After proclaiming himself “The New New Negro,” Bernie Boudreaux, the hero of Emily Raboteau’s debut novel, The Professor’s Daughter, drunkenly climbs to the top of a resting shuttle train and pees onto the third rail. A current of electricity runs up his “stream of piss, burning him from the inside out” and rendering him “raceless,” as his sister Emma puts it. Beached on his hospital bed in a diaper, Bernie fills long passages with the accusatory sounds of his breathing (“KKKKKKKKKK . . . “), while Emma interprets the noise.
With her own unique flair for self-hatred (“my father is black and my mother is white and my brother is a vegetable”), she creates a sort of hagiography of Bernie’s life, turning the accident into a historical event in order to negate the meaninglessness of what actually happened. The electrocution becomes mythical, morphing somehow into a metaphor for Bernie’s grandfather’s lynching and, later, the collapse of the World Trade Center. After 9-11 Emma is so unnerved by the familiar smell of “burning flesh” that she plucks American flags off her neighbors’ brownstones and hides them inside her apartment.
More like a collection of linked stories than a fluid novel, the book teems with overlapping tropes about what it means to be “Two-Face”: Emma is “schizophrenic,” a perpetual “question mark.” When her brother abandons her for the “vegetable race,” pimples bisect her head as if “someone had painted a half-line down the middle.” Anchored by a series of freaky fire-related traumas, the stories build on one another like an overwhelming academic thesis: Emma becomes a vessel for an abstract concept (“Black-White. Pick one!”), an unwilling participant in a fancy system of symbols and logic, which even she doesn’t quite understand.