Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, _Americanah_

ADICHIE'S THIRD NOVEL has some of the scope of her second (Half of A Yellow Sun, about Biafra and the Nigerian civil war), since it is set on three continents, but also some of the intimacy of her first (Purple Hibiscus), since it focuses on a particular couple. I would say it is not quite as satisfying as either of those books, but certainly worthwhile.

Adichie has become one of my favorite novelists. Her prose is supple and brisk. She has a new subject matter: not the rural villages of the classic African novels, but the world of the educated, prosperous, and cosmopolitan. (The educated, prosperous, and cosmopolitan get more than their share of attention in most national literatures, I know, but in African literature they have been scarce, so it feels like Adichie is filling a yawning gap.) Best of all, Adichie's has a true novelist's eye and ear.  She notices things, she knows how people talk, she knows how to make her novel's world pop into being in your readerly imagination.

Americanah concerns Ifemelu and Obinze, secondary school sweethearts in Lagos. Circumstances separate them--Ifemelu departs on a scholarship to an American university; Obinze, after a difficult sojourn in the U.K., returns to Nigeria to a comfy job in the family business and an arranged marriage. Years later, Ifemelu comes home. Will their affair re-ignite?

Well, duh.  Yes.

Oddly, though, this is the least interesting part of the book. It barely seems to interest Adichie, who dashes rather cursorily through the reunion and the renewal of the affair. The novel seems much, much more interested in Ifemelu's years in the United States, which, truth to tell, are quite a bit more interesting than anything that goes on between her and Obinze.  We get her take on being an African in America, her take on African-Americans, her take on the men she is attracted to and who are attracted to her, her alliances, her antagonists, her friends, her loved ones, including a young male cousin struggling to grow up in a culture that sees young black males as the scariest of threats. We get several of her blog entries, which are always sharp and funny and would make good reading all on their own. Her conversations in the hair salon--a recurring element--are a highlight of the book.

One feels that the novel wanted Ifemelu's American wanderjahre to be some necessary maturation that prepares for the fulfillment of her homecoming, but she's more interesting when she is wandering.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Dave Eggers, _Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?_

I READ THIS on a long plane trip about five weeks ago. In the early going, it reminded me a bit of Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint--first, because it is all dialogue, and second, because in the first chapter one speaker has gone to a reckless, indignant extreme in his desire to hold the powers to be responsible for their wrongdoing, and the other speaker is trying to talk him down.

Hard to imagine Leon Wieseltier taking time out of his busy day to scotch this snake, though, because it turns out what we have is more of a radio play. The reckless, indignant, somewhat crazed kidnapper of chapter one turns out to be Thomas, a no-longer-young man whose life has never quite found its track. His whole generation, he feels, has been gypped, and he embarks on a series of kidnappings trying to get to the bottom of the scam, keeping his victims (most of whom he knows and all of whom he holds to some degree accountable) tied up in the barracks of a de-commissioned military base while he questions/harangues them.

As the interrogations/harangues proceed, Thomas seems less and less the John Brown of the millennials and more and more someone who just never solved the puzzle of being an adult. The people whom he forces onto the witness stand of this improvised trial--a worldly senator, a substance-abusing mom, a pedophile former teacher, the policeman who perhaps unnecessarily gunned down one of Thomas's friends--all turn out to be, as we hear them speak, not the clich├ęs they come on stage as, but ordinary fallible people trying to figure out how to live. Thomas wants to turn them into the power-abusing villains who have wrecked his and his generation's hopes, but they all turn out to be just people trying, like him, to get by somehow. With every interview, one's conviction grows that Thomas is basically a (mostly) good-hearted fuckup, and that things have failed to pan out for him for the most obvious and ordinary kind of reasons.

Thomas is about to be captured as the novel ends; we don't have much hope for his future, although he does seem to have stumbled upon a vocation, having demonstrated a rare and real talent for kidnapping.

Whatever happened to radio plays, anyway? I would definitely give this a listen if NPR, say, gave it two hours.