After reading and reviewing a friend's subversive take on 'Alice in Wonderland' last month, I felt I should finally get round to 'Black Alice,' a 1968 novel by 'Thom Demijohn', a pseudonym forsaken on my paperback copy for the names of the two men responsible for it, Thomas M Disch and John Sladek.
Disch is best known as a science fiction writer, a Hugo winner and nine-time Nebula nominee, the author of new wave classics such as 'The Genocides,' 'Camp Concentration' and '334,' the first two of which predate this book, which was still early in his career. He also wrote much that doesn't fit within the science fiction genre, including poetry and plays, but this is only the second obvious example of a departure, after 'The House That Fear Built,' a gothic also written with Sladek, that time under the pseudonym of Cassandra Knye.
Sladek is also best known as a science fiction writer, perhaps mostly for his novel 'Tik-Tok,' which won a British Science Fiction Association Award. He was less prolific and just as diverse, his work more consistent for its satiric and often surreal nature as for its actual genre.
But 'Black Alice' is a social commentary wrapped up in the clothes of a thriller. Disch, who came out as gay the year this book first saw print, surely understood what persecution of minorities meant, so writing a story rooted in the civil rights struggle of African Americans isn't that far-fetched an idea. The depiction here of both sides of that struggle is rather insightful for a contemporary work that intrinsically cannot benefit from hindsight.
Against the background of racial tension in the northeast United States, Disch and Sladek place Alice Raleigh, an eleven-year-old white heiress with what seems to be an imaginary friend named Dinah (Lewis Carroll aficionados will remember that Dinah was Alice's cat,) but later is clarified to be a split personality caused by deliberate trauma.
Another trauma soon arrives in the form of a successful kidnapping. Alice is ransomed for a million dollars, something that would need to be provided by her uncle who manages her grandfather's estate (her parents have no access to it and rely on a monthly stipend.) Needless to say, it's no stretch to figure out who orchestrated the kidnap and, frankly, that's not of primary importance in the story.
What's important is that to hide Alice from those searching for her, she's fed pills to turn her skin black, housed in an out-of-town brothel run by a black madam and referred to as Dinah, thus bringing her split personality to the fore. She adapts to life in the brothel easily, partly because she's eleven years old and children do that but partly because it's really Dinah doing the coping rather than Alice. I don't believe it's ever mentioned whether the Dinah which Alice invented is black or not, but she fits comfortably with the Dinah that is forced upon her.
I found this approach fascinating, especially given the times in which the novel was written. The attempt by white writers to understand the perspectives of both everyday black folk and the rural Ku Klux Klan is fascinating and far from, dare I say it, black and white. What's more, Alice's adventure often reads like an exploration of Stockholm Syndrome, which wasn't named until 1973, five years after this book was published.
The central idea seems highly exploitational, especially given the title, which mostly predates the blaxploitation era of the 1970s which saw the release of 'Black Emanuelle,' 'Black Caesar,' 'Black Samurai' and pretty much Black Everything Else. Only 'The Black Klansman' had been released at this point and I wonder if it was an influence. However, Disch and Sladek are much more interested in social and satirical commentary than exploitation, so it reads a little differently from perhaps most expectations.
As a thriller, it's not particularly thrilling. Roderick Raleigh is so clearly set up to be the 'mastermind' behind his daughter's kidnapping that the mystery aspect of the piece is ignored and the investigation of the FBI agent undercover within the Klan is there not to really investigate but to tie those two communities together for satirical purpose.
Fortunately, the satirical nature of the piece means that we can't ever be too safe in our expectations of where Disch and Sladek are going to take both us and their characters. Both writers were known for their unconventional works in the science fiction New Wave, so we really can't expect them to suddenly turn conventional when setting up a thriller.
What really matters is that the very white Roderick Raleigh and his wife, Delphinia Duquesne, are, in actuality, written almost exactly how white folk saw black folk at the time. Roderick is lazy and has no intention of working for a living, but expects money to be showered on him anyway. When he doesn't get what he wants, he resorts to crime. Delphinia is even lazier, confined to bed by mysterious and non-existent illnesses. Sure, Roderick becomes a little more outright villainous by the end, but that's by-the-by.
With no parenting coming from her parents, Alice cares instead most for her governess, Miss Godwin, who fits all the normal aspects of the traditional, almost always white, governess, while just happening to be black. She also connects with Bessy, the old, fat, black madam who runs the Green Pastures brothel outside of Norfolk and who becomes her parental substitute during her time as a hostage.
In other words, Disch and Sladek created characters that are almost stereotypical but with their races reversed to shake up the whole story and get us thinking. I liked this approach a lot, which is a good thing because it's what drives the piece in the absence of a suspenseful story. In fact, even though it's very much rooted in its time, a product of the counter-culture and a reflection on the civil rights movement, I'd suggest it's very much worth reading today.
What seems oddest today is the avoidance of a sexual aspect to the story, especially given that it places a kidnapped young white girl into a brothel and it was written by two major names of the New Wave, who were all about stretching boundaries. Alice is never associated with anything sexual and, as bright as she is, never really acknowledges what the other ladies do upstairs in her new home.
I wonder why they chose a brothel. Perhaps it was a way to highlight that African Americans, even in a book that clearly favours their civil rights, are ultimately just like people of any other colour: good or bad depending on their personal choices and where neither good nor bad are absolutes. Perhaps it was even a sly nod to Wonderland, which could easily be the name of a brothel.
In summary, this is an odd work, as befits New Wave writers. It's certainly not science fiction, but it's not really a thriller or a pastiche either. It subtly references 'Alice in Wonderland' as a means to say that anything's possible, then shows us the world as it is but as most people couldn't see it at the time. It may be a minor work for either author, but it's still worth a look. ~~ Hal C F Astell