Madison Smartt Bell: The Washington Square Ensemble

Conflicting voices, shattered pieces of the whole and a group of men that is hardened against cold weather and unspeakable cruelty. This is Madison Smartt Bell’s The Washington Square Ensemble. I did not initially like the novel. It didn’t sit well as the first few chapters are devoted to one of the street thugs who is amongst the mouthiest and most egotistical, his language effusive and dismissive. Initially, I was skeptical of the book, unsettled by my own general dislike for the character and seeing his voice as the voice of Bell.

Suddenly, a shift. Before I knew it the collective voices of these men of the street became clearer, likeable even. Bell is effective at manipulating the language of each chapter to make each a devotion to the voice. But, I never felt entirely comfortable within The Washington Square Ensemble. Each time I wanted more from a character (or the writing for that matter – it’s unique only as much as it is staid), Bell didn’t deliver. It was easy to forget which character was “speaking” as the lines between the identifying characteristics of each were blurred. An ensemble that is not much above the parts of the whole.

The novel, or Bell, seems to be chomping at the bit trying to catch th ereader off guard but most of the uniqueness, the shock of possibility never delivers. The group shifts, drops numbers off of its ranks and though there is death it another day in the life of a drug dealer in a notorious square. I cannot decide if the laissez-faire approach to violence and death is just lazy writing (there is death that is so expected it wrote itself into the plot) or brilliant because the characters so wholly embody it. I had the sense throughout most of the novel that the core group were essentially the same individual with seemingly subtle differences among them. It’s that feeling of being so close yet so far to the truth.

The Washington Square Ensemble is the type of book that deserves to be read multiple times. As much as I wanted to say I wasn’t really into the book there was an exception. Kind of like the English language, there are no rules only exceptions. This appears to be the mantra of Bell’s work here. I would recommend the novel to someone with patience to tease out the mysteries of a dark weekend in New York City.

Thanks to Open Road Media and Netgalley! The Washington Square Ensemble, originally published in 1984 has been reissued.


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