In James Hannaham’s latest novel, Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta, we meet Carlotta Mercedes, a trans woman who has just spent the last 20 years of her life in a men’s prison. On the day of her release, she finds herself wandering around a familiar, but different, Brooklyn. Everyone is suddenly looking at their phones the whole time, the subway isn’t dangerous and covered in graffiti any more, all the porno cinemas have been shut down and replaced with specialist bakeries. Carlotta has one thing on her mind, she’s got to stay out of trouble or else she’ll be sent straight back to prison. Easier said than done – it seems no matter where Carlotta goes, she attracts trouble like a magnet.
Hannaham uses James Joyce’s Ulysses as the template for his novel – Carlotta takes place over a 24-hour period and features a wide cast of strange and memorable characters who our protagonist bumps into on her travels around Brooklyn.
Much like Joyce too, Hannaham employs a unique writing style throughout, the book being written in a combination of African American vernacular, queer and street slang and heavily referential prose. The text also constantly switches between first- and third-person perspective, very often mid-sentence, which can be disorientating and confusing at first, but you quickly get into the rhythm of it. The overall effect is a novel that feels utterly alive in your hands, its prose humming and buzzing, demanding you to read it in as few chunks as possible.
What Hannaham has managed in Carlotta is nothing short of alchemy. Rarely does every element of a novel come together, from the plot to the characters to the writing, in such a perfect way. How he has managed to create a book that is, at once, a searing indictment of the US prison system, a picaresque romp, a complex tribute to a Modernist masterpiece and just a generally hilarious novel is beyond words.
I absolutely love this book. And its release couldn’t have come sooner after this, frankly, mediocre year for new releases. I dare anyone to pick up Carlotta and not be blown away by the sheer craft of it. To have written a book like this Hannaham surely must have done a deal with the devil.
Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta by James Hannaham is out now (Europa Editions, £14.99) You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.