If you read the reviews—like this one, this one, or this one—you’ll see Danzy Senna’s new novel New People described as a “social satire” or a “comic novel”—albeit, perhaps, a “darkly comic” novel—and verbs like “lampoon” and “parody” will be used to punctuate the point. What we are reading is funny, a “comedy of manners.”
The reading makes sense, and these are good reviews: Senna has often framed her work as a rejection of the sentimental “tragic mulatto” genre—in which the curse of being mixed race is the inevitable bad end that follows—and wouldn’t a novel that rejects tragedy, naturally, be comedy? Indeed, if the “tragic mulatto” is a person out of time, out of place, and out of race—a person who, being neither black nor white, can never be integrated into a society built on the schism between—then the first thing to say about New People is that it takes place in a society apparently built on a desire to be hybrid. The 1990s of this novel—at least in its Brooklyn setting—seems like a time and place when hyphenation holds the key to American identity, when the future is “beige,” and everyone wants to be a mulatto. With the perfect wedding of our protagonist and her perfect fiancé on the horizon, shouldn’t it be a comedy?
The answer to that question is a different one: why return to the 1990s, now? It’s a moment she lived through—her protagonist is a version of herself—and, in the 1990s, when she wrote about her life and times she adopted a light, comic tone; in an essay written on the eve of the millennium, for example, she described how strange it was to wake up and “realize you’re in style”:
“That’s what happened to me just the other morning. It was the first day of the new millennium, and I woke to find that mulattos had taken over. They were everywhere. Playing golf, running the airwaves, opening restaurants, modeling clothes…But then I realized that, according to the racial zodiac, 2000 is the official Year of the Mulatto. Pure breeds (at least black ones) are out; hybridity is in. American loves us in all of our half-caste glory.”
Her tone is irreverent, mocking; as she compiles a list of the varieties of blackness—from “Standard Mulatto” and “African American” to “Jewlatto,” “Cablinasian,” and “Tomatto”—the point is that none of them quite work, for her, or maybe for anyone. But if there is something superficial about America’s embrace of multiracialism, as one infers from her tone, it remains an inference; if you can wake up, one morning, and find that your society has been transformed into Mulatto Nation, what might it become tomorrow? But in that anticipatory 1998 essay, there is no suggestion of ungeziefer, the unclean creature not suitable for sacrifice into which Gregor Samsa once woke up to find himself; in 1998, the millennium hadn’t yet come.
Twenty years later, as she revisits the 1990’s, the comic tone is still there—the impulse to crack jokes at the seriousness of racial vocations—but the veneer is cracked beyond repair. If this novel has a genre, it’s gothic horror: there a ghost, of sorts, and our protagonist is writing her dissertation about Jonestown, the ne plus ultra of the utopian society gone horribly wrong; as she searches for “resistance” in the music of the People’s Temple, the looming dread of what would come seeps out of her dissertation to infect the novel. I’ve noticed that reviews which call the novel comic—and which emphasize the satire, the caricature, and the humor—tend to gloss over the largest mass murder-suicide in American history, in which over 900 people died, under duress, most of them black, a third of them children; if you call a novel a satire, then her dissertation just seems like a send-up of academic absurdity (which it also is). But it’s not only that: this ominous, nameless dread marks the place where this novel surpasses the social satire she was already writing about her contemporaries, in the 1990s; in a novel where our protagonist keeps doing things without knowing why—a novel whose main plot device is “Suddenly, our protagonist makes a strangely bad decision”—the one thing we know about what drives her is her obsession with Jonestown.
This is not to deny that the novel has laughs—some very good ones, in fact—but the same is true of a movie like Get Out, and it doesn’t make that movie a comedy. There, laughter serves a very different purpose: when the ominous awkwardness is too heavy to ignore, and you have to do something to lift it, to release that pressure, to break the tension of the moment, but it’s just so vague and indistinct, too nameless and unnamable, and it just keeps going ang going, so all you can do is crack up: to make it stop, you laugh, you do that stuttering, yalping, choking thing we do when we are doing whatever it is we are doing when we laugh. These are not pleasure laughs, not controlled or articulate; they are not the laughs that reinforce our sense of norms or social standards. They are the laughs we laugh without joy, because our bodies have to do something with the undigestible thing they are feeding on. We vomit out this reaction. Ha! Ha! Ha!
