Sunday, September 1, 2019

Review: "We Cast A Shadow" by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

It was really hard for me to fully grasp the ideas and themes behind Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s debut novel We Cast a Shadow, but one thing I was absolutely positive of was that I enjoyed the hell out of it. In fact, it is this very ambiguity that makes it so interesting complex and at various times disturbing. It is not as clear-cut as some critics might approach it and is thankfully treats its subject matter in a non-didactic way, which allows the characters became real and not just ciphers for a specific point of view and helps the reader buy in to some of the book’s more outlandish elements. Through the eyes of an unnamed black male narrator, a lawyer living in the near future, we see a skewed, cracked mirror version of our own world, with progressive ideals and historical hierarchies stacked on top of each other, colliding and creating a horrific mish mash of a culture where the top and bottom are indecipherable from each other, and no one knows if they are going backwards or forwards, least of all our tortured confused narrator, whose insecurities and cynicism he lays on the shoulder of his mixed race son Nigel. You know this book is offering something different in its first scene, where our narrator attends a company wide costume party, where he and the other two black employees subject themselves to various types of humiliation in order to save their job and get promoted. It is here where Ruffin’s brilliant eye for satire comes into play, how this world not unlike our own thinks it is moving forward, but here is ample evidence that it is not. Our narrator ends up keeping his job after a staggeringly humiliating action which he thinks might cost him his job, but he keeps his job and becomes entangled with Octavia, the head of the firm, a black woman who would be the paragon of success in any other book, but Ruffin perverts this ideal in brilliant ways with minor details, like the getaways she takes at an old plantation or keeping candy corn in an ancient African mask. Hesitant, our narrator accepts his new position and task to convince a local medical hospital to become a client of the firm, because it would mean he is one step closer to “helping” his son by getting him “demelinazation” treatment for his growing birthmark. In any other writer’s hands, this aspect of the novel would feel contrived and sloppy, but Ruffin takes a different approach, never referring to it in racial terms, and offering up valid points, at least in the mind of the narrator as to its desired outcome. The plot is loose, but it offers looks into the narrator’s past and why he thinks this way, a shady terrorist organization that once again would seem like the heroes in a different story but in this book their virtue is nebulous at best. Ultimately, though, this a novel of family and the sacrifices we make for them as well as a sort of hidden ode to individuality in a society that is always trying to put you in one box or another. 
Rating: 5/5

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