Thursday, February 14, 2019

"Friday Black" by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Adjei-Brenyah is a name I'll be watching for. This collection is intense: filled with violence, racism, death, and magic. These stories are heavy. But, thanks to Adjei-Brenyah's writing, they're light on their feet, lively and passionate, tinged with dark humor, and rich with detail and empathy that stop most of them short of despair.

There's really not a weak story here; they often feel worth reading on the sheer brashness of their Kilgore Trout-ish premises, but the writing is strong even in the quieter stories. Fantastic, science fictional, and magical realist techniques flesh out ideas and characters that are almost uncomfortably, clearly drawn from present reality.

"The Finkelstein 5", the opening story, launches the collection at full strength. In the wake of a brutal chainsaw-murder of five young black people by a white man who goes free, spontaneous incidences of black-on-white violence erupt while the victims' names are ritually spoken. Both a parody of miscarriages of justice and frighteningly plausible, there's both horror and a kind of bleak, surreal humor in the coverage of the trial. The narrator's storyline captures the confusion and pain around the double violence of the attack and acquittal, and his ability to "dial" his blackness up or down in a quantified way.

A similarly slightly-surreal violence pervades the title story. In "Friday Black", retail workers at a mall deal with the recurring, zombie-like horde of Black Friday shoppers. The matter-of-fact way that the narrator deals with the death and violence—while thinking about his lunch-break and whether he's sold enough merchandise to earn a reward—feels like a magical realist move, and, while the premise of the story has a certain humor to it, the execution feels believably horrible and banal, especially if you've spent much time in these kinds of jobs. "In Retail" and "How to Sell a Jacket as Told By Ice King" seem to be set in the same universe (without obviously fantastic elements) and, along with "The Lion and the Spider", portray the dynamics of work in retail and service jobs with bracing, character-driven sketches.

"The Era" is a tidy little dystopia, made the more affecting by the youth of its narrator. Ministry-of-Truth-esque historical revision, gene-editing often gone awry, mandated-but-controlled drug regimens, and a compelled but unnecessarily-brutal honesty à la Morrow's City of Truth. The threat of becoming one of the perpetually-depressed "shoelookers", who seem to make up a substantial part of the population, is particularly horrific.

"Zimmer Land" is one of the most grabbing stories in the collection, told from the perspective of a worker/role-player at the titular theme park, in which guests act out fantasies of "heroism", including preventing terrorists attacks and the Trayvon Martin killing alluded to in the title. Digs into the ways that fantasies of righteous violence structure racism (and vice versa), with an overlay of white saviorism and corporate "activism".

I've spent the most time mulling over the final story, "In the Flash", about a small neighborhood or town stuck in a Groundhog's Day-esque loop, seemingly before some kind of nuclear apocalypse, where the inhabitants seem to be accruing superpowers that offer no real chance of escape, and have turned to violence instead.

"Haunting" is too ethereal a word for this collection—the fantastic elements here don't obscure, but rather emphasize, an essential bluntness. We can wrap our heads around these worlds because they're only barely exaggerations; they're too present to be ghostly. But this is a collection that will stick with me, and I highly recommend it.

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