Published first in 1990, John Edgar Wideman’s book Philadelphia Fire is written in three parts. The first part follows fictional writer Cudjoe as he returns to Philadelphia after moving away from a failed marriage. There, he investigates the bombing of the MOVE liberation group, a real event that was sanctioned by the mayor of Philadelphia in 1985 and lead to 11 people dying in the ensuing fire and 262 people left homeless.
Part two examines Wideman’s own relationship with his son who is in jail for murder. It also looks separately at the Shakespeare play The Tempest and different readings of it. Dotted in amongst these two very different topics are facts and quotes about the MOVE bombing. The final part returns to Cudjoe attending a memorial for the victims of the fire. Having these three parts allows the reader to separate the ideas whilst also keeping them linked in the same text.
Wideman uses a stream-of-consciousness writing style, and although this technique works for some topics it makes this book difficult to follow given the variety of views that Wideman is trying to portray. For example, when Cudjoe is interviewing Margaret Jones, an ex-member of MOVE, the reader is given little indication that the narrative has jumped to her and it may take a page or two to realise that it is no longer Cudjoe’s experience we are reading about.
Despite this, once you get the hang of the quick switches, Wideman’s novel gives an authentic portrayal of the community, achieved by writing as they would speak and showing characters from a variety of backgrounds. Each character has their thoughts and motivations noted as well. Even when Cudjoe does not understand why it is important that he find out what happened in 1985, the reader is reminded of that. We find out why it is important alongside him. Another technique that the author uses to bring the reader into the situation is his use of second person narrative. One place where this is effective is when Cudjoe is playing basketball where he grew up. By using second person, Wideman allows the reader to imagine themselves being there and joining in too.
Despite being written in 1990, Philadelphia Fire still reflects some attitudes that are very relevant to today’s racial climate. The fact that it is a black neighbourhood that is destroyed and that this destruction is considered legal (despite many of those affected being nothing to do with the MOVE campaign) strikes a comparison today with the rise of innocent black people being shot by police and there being no consequence. By showing the MOVE bombing through the eyes of the community it happened to, Wideman is able to highlight and comment on such injustice and destruction.
Philadelphia Fire by John Edgar Wideman.
Image: Adam Jones via Flickr