recent emails, Paris Review Redux, included a link to one of John Edgar Wideman’s stories, “Sightings,” published in 2004. Ever since I read Philadelphia Fire maybe twelve years ago now, I’ve read pretty much everything I’ve come across with the author’s name, this being one of them. And like all of Wideman’s work, it left me in awe of his propulsive prose.

Reading John Edgar Wideman’s work is an experience unlike any other: cerebral, experimental, challenging. As a new-ish reader/READER twelve years ago, I wasn’t attracted to Wideman’s sentences so much as his love of basketball. Philadelphia Fire (which isn’t about basketball, really) possesses elaborate scenes of young men playing hoops on outdoor courts, something of my childhood that I could cotton to as an immature reader more interested in subject matter than the alchemic cohesion and rhythmic sounds of nuanced sentences on the page, of which Wideman is a genius-master.

The summer following my experience reading Wideman’s Philadelphia Fire, I had plans to meet friends out in Colorado, but before dipping through Fort Collins and eventually onto Steamboat Springs, I had convinced my wife to drive north through Laramie where Wideman had once lived and taught. He no longer lived in Laramie, but I wanted to see what he saw; hear what he heard. I wanted to walk those same city streets and lay eyes on the same railroad tracks and eat in the same cafes that no doubt Wideman had experienced at one point in his life. Had Wideman taught anywhere else—say, a larger city of any kind—this experience of re-living his steps wouldn’t have held the same allure. But we were in Laramie, a town of mystery in its own right.

Walking those sparsely populated streets, with a pleasant lack of stimuli, one could see how a writer’s mind could be (over)stimulated—possessed not of the external, but of the inward; how, given the appropriate silence and space, a person’s thoughts are allowed to occupy and multiply in a space normally taken up by honking cars and should-to-shoulder foot traffic which, on the day I visited Laramie, was virtually nonexistant.

While there, I bought a book in a bookshop that I accessed through an alleyway. The bookshop was on the second floor, and I had to climb a set of iron stairs mounted to the side of the building in order to enter. There were a few people in the shop, and as I perused the books, I settled on the one closest to the cash register. A pocket-sized The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. I didn’t know at the time what attracted me to such a helpful (albeit boring) book. Perhaps it was that I wanted to be a writer myself, and I thought surely this book couldn’t hurt. Now, several years later, what I like about that purchase is knowing how Wideman’s work—with all its fancy lingual dexterity—wouldn’t fit neatly into anything Strunk & White advocated; that Wideman set out to break all the rules and in so doing created his own inimitable (element of) style.

If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, try reading the first paragraph of Wideman’s story “Sightings.” 1500 manic words, all one sentence.

What do you suppose Strunk & White would have to say about that?

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