BookBrowse Reviews The World Doesn't Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott

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The World Doesn't Require You

by Rion Amilcar Scott

The World Doesn't Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott X
The World Doesn't Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2019, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2020, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Dean Muscat
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Set in the fictional Mid-Atlantic city of Cross River, this electric and eclectic story collection riffs on the social and inner complexities of Black lives today.

You can't move for young authors being marketed as "unique," "bold" and "visionary" these days. So it comes as quite a shock to the system to encounter the genuine article. The 11 stories and novella that make up Rion Amilcar Scott's sophomore collection are joyous, shocking and, at times, soaringly wondrous. Like some master hip-hop artist dropping a trailblazing mixtape, Scott remixes the past through an incisive contemporary eye and an effervescent vernacular voice to deliver a work that adds something new to the conversation about the Black experience in America today. The stories share a setting, the fictional town of Cross River, and overarching themes; even plot points and characters drift in and out of the confines of their individual narratives.

The World Doesn't Require You pole-vaults right out of the gate with "David Sherman, the last Son of God," a tour de force overture showcasing Scott's punchy prose that jumps off the page. An ex-con street musician is given a second chance when his pastor brother invites him to lead the house band at the Church of the Ever-Loving Christ. To prove his worth, David embarks on a jazz odyssey of the soul in search of a pioneering sound that will bring glory to God, Cross River, the church and himself. His spiritual breakthrough spreads like wildfire and gains a cult-like following, the fallout of which is examined in two further stories told from different points of view.

Critics have been quick to liken Scott's fictional Cross River to Yoknapatawpha County, William Faulkner's "little postage stamp of native soil." But Stephen King's Castle Rock is perhaps a more fitting comparison, because strange things have, and continue, to happen in Cross River. From story to story Scott flits between subtle magical realism, mythical worldbuilding, futuristic sci-fi and even skin-crawling horror. The effect is dizzying and disorienting, sometimes disturbing, but always rewarding.

In "A Loudness of Screechers" sinister birds of prey circle over the city waiting for a human offering to tear into. This age-old ritual that breaks families apart is a matter of course that goes unquestioned and unchallenged. In "The Electric Joy of Service" and its counterpart "Mercury in Retrograde," Scott recontextualizes antebellum slavery between a hubristic master inventor and Robotic Personal Helpers (nicknamed Riffs) made to wear blackface. The robots wrestle with their docile programming in the face of increasing levels of degradation.

Then there's the penultimate story "Rolling in My Six-Fo," where a group of pill-popping pilgrims retrace the routes of the Underground Railroad – that same network of secret safe houses explored in Colson Whitehead's 2016 Pulitzer-winning novel (these two authors seemingly share a penchant for historical speculation). The druggy road trip descends into a grotesque nightmare of people morphing into beasts that plays with taboo racial imagery to horrific effect.

For all their fantastical elements, the stories strike a real note because they zero in on all too human conflicts and emotions. The many parallels to real-world history are there for anyone to pick up on. But every time characters get too bogged down in the past, believing this will grant them some special insight into their current predicaments, they only trip themselves up and find themselves worse off than before.

In the novella "Special Topics in Loneliness Studies," a university professor surmises he can overcome loneliness through intensive engagement with the life and texts of an 1800s Cross Riverian poet. The pursuit costs him his job and, almost, his sanity. And the standout "The Nigger Knockers" is satire at its most biting. Doctoral candidate Tyrone writes a dissertation positing that a version of the "ding dong ditch" game (in which one person knocks on the front door, while another sneaks in through the back and steals food or supplies) was in fact the secret key to Cross River's successful slave rebellion. This seemingly groundbreaking study catches the imagination of his best friend Darius with devastating consequences.

Again and again in the collection, the history academics and revisionist mythmakers are portrayed as well-meaning fools at best and devious saboteurs at worst. There's an argument to be made that just like his Riff robots who struggle to break free from their programming, Scott is pushing for an African American literature that can finally move on from the dominant tradition of slave and Jim Crow fictions, which continue to be publishing staples. (Just look to Whitehead's aforementioned The Underground Railroad and Ta-Nehesi Coates' newly released The Water Dancer.) Not because these no longer remain worthy stories to tell, but because there are other, newer and more pressing Black lives narratives that also need to be written and read.

The World Doesn't Require You is that rare short story collection – a unified work in which stories interweave and each successive chapter sheds light and adds deeper contexts of meaning to what came before. Once you reach the twists and turns of its climactic pages, you'll want to flip back to the beginning and read it all over again.

Reviewed by Dean Muscat

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in October 2019, and has been updated for the September 2020 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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