John Edgar Wideman’s prose is more complex than many of the writers of contemporary fiction. Rather than flimsy sentences constructed to fill shallow books (see beach reading,) Wideman’s prose is dense and provocative. Some of his sentences are short, others utilize many clauses, but the words Wideman uses, the substance behind them, convey careful crafting of language. It is because of this distinct use of language that Roland Barthes could provide an interesting critical commentary on Wideman’s literature.
Wideman sees a world in flux, a world where stereotypes cannot be compartmentalized as typically seems to be society’s approach. Wideman writes with certainty of what he sees in the inner city of Philadelphia where he grew up. His literature challenges the perception of the fixity of reality, something Barthes believed could be drawn inherently from literature. Rather than a single relationship between the signifier and the signified, Barthes analyzed using an array of lenses, of voices. The texts Barthes criticized were not univocal. They did have a single canonical meaning behind them and rather he emphasized the plurality of a text, thus the multiplicities of the reality it sought to suggest. Wideman makes this post-modernist statement through his work, less concerned with the specific association between a word and that which it might signify and rather concentrating on how many places the two converge.
Wideman challenges the ideas linking reality and stereotype, bringing people out of their comfort zones. Stereotype’s root in reality comes from its inherent element of true representation. Weaving together many true elements presents a richer perspective than pure stereotype alone, just as Barthes believed analysis through plurality of codes adds depth and meaning to a text. Wideman’s reality has the ability to stand-alone but it is through his text that the reader is offered the richest perspective.
By eliminating the characterization between voice and reader, Wideman complicates the dimensions of perspective. Whose perspective does it become? Society, the reader, the narrator and the author (and perhaps even the character) become superimposed upon each other as the text becomes three-dimensional. Each once stood apart from the others, seeing only frustrating, incomplete snapshots of reality. Wideman’s writing is Barthes weaving of voices, text becoming a stereographic space. The plurality exposed is at once threatening and inspiring.