Kiese Laymon is a phenomenal writer, and you can tell so the moment you begin any of his three books. I reviewed his memoir Heavy a couple years ago, and have finally read his other two books, starting with Long Division, a novel. I read the 2021 edition, which I’ll talk more about later. The book is split into two halves which read starting from either side of the book, and ending in the middle.
“Book One,” (though Laymon says you can read them in any order, I chose the obvious order) follows a black Mississippian boy named City, in the year 2013. He and his school rival, Lavander Peeler, both make a scene at the national “Can You Use that Word in a Sentence” competition, and City is sent to stay with his grandmother in the rural town of Melahatchie. There, he contends with violent racists, his grandmother’s church, the reaction to his outburst at the competition (which has gone viral in the way things really could go viral back in 2013), and the disappearance of his neighbor, a girl named Baize Shephard. Also, he’s found a strange book titled Long Division, in which he is the main character.
In “Book Two,” a black Mississippian boy named City living in Melahatchie is in love with his friend Shalaya Crump, in the year 1985. Shalaya reveals to him that she’s found a way to travel to the future (2013), and she’s worried that in the future she’s dead. She can also travel to the past, 1964, where her and City’s grandpas are about to be killed by the klan. In 1964, the two meet Evan Altshuler, who wants to help them save their grandpas and his own family. In 2013, they meet Baize Shephard.
Regardless of which half you start with, character is the first thing that jumps out, especially City, the narrator. He has a lot of opinions, a lot that he needs to let you know about Lavander Peeler, about Principle Reeves, about the “Can You Use that Word in a Sentence” competition, about Melahatchie, about Baize Shephard, and about himself. He’s self conscious in a way that stops short of providing a perfect accounting of his inner working at all times, but still goes a lot deeper than most 14-year-old protagonists do. Despite his braggadocio, City is scared and sad about a lot of things. Sometimes he admits this to himself, sometimes he admits only to the way it feels in his body.
It’s not just City though. From Lavander Peeler to Grandma, all these characters leap off the page, and then deepen, reveal richer hues within the bright colors that initially grabbed the reader’s attention. The scenes between City and Baize are dynamite, as she is just as boastful and opinionated as him—and this vibrancy, this vigor of spirit, makes the way the adults treat these young people that much more heartbreaking. The book puts a lot of focus on the cruelty inflicted on children, especially black children, through “education.” The prime example of this is the sentence competition in Book One, which kind of blew my mind and had me, for the first time, thinking about how bizarre and messed up spelling bees are. We meet 2013 City as a smart, verbally dextrous kid locked in a rivalry with the effete Lavander Peeler—and then we see that expansive, energetic persona squashed, curbed, even memified. City’s creative, imaginative, and righteously angry language is denied as not “correct, appropriate, or dynamic”—a dramatic, heightened version of the minute and myriad ways in which adults constantly rebuke children for their creativity, in which white people constantly seek the destruction or neutralization of black imagination.
Yet, these kids fight back against that normative pressure, and so does Laymon. In a discussion with the author, Imani Perry described this book as, in part, a craft book, and I completely agree. The sentence competition, in addition to its integral role for plot and theme, is a chance for Laymon to stunt on the readers. There are some wonderful sentences, including a trick sentence which is absolutely fucking haunting and forced me to put the book down and just turn it over for a while. And the language is phenomenal throughout the book. All the characters are very conscious of it, critiquing each other’s slang as being “stale” or “fresh.” This is a book which encourages the reader to care about language as much as the author does, as much as the characters do, and to appreciate the lyrical genius in the way kids talk to one another. Even Lavander Peeler’s homophobic “Kindly pause” is an oddly inventive turn of phrase.
Zooming out some, let’s talk about time travel. As plot device, as structuring component, as thematic ligature, Laymon deploys it expertly. The book examines the complicated relationships people can have to the past and to the future—specifically kids, specifically kids living in a country that’s trying to destroy them. 1985 City is torn between a desire to change the past and a desire to keep it at arm’s length. He’s enchanted by the future, by the laptop computer where you can make your words appear on a little TV screen, but also disoriented by it, and unsure of what his place in it is—if there is any space for him in 2013, if Shalaya Crump is, as she fears, dead. The book also … well, I won’t spoil it. I’ll just say, time travel is an old, old trope, and it is hard to do something new with it, and Laymon does something here which really caught me off guard. Not the plot points, but his treatment of them, and how the characters experience them. Heartfelt, surprising. That’s all I’ll say about that.
Now for the aspect of this book I feel least equipped to discuss: the meta. The book is highly, intricately self-referential (a book titled Long Division appears in both halves, for instance.) It makes sense because all of the major characters are reading and writing, using language to process grief and their own stories. 1985 City is constantly talking about what he would do if he was in a dumb novel, and resisting or giving into that narrative pull. Just as they’re all language-conscious, they’re story-conscious too, aware of the ability of reading and writing to affect their reality. I will probably have more thoughts on this after a second read, but suffice it to say Laymon is doing something here, it’s meaningful meta, not gimmick meta.
And the format of the book (i.e. the way it starts at either end and works toward the middle) isn’t just a fun trick either. When you’re reading Long Division, your motion is always deeper. You’re not going from the front cover to the back, but digging in toward the center. It’s a little disorienting, because you never know exactly how much you have left, the way you would with a regular book. It also encourages you to just reread it straight away, to keep flipping over and over. That’s very in the spirit of long division itself, at least as Shalaya Crump describes it:
“I hate the answer because I don’t believe in mastering the smaller steps,” she told me. “They never teach you to like, you know, linger in the smaller steps.”(Book Two, 15)
“Linger? What’s that mean?”
“They just tell you that you gotta master the small steps if you wanna get to the big answer,” she told me. “But I wish we could really pause at each step in long division and talk about it.”
There is no big answer, both books end in blank pages with leaves drawn at the corners. The reader has to linger in the steps, just as these kids are lingering in the moments between childhood and adulthood, revising themselves.
And that revision idea goes even deeper. This is the re-release—the original is not formatted like this. The 2013 edition has Book Two start right where Book One ends, in strict linear order. There aren’t even page breaks between chapters, page breaks being the lingering space which almost all novels incorporate. And Laymon revised the text too, not just the format. As a reader this is a delicious added layer of meaning; as a writer, I respect the hell out of the ethos of not treating publication as the end of a book’s process—not treating books as ever really done, not taking a financial operation as marker of completion. A lot of Long Division is about that tension—the completed adults, the in-process children, and the adults’ desire to complete the children, to render them static and proper. So kudos to Laymon for buying his books back and re-releasing them, for revising, for lingering in the steps rather than stamping out a big answer.
What more is there to say? Well there’s this: I have a small shelf, literally a single 22-inch shelf, of my absolute favorite books, the ones that push at their respective genres and forms, push further than seems possible, push at me. Heavy was on there, and Long Division joined it as soon as I finished it. Laymon fires on all cylinders, and somehow the whole is even greater than the sum of the tremendous, dazzling parts. I highly recommend this book to anyone who reads English. Also highly recommend reading it in conjunction with his other two books.