Review of Lote by Shola von Reinhold
What to do if you are Born to be Beautiful but all the world around you insists on Ugliness? How to escape the sartorial and existential drag of convention clogging your every brilliant pore? How to Escape? Is it possible to effect a succession of Escapes from others’ constrictions, and blithely jitterbug to another persona, another self-incarnation of Beauty? Become someone else? This is Lote protagonist, Mathilda’s way of crossing through life. As she reincarnates, she looks at Beautiful people of the past, especially those of the late 19C and early 20C who were Bright Young Things – people of colour such as Richard Bruce Nugent and Josephine Baker, but also Stephen Tennant and Edith Sitwell – those who embraced Beauty and fabulous living, whose way of living was itself a form of extravagant poetry. The era Mathilda is most focused on was also the time of peak Black Modernism, and many of modernism’s (and post-modernisms) concerns ripple through Lote.
Lote is a great intellectual banquet. Black Modernism is one of things it explores, particularly modernism’s rejection of neat endings, of consistency of character, its embrace of randomness and of a sense of an ordered world being unachievable. Lote also exhibits many tropes of postmodernism: multiple registers, multiple tones, multiple stylistic references. Its embrace of these modernist and postmodernist devices renders conventional / realist concerns with plot and character development secondary within its text. Instead, the book as a whole ripples with linguistic extravagance, rococo thought chains, esoteric research and methodological invention.
Central to many of Lote’s themes and obsessions is one question. It is specifically mentioned on p209 and is a question bell hooks posed in her essay, Paris is Burning: when womanness and femininity is constructed as having at its apex Whiteness, are not any black folk who quest after such Beauty implicitly buying into that white construction and so maintaining and reinforcing white supremacist ideology? Pages 267 to p280 of Lote reprise this question in essay form as “Hermia English-ish Eccentrcs (-ish) VII” – a passage which is a superb ride through many of the aesthetic cross-roads, transgressions and cul-de-sacs that the black quaintrelle, dandy or boulevardier might encounter in seeking to be Beautiful.
Ultimately, Lote as a text resists categorisation. It is fiction. But there is no hard-driving plot. It does have a fictional main character, Mathilda. But many other figures are actual historical figures rather than inventions and there significant sections of biography. The text can switch register easily from novel to art history to biography to news report to diary. For this reason, as well as the density of erudite references (the main character’s principal vocation is biographical research) it is not the kind of book that demands it be read in one sitting. But it is a no lesser thing for that. To return to bell hooks’ question, Lote probably does not square off the bell hooks’ challenge: the instances of Beauty shown through its 460 pages seem primarily Euro-centric ones and there is no sustained exploration of any alternative aesthetics. Or perhaps it does square off that challenge. Its argument may be, that, like Othello, we must embrace and subvert for our own purposes, the available Western forms. Ultimately, qua literary text, the issue of polemics matters little here. The book is a triumph, a celebration of black oddity, extravagance and flamboyance. The burden of representation is lifting for black writers. Publishers are more open to off-beat texts. No need any more to square off all corners and write in that dutiful, realist, novel-of-representation way. Lote is a breath-taking and singular addition to the weltering multiplicity of black literary voices/texts: a sauntering, sparkling, deep-diving joy of a novel.