On Rion Amilcar Scott’s ‘Insurrections’
Scott’s versatile, innovative story collection demonstrates his range with traditional & experimental pieces that defy typical structure.
Rion Amilcar Scott
Stories | 208 Pages | 6” x 9” | Reviewed: Paperback
978–0–8131–7440–2 | First Paperback Edition | $19.95
University Press of Kentucky | Lexington | BUY HERE
When Rion Amilcar Scott’s debut short-story collection was released to enormous praise in 2016, I immediately put Insurrections on my to-read list, and then promptly procrastinated. I knew from reviews that the subject matter and narrative techniques this collection explores would require a great deal of time to read and fully digest. Now that I’ve read it, I can see why the collection garnered such attention, driven by Scott’s indomitable voice and style. (The collection was so well-received that it won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, and readers can now look forward to a second short-story collection, The World Doesn’t Require You, in summer 2019, followed by a debut novel that both share the same setting as Insurrections.) Each story takes place in and around the fictional town of Cross River, Maryland, a diverse community that exemplifies the richness of Black America. Scott is a master of creating dynamic characters from all walks of life, and there is not a single story in the collection that felt one-note or overly familiar. Scott is an author who embraces innovation, experimentation, and a refusal to conform to expectations.
“I want you to remember this, Kin: You are the only member of this family that is born into Cross River. The rest of we adopt it. Cross River is you. That moment in the aisle is you.”
(from “Three Insurrections”)
Insurrections is a cohesive collection that is tied together by Scott’s distinct style, particularly with dialogue. The author’s versatility with conveying spoken language knows no bounds, and he excels at distinguishing characters by their cadences and diction. While Scott does not limit himself in scope, the most impressive pieces in the collection are, to me, the quieter ones that focus on this command of dialogue. My favorite story is the first one, “Good Times,” where much of the action is propelled via the intensity of frank conversation between two men of different generations. Rashid, a suicidal husband and father who is struggling to hold his life together, seeks comfort from Walter, a recovering alcoholic who mostly just wants to be left alone to watch reruns of Good Times. The tenderness of the relationship is demonstrated in the openness and the rhythm of their dialogue as Rashid opens up to Walter about everything in his life, including a mistake involving the Cookie Monster. Scott constructs this relationship so beautifully and so meticulously, allowing the two very distinct characters to play off one another and to challenge their respective notions about life. This is an exquisite story, and an important one, as it emphasizes the importance of allowing vulnerability and intimacy between men.
“I was going to name Luce forever, or rather, Samad, one of the ninety-nine names of Allah — Al-Samad, the eternal. But then I started to think about eternity, what a curse if you’re not God, right? My man God doesn’t have holy rent and holy bills to pay. Eternity means someone always digging into your pocket[.]”
(from “Good Times”)
Although Scott’s voice and the tone of the work keeps the collection cohesive, there is definitely a progression from traditional to experimental work that plays with form and structure. I am naturally more drawn to traditional prose, so I felt a much stronger connection to the pieces that appeared earlier in the collection. Even when Scott is writing more traditionally, he is never boring, and the premise of each story is fresh. In “A Friendly Game,” the narrative alternates between a group of teenaged boys playing basketball and a woman’s years-long descent into drugs and homelessness, a narrative that culminates in a moment of cruelty and accountability. “Confirmation” juxtaposes spirituality and sexuality as Bobby fails to meet his family’s expectations. “202 Checkmates” documents a young girl’s realization that her father is not perfect nor invincible when she begins to outgrow him as a chess opponent. While the structures of these stories are more straightforward than others in the collection, the content itself surpasses all readerly expectations.
I had difficulty following some of the more experimental pieces (a reflection on me, not the abilities of the author), indicating that those are the stories that might require more than one reading, at least for me. Readers who prefer form play and the like will find a lot to admire in Scott’s attention to detail, and will most likely pick up on the references and analogies that zoomed over my head. It is obvious from his writing that Scott is a bright, well-read guy, and other bright, well-read people will likely gravitate toward these intricate pieces. From the use of footnotes in “Party Animal” to integration of partial interviews in “Razor Bumps” to the stream-of-consciousness conversation in “Three Insurrections,” Scott demonstrates his commitment to shaking up the traditions of the genre. Fans of this type of writing will be inspired by Scott’s innovation and determination to question what modern fiction looks like.
“Now hold on, little girl, my father said. Chess is like real life. The white pieces go first so they got an advantage over the black pieces.”
(from “202 Checkmates”)
There is one particular aspect of Scott’s writing that I adore yet struggle to articulate. I describe it as an ethereal, fairytale-like quality that appears in his work, more pronounced in some stories than in others that have a more substantial feeling of being grounded in reality. Perhaps some would say the work has ‘a haunting quality.’ In my second favorite piece, “Everyone Lives in a Flood Zone,” the narrator, at his mother’s insistence, travels to the poor side of town during a flash flood to look for his brother who has gotten mixed up with the wrong people. There’s a mysteriousness to this story, and it feels almost as if it’s happening in a dream with the way the strange details slip in and out of the narrator’s consciousness: a man with a bowler hat, a woman in a hijab with a yellow umbrella, strangers who seem to know the narrator’s name. Even during this horrendous natural disaster (which notably affects the poor side of town much more significantly than the rich side), even among the images of rawness, grit, and despair, there’s a feeling of longing as the narrator seeks out his brother, like Noah coming to save the creatures who deserve it.
“People waved and shouted from rooftops. I wished we could stop and rescue them all. Bring food or water. We ignored them as if their cries were silence. We passed the bodies of floating cats and dogs, mostly cats. Dead insects floated by, and dead rats and pigeons, but they all deserved to be dead.”
(from “Everyone Lives in a Flood Zone”)
Although not all the pieces contained within resonated with me, Scott is objectively talented, and Insurrections demonstrates his incredible range, tackling traditional stories as well as experimental pieces that question the typical structures of fiction. In this versatile, innovative collection, there are pieces to satisfy all palates, with a wide range of content and styles that bring attention to the multiple facets of Black communities within America. With Insurrections, Scott has strongly distinguished himself as a prominent voice in reinventing fiction.