Back in April, as we were wandering the Mid-City neighborhood in which he was raised, Walter Mosley mentioned “Parishioner,” a novel that he had published as an e-book original. If you don’t know it, that’s not surprising; it was a small book, snuck out (if such a thing is possible) in the months leading up to the release of the Easy Rawlins-resurrecting “Little Green.”
When I asked why he’d chosen to do it as an e-book, he gave a little shrug. “Oh, you know,” he said. “I write so much, I write so many books I can’t publish them all in paper. So I’m doing a couple as e-books -- it’s an experiment.”
This week, Mosley follows up on “Parishioner” with a second digital experiment: a full-length work called “Odyssey,” available only as an e-book, which revolves around a human resources executive named Sovereign James who wakes up one morning with a case of hysterical blindness; there is no physical cause.
Taking place in Manhattan, it is one of Mosley’s conceptual books, not unlike “The Man in My Basement,” in which the narrative is more or less a frame through which to investigate political or philosophical themes. Whether you like this sort of writing or not will determine what you think of the novel, which begins with a vivid dislocation: Sovereign must navigate, by feel, the lobby of the Upper East Side apartment building where his psychiatrist, Dr. Offeran, has his office.
“Take eight or nine steps forward,” the doorman tells him, “and you’ll come to a wall. From there you turn left and keep on going.” In that simple interaction, Mosley establishes Sovereign’s blindness from the inside, drawing us into his experience, allowing to empathize, to share in his passage through the world.
Empathy, as it turns out, is a key factor in the novel; this is what blindness has bestowed. An African American, Sovereign has been accused of racism -- not against white applicants but against blacks, whom he holds to a higher standard as part of a one-man insurrection against the corporate culture of which he is a part.
As he explains to Dr. Offeran: “I let in any old white guy. He could misspell his own name and I’d be likely to offer him a job. But when it comes to a brother or sister they’d better have every single I dotted and T crossed. When I’m finished with Techno-Sym their best employees will be people who look like me.”
Here, Mosley sets up the metaphorical filter: Because he is blind, Sovereign can no longer judge people according to the color of their skin. He needs to listen more, to react less, to open up a space where he can understand the essence of those with whom he comes in contact -- who they are, rather than how they appear.
This becomes complicated when he is mugged and his eyesight returns briefly; the fallout from that event becomes the narrative driver here. And yet, for Mosley, “Odyssey” remains a novel of ideas. Sovereign has spent so long caught up in his project, righteous in his indignation, that he has missed the little things: family, community, love. It is blindness, paradoxically, that allows him to see.
And it is blindness too that offers the most stirring stuff in the novel, for this is really a story of the inner life. "Odyssey" isn’t major Mosley; there’s a reason he chose to release it and not, say, the next Easy Rawlins novel as an e-book, after all.
Still, despite some unlikely turns of plot, the book is largely effective as a series of dialogues. Sometimes these dialogues are between Sovereign and others and sometimes they are conversations with himself, but either way, they involve a man forced by circumstance to look inward, and not so sure any longer what he thinks.
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