Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017
There are few styles of literature I find more exhausting than “issues”-driven fiction. I’m talking about novels and stories that prioritize making an argument (about race, about rape culture, about capitalism, about class, about colonialism, about…any number of social ills) above telling a good story. The writer telling this sort of story creates characters and manufactures plot to serve the needs of their argument, rather than the needs of the narrative. The prose might be robust or limp, but it is almost always heavy-handed. Often I am left thinking, at the conclusion of these stories, that the writer would have been better off crafting a think piece or research-driven essay, rather than draping their ideas and arguments in the costume of fiction. At times my exhaustion with these stories is guilt-inducing, as I find myself aligned with the author’s argument but chafing at their misuse of the fictive impulse.
All that is to say that when I encounter a writer who engages with urgent issues facing our society in their fiction in a way that enhances rather than detracts from the story, I am all the more impressed. Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, in his story collection Friday Black, grapples directly with big questions about race, history, capitalism, violence and the idea of America with such grace and ingenuity that the work sings with insight and relevance without sacrificing any literary merit. Instead, Adjei-Brenyah crafts stories in which these large and complex themes enrich his powerful and powerfully human fiction.
As a student of George Saunders, it is not surprising that one of Adjei-Brenyah’s methods is to create a heightened reality in which his stories can unfold. This is speculative fiction at the peak of its powers: “a recognizable world,” we say, as we read our way through the collection. “Our world, really, how much would really need to change for it to look just like this?” Adjei-Brenyah dials up the absurdity a few degrees so that we might honestly confront the absurdity in the world that inspires his fiction. Such is the power of the title story, “Friday Black”, about a retail worker selling winter coats on black friday to a sea of “ravenous…howl[ing]” customers. And the narrator means this literally: on his first Black Friday a man from Connecticut “bit a hole into my tricep…I left the sales floor for ten minutes so they could patch me up.” A few pages later we learn that the onslaught of customers is so inhumane that people are routinely trampled and maimed such that the store maintains an area “designated for bodies” swept out of the way by a push broom. Customers lose their power of speech, communicating using grunts and gestures that the narrator has learned how to decode so specifically over his years at the store that he can glean the product, size and color requested, “even if all they’re doing is foaming at the mouth.”
All of this world-building and dark humor is backdrop, however, for a deeply human and relatable protagonist and his struggle to hit his sales quota so that he might give his mother a winter coat––a product he sells but could never afford to purchase on his own. Moreover, we relate to the protagonist’s pride in his job performance; even though he sees the store for what it is, and even though we readers sense his unease at his complicity in this consumerist frenzy, he cannot help but be proud of his competence, his ability to perform at a high level in a stressful environment. His quest for the coat, his pride, this is the stuff of great fiction. And at the same time, the story shines a light on (based on my experience) the core contradiction of service economy work: the work itself is designed to strip us of our dignity and subordinate our own humanity, and yet succeeding at the work despite all the bullshit can be a perverse source of pride. Adjei-Banyah captures all of this in eleven pages without breaking a sweat.
Adjei-Banyah is able to grapple with race in much the same way across stories such as “The Finkelstein Five” and “Zimmer Land.” In the former, a faction of black Americans has formed a movement of roving inverse-lynch gangs, coding as assimilated professionals but attacking white Americans for their passive complicity in the racialized structural violence that destroys black bodies in this country. In the latter, a theme park offers customers a chance to enact episodes of racialized violence––supposedly for the purpose of venting these impulses and considering questions of justice in a safe environment. Readers can see, however, how the park only serves to perpetuate the impulses it is meant to curb.
The most speculative stories unfold in a future where America has been left behind by natural disaster and atomic war. Adjei-Banyah uses these stories as a way to examine America’s idea of itself. In one story, “The Era,” a school child experiences opiate withdrawal as he has grown addicted to the pills that are meant to keep students happy and docile. What are the sacrifices we make in order to keep believing in the myth of America?, this story seems to ask. What do we choose to forget, how do we choose to remember?
What makes this collection work? How does the commentary elevate rather than drag down the fiction? I think if this question were easier to answer, we might encounter more stories like Adjei-Banyah’s. I have a few theories, however:
- Humor. The stories brim with humor, even at their darkest moments. We laugh through the pain, or the pain stabs through our laughter. And humor highlights the absurdity of so much that goes unquestioned in our society.
- Character. Adjei-Banyah understands just what sort of position his characters should occupy in these speculative worlds he builds. The top salesman. The student-addict. The Trayvon-Martin-like mascot of Zimmer Land who hopes to change the system from the inside. The ghosts of the victim and perpetrator of a school shooting. Adjei-Banyah puts the characters at the very center of the action, and thus at the very center of the big questions his story raises.
- Pace. These stories are never too slow. They move forward with deliberate momentum. Adjei-Banyah is not slowing down so that readers may wallow, because he’s too busy trying to entertain.
Bestseller lists and bookstore displays are oftentimes strewn with “issues”-fiction that makes a good point at the expense of a good story. Friday Black does both and more. The collection is spine-shivering and fun and full-bodied. The questions that these stories raise about the world around us are just one ingredient in a complex recipe. A joy and revelation for fans of Saunders, Whitehead, and/or Kafka.