All of this makes for a strange tension, a dissonance between simplistic dichotomies and the ambiguous renderings that Abani wants to paint for us in much the same way that Black paints his post-colonial, post-Sept. 11 Madonna. At times, Black comes across as the New Angeleno Man, a being of diffuse identity imbued not with superficial multiculturalism but with a more human wistfulness. “With an Igbo father and Salvadoran mother,” Abani writes, “Black never felt he was much of either. It was a curious feeling, like being a bird, he thought, swaying on a wire somewhere, breaking for the sky when night and rain came, except for him it never felt like flight, more like falling; falling and drowning in cold, cold water. When he felt the water rise, he would morph.” (…) Ultimately, “The Virgin of Flames” cannot fulfill the massive task of representing the transformation of Los Angeles into the astonishing and troubled amalgam of peoples it has become. Nor is this necessarily Abani’s goal; he is, after all, concerned as much with Black’s psychic landscape as with the social geography of L.A. How the novel is read, I suspect, will have much to do with readers’ places in the city, their relationships with whoever their “others” happen to be.
Meanwhile, Karen Olsson, who reviews the book for the New York Times, says:
Just as Black combines racist jokes and lines from Wallace Stevens in a work entitled “American Gothic — The Remix,” so Abani imagines a place that is horrifying and tender and absurd in equal measure. But with its uneven tone and meandering story, the book doesn’t quite hold together. The language veers from portentous to reportorial, and sometimes falls flat, as in a dull first-date scene between Black and Sweet Girl. As a result the final conflagration carries less impact than it might have.
Still, these are the missteps of an ambitious writer with an original perspective. In “The Virgin of Flames” he audaciously stakes his claim on a city not his own. And wisely, he doesn’t so much try to reveal its hidden side as to give it a costume, or a paint job, of his own making.
I have to say I am very intrigued as to what Abani will make of Los Angeles, and I want to read his book.