Spelling Cyphers: A Review of Long Division by Kiese Laymon
The most interesting mystery novels don’t announce themselves as such. There is no murder to solve or culprit to apprehend. Rather, events which have no obvious explanation unfold and an air of ambiguity surrounds them. Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division belongs to this category of mystery. It is a bold narrative which, for more than half of its pages, withholds the nature of its machinations until an ingenious turn connects what had seemed to be a succession of unrelated cyphers.
City Coldson is the book’s fourteen-year-old protagonist. A student in Jackson, Mississippi, City participates in a spelling bee-like contest called Can You Use That Word in a Sentence, in which students are provided high caliber vocabulary and asked to include it in a “dynamic sentence.” Long Division begins shortly before the competition’s state championship. A classmate from City’s school, LaVander Peeler, also makes the cut for the state final, and the two become rivals. During the contest, City is assigned the word “niggardly” and he responds with a rant accusing the coordinators of the show—which is nationally televised—of setting him up to fail, concluding with, “And fuck white folks!”
City becomes a YouTube sensation, the clip of his on-stage theatrics going viral across social media. His mother immediately sends him to stay with his grandmother in Melahatchie, a small rural town outside of Jackson (presumably a fictionalized version of Pelahatchie), where a young girl named Baize Shephard is missing. While City’s newfound fame brings him the attention of admiring and curious strangers, it also makes him the target of racists. They hurl epithets and punches at him.
Mysteries tease the reader during the first half of the novel. City’s school principal gives him Long Division, a book which has no author and features a character named City and other people City knows. Oddly enough, this mise en abyme takes place in 1985. In City’s immediate surroundings, the story of the missing girl hangs in the air just as something begins to make noise in the shed behind City’s grandmother’s house. These strange happenings go unemphasized, thus allowing them to permeate the novel’s first part, creating an air of not-quite-rightness, a sense that there is more going on than meets the text.
Arriving at the novel’s second half, one must flip the book upside-down and read in the other direction, so that the dual stories converge at the book’s center. This second part of Long Division features a boy named City. Like the aforementioned mise en abyme, it takes place in 1985. The plot here is too fun, deep and surprising to spoil, except to say that what’s wonderful about the rest of the novel is the way it both explains the mysteries and deepens them. This is not a work made of easy narrative answers.
It’s also not a work made of easy ethical answers. Laymon stuffs Long Division full of fascinating and thorny moral quandaries. City’s tirade on stage at the Can You Use That Word in a Sentence contest is complicated. City’s offense is justified and he expresses his pain through verbal cruelty. He’s rightly upset about being assigned an archaic word that sounds almost identical to a slur (especially since he’s only one of two Black competitors), and, in a very American twist, he relies on xenophobia to soothe his frustration. To two contestants from Arizona, he says, “I mean, do y’all even call yourself Mexican? Ain’t this a competition for Americans? Peep how they made slots for Mexicans but you don’t see no slots for no Africans or no Indians.” How a young Black person works to succeed in a white world–whether they should cater to white insecurities, as LaVander’s father suggests (“I want you to do exactly like them winners,” he tells the boys before the contest) or act according to their conscience, risking, as City learns, the conventional rewards which are under white control–is one of the novel’s major themes. The book’s second half is especially riddled with tricky problems, which I wish I could go into in more depth, but much of the joy is discovering how it all works.
Laymon deftly navigates City’s youthful insecurities. He’s a fat kid with a teenager’s ego and an abundance of intellectual gifts, known as “the best boy writer in the history” of his high school. His relationship with LaVander, his sentence-spewing rival, features the pair launching lengthy, insult-ridden sentences at one another, but their dynamic also demonstrates a masculine trouble with language, a difficulty with voicing, naming, and describing fraternal affection. At first, City hates LaVander so much that the sentence City uses in his viral video clip begins by emphasizing the contempt he feels for his adversary. However, as the story progresses, City develops a rich and complex love for LaVander which Laymon explores with honesty and insight. City has the vernacular to express romantic and sexual interest—that is, his burgeoning desire for girls his age—but he doesn’t yet possess the language of platonic love. No one has furnished City with the lexicon to express his evolving feelings, and Laymon narrates the deepening relationship beautifully.
The most effective and infectious aspect of Long Division is its dazzling language. City’s first-person account is a joy to read. He’s funny (he says that LaVander “smells so good that sometimes you can’t help but wonder if a small beast farted in your mouth when you’re close to him”) and astute beyond his age, as when he considers the difference between his Grandma seeing him without clothes on versus everyone else:
Even though I was lying there in my underwear, Grandma looked at me in a way that made me feel like I was wearing something top-notch like a leather tuxedo with matching Jordan 6s. And even though my mama had seen me naked way more times, I felt less weird about Grandma seeing me. Grandma had a way of looking at you when you were naked that didn’t make you feel terribly fat and soft. Most other folks, especially my mama, looked at me naked and made me feel like the fattest, softest ninth grader out of all the states in the Southeastern Conference.
As a character, City is the richest coming-of-age portrait I’ve read in years.
Laymon published Long Division in 2013 with Agate Bolden, a small publisher that specializes in works by Black writers, but he bought back the rights to his novel, revised it, and is now re-releasing it through Scribner so that, as he told Arkana, he could finally publish it as a “flipbook,” the way he always wanted it to be. I hope Long Division finds its way in the hands of more readers, because it’s a beguiling and bewitching book, and at the end, I shared City’s sentiment: “…what I felt was the feeling you would have when you read a good mystery book and made that big connection a few pages from the end.”The solutions to many mysteries in fiction often disappoint as questions are typically more interesting than answers. Laymon avoids this problem by making the mysteries not just vital to plot but vital to theme. These enigmas serve larger questions that the literal truth can ever address but where art, in all its mysteriousness, may thrive.
Jonathan Russell Clark is a former staff writer for Literary Hub, and his essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Atlantic, Tin House, Vulture, the Columbus Dispatch, LA Review of Books, New Republic, The Georgia Review, and dozens of others. Most recently, he wrote about a debut novel by a professional skateboarder for the L.A. Times. His first book, An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom, a study of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, was published in 2018. His second book, Skateboard, will be a part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series and will be published in 2022.