Welcome to Cross River, Maryland. Established by the leaders of the country’s old successful slave revolt in the mid-nineteenth century, its residents thump out a beat that echoes its violent founding.
Among them – spanning decades, perspectives and species- are David Sherman, a struggling musician who just happens to be God’s last son; Tyrone, a ruthless PhD student channelling the insurrections of his forebears through a childhood game; Jim, a Robot Personal Helper desperate to escape a master who enslaves him; and James-my-man, who travels the paths of the Underground Railroad year after year
Not to forget the water women that lure men to their watery graves, and the screecher birds who cry out for sacrificial flesh.
For me, Cross River became the most prominent city in America over the last couple of days. A remarkable feat considering it doesn’t exist outside the pages of this short story collection. Rion Amilcar Scott’s ability to create a city completely from scratch is one that should not be overlooked. The writing was beautifully eerie and haunted me for a couple of days after. Marlon James fans – this one is for you.
Now considering, I’m still very undecided on whether I liked ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’ – you would think I would have the same reaction to this collection. And if I’m being honest, for a while, I did. I did not understand it but then, I realised this collection wasn’t made to be understood. This collection is steeped in abstract art; each story is essential to the creation of this mystical city.
This collection wasn’t straightforward. It was a bumpy journey that I weirdly enjoyed. The only thing I understood to be the theme throughout my journey was Cross River. It’s presence and importance was undeniable. The reader simply has to hold on for the ride and understand that they will make it out the other end. Almost like a roller-coaster that goes backwards, drops sideways and forward. You will never know where the collection will take you but you’re strapped in for the ride.
I wouldn’t even know where to begin with describing Cross River. It’s not your average city. It’s a town established by the leaders of the country’s only successful slave revolt in the mid-nineteenth century. It’s a religious town where a music called ‘Riverbeat’ is born and depicted as an incarnation that ignites spiritual warfare. It’s a dystopian land, where robots are engaged in a bloody civil war with their human slave masters. There’s stories of water women who seduce you to an early grave or large winged animals in the forbidden Wildlands that snatch up people from the very ground beneath their feet. It’s fictional. It’s irrational. It’s creativity without limits.
Rion Amilcar Scott delved into human nature and completely ripped it apart. With each story, we saw the darkest parts of humanity and how they affect people’s lives. We saw obsession, misogyny, tyranny and especially, loneliness discussed and built up in these pages. Scott doesn’t hold back in revealing the horrors of it all.
Through, the character Slim, who appears twice throughout the collection, we witness obession and vanity in it’s brutal forms. How it can consume you and ultimately become your downfall. We see through Slim his obsession with others and his decision to focus on those around him rather than his own path kept him ignorant. He was also a very horrific character that completely unhinges and becomes a depiction of the very many horrors of society.
The portrayal of women was something that I didn’t pay much attention to until the very end. The majority of the women were depicted as sexual objects, something to be desired by the male protagonists. It was unnerving and very uncomfortable but I do believe Scott did this deliberately, which he then dissects in detail through this last story, ‘Special Topics in Loneliness Studies’, where we witness a university professor battle with his own loneliness. Combined with poetry and fables, Scott delivers a horror story into the academic world within the walls of the University of Cross River.
At first whilst reading this short story, I sympathised with the professor…well, I thought I did. Then Scott started dropping small hints…almost like little parcels of realisation that eventually add together and leave you breathless. Scott literally builds up an image of a character before tearing him down right before our eyes. I was shocked and left in complete disbelief.
It made me think about the many times men may abuse their privileged status in society to make degrading stereotypes about women that reject their advances. In fact, why do men feel so entitled to a woman’s care and affection? Even today, why women simply not want to give a man her number because she doesn’t want to? Why do we as women feel obligated to do it because we’re fearful of what will happen if we say no? Scott discusses how history can still paint a misogynistic man out to be a ‘deep, sorrowful’ man who shouldn’t be held accountable for his abusive and entitled ways because he was ‘seduced’ by a woman. Those women who were described as sexual. Were they really seductive or was a man just angry that they rejected his advances and thus, they painted them out as sexual women.
He even discusses loneliness against solitude. How society can glamourize solitude but depict loneliness as a part of depression, when they’re the exact same thing, except one can be described as a choice. Yet, as humans, the ability to choose is what makes us happy. Free will. The choice of being able to choose company over solitude and vice versa. Yet, Scott also emphasises how someone may be around a group of people yet still feel lonely. He delves into what is loneliness. Is it now also a mental choice or is it deeper than that?
I thought his play on history was very interesting. He looks at the Underground Railroad through one of his short stories but yet, it seems to be mixed with The War on Drugs that destroyed many Black Americans. It is one of the more confusing short stories but yet, I still enjoyed how it was related to Cross River.
There are so many other deeper questions that Scott gives the reader to dissect and I think that’s why I loved how uncomfortable the short stories sometimes made me feel. He made me really try to think about society and the way it presents itself.
From the first short story, ‘David Sherman, The Last Man of God’, about a young man who is the last son of God discovering ‘Riverbeat’ music as a symphony of sounds created by the city. To the short stories based on the self-aware robots, which just so happen to be based on the racist Golliwog Caricature. There are so many short stories woven together to create the city that is Cross River…
Both it’s past, present and future.