Rion Amilcar Scott’s story collection, The World Doesn’t Require You, is one of the most astonishingly smart collections I’ve ever read. I don’t think I’ve read anything as brutally intelligent as Scott’s stories. Even before I finished the book, I wanted to gather all of the literature wonks I know and force them to read this collection as fast as humanly possible, so that we can talk about what the stories have to say, how they are constructed, and what the hell we’re supposed to read next because this collection is just so damn good.
Normally, when I review short story collections, I talk about individual stories that stood out to me instead of talking about the book as a whole. I can’t do this with The World Doesn’t Require You. This isn’t because there aren’t standouts; it’s because all of the stories talk to each other. I found out from the acknowledgements that this book is a sequel to Insurrections, another collection of stories set in a fictional Maryland city called Cross River. Cross River is located in a United States that is similar to the one in our timeline, but there are some supernatural elements and the Civil War is called the Great Insurrection. The racism and sexism are the same. White and Black people still segregate themselves. Women, especially Black women, are seen as sexual objects and, often, the cause of all men’s woes. Because Cross River is the same as and different from our world, Scott has plenty of territory to use cultural and racist tropes to explore taboo topics. Scott’s stories made me uncomfortable, but in the best way. I was made uncomfortable so that I could think hard about how many of those tropes, concepts, and even words carry the weight of racism and just now insidious they all are.
I love collections and novels that take up themes and repeat them, with variations that make us look at an idea from all angles. In The World Doesn’t Require You, we see characters who claim to be gurus and geniuses being exposed as frauds, music and poetry that can make those who hear or read it run mad, characters who invert racist tropes (especially minstrelsy) to make us confront our emotional reactions to those very tropes, and the way that women are viewed in a selfish, patriarchal society. Not all of the stories touch on these themes. Rather, themes are dropped and picked back up; we’re not beaten over the head with some fairly problematic ideas. Sharp-eyed readers will spot names, creatures, and places that add up into an entire history and mythology of Cross River. Scott even invents scholarly literature to create even more verisimilitude. Cross River seemed so real to me that I tried to find the place on Google Maps.
I said I wasn’t going to talk about individual stories, but I need to talk about the last story, “Special Topics in Loneliness Studies.” (This story is so long that it’s not exactly a short story, but not long enough to qualify as a novella.) In this story, a trickster (in the form of a homeless professor teaching classes that aren’t actually on the schedule, although students seem to appear anyway) manipulating an earnest professor at Cross River’s Freedman University. The trickster’s target, Dr. Reginald Chambers, is a scholar of Cross River’s greatest poet. Chamber’s obliviousness and sense of entitlement makes him a perfect mark for someone who knows how to poke at someone’s pride. The trickster’s goal is to take down the university, which is a typical institution of higher ed that cranks out as many graduates as possible for as little cost as possible while paying lip service to scholarship. By messing with Chambers, pushing him to follow his entitlement and obsession with the poet, strange, terrible, and fascinating things happen. And yet, this story turns into an amazing meditation on how our self-appointed geniuses oppress those around them and how men oppress women. Scott recounts Chambers’ fall with a metafictional collection of the trickster’s narrative, Chamber’s emails and papers, student papers, and footnotes. It is, quite simply, the most brilliant piece of fiction I have ever read.
The World Doesn’t Require You deserves to be read and discussed widely. This collection not only has so much to say, the things it says are exactly things that Americans need to hear. I plan to buy it and its precursor for my library and talk as many people as possible into reading it.
Damn, this is a great book.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.