”The World Doesn’t Require You” (Liveright, $25.95), a bleak and beautiful collection of short stories, is the second book by Rion Amilcar Scott, winner of the prestigious PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction for 2016’s ”Insurrections.”
Set in fictional Cross River, Maryland, the stories in both collections depict life in the aftermath of the Great Insurrection, America’s only successful slave revolt.
This remarkable literary project — with echoes of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or, more recently, Jesmyn Ward’s Bois Sauvage — makes use of place as a deeply significant factor in characters’ lives. The Southern and African American residents of Cross River grapple with their ancestors’ past triumphs and their own present horror when racism manifests as memory, discrimination and violence.
Scott’s stories often are told in first person, from the point of view of men whose different voices and different eras come to form a chorus of black life in Cross River. The dialogue is rendered without quotation marks, a technique that leads to fluent slippage between what the characters think and what they say.
In one story, the narrator’s college friend returns years later with a dissertation analyzing a childhood door-knock prank as a cultural product of slave escape plans. As the two men revisit their childish joke, the narrator becomes subsumed in the game despite increasing tensions and consequences.
In another story, “Numbers,” a crime family underling in 1918 tries to save himself and his murderous boss from an endless cycle of killing: “This damn compassion,” he thinks. “This damn empathy.”
“Rolling in My Six-Fo’” starts as a road trip and descends into a nightmarish blur of druggy surrealism and fun-house-mirror racism.
The collection’s standout, which closes the book, is a novella titled “Special Topics in Loneliness Studies” about two professors, their job travails at Freedman’s University, their love lives and their shifting understanding of what it means to be a teacher. Scott uses a hybrid of narrative forms here — emails, assignments, footnotes, slide shows, oral history — to convey the story of these two men and a sense of their fragmented experiences. It’s a risk-filled strategy that pays off in an emotionally resonant ending that echoes themes of the collection as a whole.
Reading “The World Doesn’t Require You” is an immersive, slightly disorienting experience. The book’s stories change modes — from realism to science-fiction to horror and back — leaving readers captivated and also intentionally off-balance. Painful and shocking moments of racism and violence occur next to scenes of tenderness and humor.
Scott demonstrates the skill and long-range vision of a writer we need right now. “The World Doesn’t Require You” requires a commitment from readers, but it’s one that will be greatly repaid in literary satisfaction.
Read more at USA Today.