This is a Review: Loving Day, by Mat JohnsonApril 23, 2015
I had no idea what to expect from Loving Day when I requested it from NetGalley. The site describes Mat Johnson's fourth novel as "a brilliant and biting ghost story about family, real estate, race, and the dream of utopia." I'm not sure a person could fit more loaded terms into a vaguer blurb, but I was on the hunt for another work of fiction that tackled racial identity head-on after having such a good experience with Dwight Ritter's Growin' Up White.
The book opens by immediately thrusting the reader into the largely disappointing life of Warren Duffy. Coming off a bitter divorce and an equally bitter failure to break into the comic book world, he moves back to his hometown of Philadelphia after his father bequeaths him a dilapidated mansion in the city. In the span of one afternoon at a comic book convention, he meets two people who will completely change the course of his life.
That's about as much of the plot as I can give you without spoiling some major parts of the story (doesn't the vagueness of the blurb suddenly make much more sense?), so let's talk about the over-arching theme here. Warren is biracial—the son of a black mother and an Irish father—and this is a central part of his existence. Although he can pass as white, Warren strongly identifies with black culture and seems to solely gravitate toward the black community. He's in constant fear of how little control he has over how others categorize him:
"I am a racial optical illusion. I am as visually duplicitous as the illustration of the young beauty that's also the illustration of the old hag. ... The people who see me as white always will, and will think it's madness that anyone else could come to any other conclusion, holding to this falsehood regardless of learning my true identity. The people who see me as black cannot imagine how a sane, intelligent person could be so blind not to understand this, despite my pale-skinned presence. The only influence I have over this perception, if any, is in the initial encounter. Here is my chance to be categorized as black, with an asterisk. The asterisk is my whole body." (Loc 292)His white exterior and black identity earn him the moniker of "sunflower"—basically, the inverse of "Oreo"—which explains the book's cover art. (Another cover mystery that gets resolved: the origin of the novel's title. Loving Day refers to the anniversary of the Supreme Court's 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia, which struck down all remaining anti-miscegenation laws in the United States. The more you know!)
I didn't like Warren as a person—again, no spoilers, but he's no saint—but that doesn't mean I wasn't invested in watching him learn to reconcile the two parts of his identity. At the start of the novel, Warren is adamantly against acknowledging the white half of his ancestry. He heavily resents the fact that there are biracial people who have no trouble moving within the "white world":
"There are mulattoes in America who look white and also socialize as white. ... Those mulattoes whose white appearance matches up with the white world they inhabit, those mulattoes aren't coming to Mulattopia. The world already fits well enough for them." (Loc 1242)Through his experiences with a biracial community group (the aforementioned "Mulattopia"), Warren changes heart, even arguing with one of his closest black friends that "[h]aving people acknowledge all of their ethnic heritage doesn't mean they're abandoning social justice" (Loc 3676).
It was only when I looked Johnson up that I realized just how much of Loving Day is autobiographical. Johnson is of black and Irish descent, and he even wrote a comic book of the same name as Warren's one claim to illustration fame. As someone who knows very little about the lived experience of mixed-race individuals (I'm part-Cuban, but it isn't a huge part of my life as an otherwise white-as-hell Jewess), seeing how closely Johnson's experiences paralleled those of Warren's lent a lot of authenticity to his character.
So, major points for tackling tough topics. The story itself? To be honest, I found it a little convoluted, at times in ways that took away from the value of Warren's transformation of identity. There were just too many different things going on. If you don't mind a zany plot, I definitely recommend the book for anyone looking for some frank discussions about being black (and/or being biracial) in America.
Loving Day is available for pre-order and will be released May 26, 2015.
Obligatory disclaimer goes here: I received Loving Day from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks so much to Random House Publishing Group for giving me the chance to read it!
Has anyone else read Loving Day? Let's chat!