Caryl Phillips writes like a white man. And why shouldn’t he? To begin with, he has the most easily misread byline in contemporary literature—people mistake his name for a white woman’s, or the poet Carl Phillips’s, and maybe even confuse him with Carly Phillips, chick-lit author of Simply Sinful and Hot Number. Secondly, as a black immigrant to England from the island of St. Kitts and a student at Oxford in the mid-’70s, he’s probably spent heaps of time analyzing white folks’ behavior (and other Others) just to get through the day. Moving between the disparate worlds of London, New York, and the Caribbean, he has populated his eight novels with a chorus of varied voices, often in a heady blend of postcolonial postmodernism. Phillips also writes like a white woman, a black man, a black woman, and, in the case of 1997’s The Nature of Blood, a Holocaust survivor, an Ethiopian Jew, Shakespeare’s Othello, and others. He’s an author the way Cate Blanchett is an actress.
Over and above playing with identities, Phillips’s new work, Foreigners, takes a wonderfully perverse form—a trio of historical creative-nonfiction novellas—that mutates his technical range as well. In the most successful of the three, “Doctor Johnson’s Watch,” Phillips dons the cloak of a presumably white “minor literary wit” on the outskirts of Samuel Johnson’s circle who, while riding in Johnson’s funeral procession, becomes fascinated with the author’s beloved Jamaican slave, Francis Barber. The funeral guest’s obsession begins as much in horror as compassion—in fact, the two sentiments seem inextricable from each other. At first, he’s appalled by the slave’s odor: “In all likelihood it was the badly matted wig that was causing the unfortunate aroma.” But instead of ascribing the stench to some essential Negro funk, he blames Johnson: “his late master had not provided him with a reliable example. The doctor’s own great bushy wig possessed a hedge-like mass which suggested that a comb had never penetrated its interior, and this chaotic mess no doubt served as the negro’s model for what was acceptable in a headpiece.”
Phillips has great fun wearing this disguise, and he never misses an opportunity to skewer racist and/or paternalistic attitudes in the antiquated prose style in which they’re so often presented. He did this to great success in his 1991 Cambridge, composed of three accounts of the death of a rebellious West Indian slave, the longest told by a white slaveholder’s wife. But in “Doctor Johnson’s Watch,” Phillips mixes his revenge with self-aware humor, so the reverse minstrelsy he adopts—black author as white man looking at black people—encourages all sorts of ironies. Phillips takes the piss out of Johnson pretty hilariously, characterizing him as an unkempt, needy genius so dependent on his servant that when the slave runs off to become a sailor, he “suffer[s] daily anxiety” and demands Barber’s admiral return him from sea. Though Johnson provides for Barber in his will, the executors disregard a large part of the bequest, and Phillips, as narrator, can’t resist the punning description of Barber’s position as “unmoored.”
However, unlike the Rashomon style of Cambridge, the three stories in
Foreigners don’t complicate one another in particularly interesting ways. Each tale takes up the theme of the unmoored Moor in the U.K., but frustratingly, they all illustrate the same point: Life’s a bitch for black immigrants to England—even if they taste notoriety—and then they die in poverty. After Johnson’s death, Barber remains adrift, squanders his inheritance, and falls into destitution and ill health. The second story, “Made in Wales,” concerns the rise and fall of 1950s middleweight champion boxer Randolph Turpin, who beat Sugar Ray Robinson in 1951, amassed a fortune, and, like Barber, lost everything; in 1966, he committed suicide. The third, “Northern Lights,” serves as an elegy for David Oluwale, a homeless, mentally ill victim of police brutality in 1968 Leeds who approaches glory only as a martyr.
In the two latter stories, the inventive, playful fiction of Phillips’s earlier story gets steamrolled by too much nonfiction. “Made in Wales” suffers from dogged linearity and lack of reflection. Turpin’s story is compelling, but not inherently so, especially to us Yanks; Phillips’s straight reportage often gets tedious. Conversely, “Northern Lights” relies on a dizzying array of nonfiction sources weaved through second-person addresses and a soporific history of Leeds, but its vertiginous formalism can’t compensate for its bluntness. Outrage is powerful, but it’s difficult to feel anything more than that reading the story of an innocent man harassed, forced into the river by the cops, and drowned. Here, Phillips stumbles over the line between creative nonfiction and socially responsible journalism. If that’s what writing like a black man means to Phillips, he’s better off pretending to be some other race.