I wonder if that kind of laugh is what makes a comedy “dark”? To say that phrasing is vexed almost seems superfluous, given the ways the novel itself ultimately tropes on the very term (in interviews, Senna uses “dark” as a casual synonym for ominous wrongness; in the novel, she clarifies the racial overtones of this usage with a devastating precision). And I also wonder if I can’t laugh so easily with this novel because I am white; I wonder if I resist laughing at these scenes or characters or portrayals because I know that, if I did, I wouldn’t be laughing with them: I’d be a white man, laughing at a group of mixed-race people caught in the tragedy of race.
I don’t know. But maybe the most important thing about this novel is that Senna is very clear about not knowing, either: in a very literal sense, this is not a novel that knows or resolves, starting with its ending. What are her ghosts? What drives her character? What is she always walking away from? Why does she keep… doing the things that she’s doing? Having read this novel, don’t pretend that you know her: by the end of it, what you will know is that you don’t, that the innermost secrets of a human being are not susceptible to something so pedestrian as description or after the fact analysis. The power of this novel, in fact, might be this insistence on not taking the easy way out, on not trying to pretend that it knows better. Satire and comedy can so easily reduce to a comforting smugness; when all you must do is show a thing, as it is, to make its ludicrousness apparent—when the structure of the joke is that this ridiculous thing that no one would do, actually, is something people totally do—then the laugh, when it comes, will be a laugh at and not with. Look at these hilarious people, in college, in the 1990’s; see them in their self-parody!
Especially if you realize how close this novel is set to Senna’s own post-college experiences—in time and in place—you will see that this is a novel that never laughs at, only with; the absurdity is always coming from inside the house. And like a real person—for what makes real people real is that their psychoanalysis never ends—the realest thing about Maria might be that we never find out what makes her tick, or even where her time bomb takes her. This is not a novel built like a puzzle, where the neat answers that make all the pieces come together are eventually revealed, where the ending casts all the aspects of her psyche into sudden revelation. That kind of novel can function as a kind of reverse-psychoanalytic exercise: having understood what made a flawed character the way they are—her family, her race, her traumas, her society, her experiences—we then come to understand what would have had to have been different for the outcome to be otherwise. If a tragedy is an inverted comedy, you can watch it and imagine what it would be like to thread the tape backwards, and make it come out perfectly. Smash a window, film it, and then turn on reverse: watch all the pieces fly back into the frame, the cracks disappeared, made whole again.
If tragedy is the slow-motion car crash of watching a tragic flaw lead to its inevitable, unavoidable result—of watching an Oedipus do exactly what he was told he would do, despite everything he does to avoid it—then the fact of being mixed race will scan as the obvious explanatory factor in any tragic mulatto story. That is the story Senna has repeatedly rejected. But the problem with that story is that it can tell us nothing we didn’t already know, can only pander to a society in love with a certain image of itself in the mirror. There is nothing more lazy than writing a novel to confirm the prophecy you implanted at the beginning; tragic flaws are boring, and so is their mirror image.
What New People offers, in the end—and in the opacity of its ending—is a look back at the prophecies that didn’t come true, though it’s less an exploration than an explosion of why they didn’t. In a post-Obama era, it’s possible to see our first mixed-race president as having been the culmination of everything the characters in this novel celebrated, and hoped to build: after all, what it was possible to dream about, in the 90’s—a future defined by the “new people” born of interracial marriages in the 60’s and 70’s—well, what more perfect symbol could one dream of than this “only in America” story? But we now know what happened, or rather, we have a sense of how it feels to know that it didn’t: whatever one thinks of Obama himself, the violent backlash that assaulted the symbolic reality of his presidency, at every turn, is now the very texture of our national life. After Obama, there came Trump: we woke up one day and found that the millennium had been officially canceled; America, it seemed, longed only to be “great” again. Is it a nightmare? Which was the dream? But if this is not a book about Trump—and it does no justice to Senna’s work to force that on her—the spector of Jonestown, for Maria, stands in for the space of horror that he now embodies, for us, the corpse that was always there, but whose haunting it was once easier a bit to walk away from.