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Review: Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett

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We were recording this month’s episode of the Ark Audio Book Club when Tim asked: “are there any white characters in this book apart from the protagonist?” None of us could think of any, but of course now, days later, I realise the book is overrun with white people. Kafka and Freud are referenced so often they genuinely seem like actual characters; the reader is made aware of white expats in Nigeria and black Nigerians hoping to emigrate to Europe; when Nigeria’s colonial past is mentioned, ‘white people’ as a group haunt the pages. They’re always in the periphery, but Furo Wariboko is the only character who is, or becomes, white. That alone is a welcome change as most books I’m recommended feature few to no black people, but the premise itself is the most exciting: Furo, long-time black Nigerian man, wakes up one morning to discover that he is white, though he later realises that his ass remains black. A clear nod to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Furo, however, unlike Gregor Samsa, leaves the house and his family. He attends a job interview as planned but, because he is white, is offered a better position than the one advertised. The following day, after one homeless night, he meets Syreeta who not only lets him live with her but also becomes his lover. The author, Barrett, appears as the character Igoni, whose own experience of transformation adds another dimension to everything that happens to Furo.

While the story has potential to be completely fantastic, it isn’t. The metafictional exploration of race and identity is clever and compassionate, but the narration itself is not. There is a lot of unnecessary play-by-plays;  hands grabbing steering wheels and thorough descriptions of what every minor character is wearing adds nothing to the novel but length, and makes the reading experience, at times, dull and a bit grating. Stylistically, not much is going on, except in Igoni’s sections where Barrett flirts with different writing styles without committing to them. For example, Tekena’s tweets are included to illustrate Igoni’s assertion that she took advantage of her brother’s disappearance to become popular on Twitter. However, this doesn’t actually work, neither as evidence of her ill intent (for one thing, Igoni doesn’t consider that she might have been trying to accumulate followers in order to up the chances of finding Furo) nor as experimental-literature-treats to keep the different-is-always-better haters (me) off Barrett’s case. That said, the tweets are a refreshing change of pace, and it’s nice to see contemporary forms of communication included in novels, even if the narrator takes quite a conservative view of them. Mostly the writing stays in the safe zone and only occasionally offers glimpses of something really interesting.

While the story has potential to be completely fantastic, it isn’t. The metafictional exploration of race and identity is clever and compassionate, but the narration itself is not.

Things Fall Apart is mentioned early on in the story – a book that, among other things, addresses the effects of colonialism and their lasting impact for generations, the positive and negative consequences of cultures forced into close proximity, and more that I can’t communicate nearly as well as Chinua Achebe – but Furo only remembers his teacher’s comments about the book: “The white man in this book is a symbol of progress. Okonkwo fought against the white man and lost. Progress always wins, that’s why it’s progress.” As mentioned above, white male figures from ‘the’ western cultural canon play a large part in the story. Oedipal references abound. Child-Furo becomes aroused when his mother picks him up from school; Syreeta takes care of him in a very motherly way (gives him a place to stay, pays for his clothes and passport, comforts him when he cries, cooks for him, etc.) but Furo thinks less of her for having a sugardaddy. Nigeria is also cast in the role of Mother: “Some are born to love a mother who devours her young, a nation that destroys her own, but not Furo. He had never loved enough to be disheartened.” And of course there is more Kafka than just the metamorphosis itself. Apart from his strange change, Furo shares other characteristics with Gregor Samsa: for one, they are both very ambitious. Gregor works hard in order to pay off his father’s debt, though he dreams of leaving his job, of finally being free. Furo, on the other hand, wants a job because this will allow him to be free, to be powerful, and to differentiate himself from what he sees as his failure of a father. Both react to their transformations by blaming themselves for it, thereby implying that they attribute it to their actions: “what a stressful career I’ve chosen,” and “I shouldn’t have stayed up late.” Like superstitious pigeons, they seem to think of it as a mistake they have caused and could have avoided, or as a necessary evil required to progress, in Furo’s case, or a result of that progression, in Gregor’s case. The differences in Furo and Gregor’s attitudes towards work, and how work influences their understandings of their own identities, indicates the current neo-liberal world order, where work is meant to be not only a question of survival, but also the pinnacle of self-actualization. Failure to work, and thereby to be considered worthy of personhood, is considered as much a personal failure as it is a societal one. Furo has been trying to get a job for years and only lands one now because he is white, because he has externalised his ambition and is now a walking symbol, a mix of Kafka and Achebe. To his employer and to Syreeta, the fact of his whiteness is proof of his worth.

Igoni’s sections are where we get a break from the “and-then-and-then”-feel of the book and are offered some interesting perspectives on Furo’s situation. Igoni, too, is going through a transformation – she is becoming a woman – and this transformation also remains physically incomplete, as she keeps her penis. Her change is revealed gradually in a matter-of-fact way, and I’d argue that she willed it to happen, like Gregor and Furo, in an act of spite towards an absent father and a patriarchal society that blames mothers for their sons’ mistakes: “If they say I cannot be my mother’s son, then it must be that I’m her daughter.” Igoni also seems ambitious: she investigates Furo’s disappearance, ingratiates herself with Furo’s family, and interferes with his life in order to use his story in her novel. Success and power corrupts Furo, but due perhaps to Igoni being the narrator of this story, we don’t learn of any side-effects of her change quite as bad as his.

In spite of the novel’s impressive concept, the execution is disappointing. However, I can’t dismiss it entirely. It set a lot of questions in motion for me, questions I don’t think I can properly articulate or answer, and I have a sense that I have missed something important.

Identity, race and change permeate every aspect of the narrative. The inclusion of metafictional details encourage a reading of the author’s project in the same light as Furo’s. Following this vein of analysis might lead to asking whether Barrett deliberately wrote this novel in a white western tradition in order to metaphorically take on a symbolic whiteness while commenting on Furo doing exactly that? This question only really works if you do not take it too seriously; it is obviously incredibly problematic because it assumes that a black African author would automatically write in a tradition somehow separate from the western one. It thereby assumes rigid definitions of what people can or should write about, depending on their background. Also, the idea of that kind of separation is imaginary. With this in mind, in the context of this particular novel I think the question is useful, because a) it is in keeping with the themes of, and functions similarly to, the narrative, and b) it opens up the themes of the story to more questions.

In spite of the novel’s impressive concept, the execution is disappointing. However, I can’t dismiss it entirely. It set a lot of questions in motion for me, questions I don’t think I can properly articulate or answer, and I have a sense that I have missed something important. This uncertainty appeals to me. In the end, writing and talking about this book was more exciting to me than reading it. This novel’s main strength might be that it reveals a lot of the reader’s own thinking about race and identity, power and ambition, and what constitutes good or bad writing, to herself. And that’s always a good thing.

 


Listen to Ark Audio Book Club episode on Blackass here or by searching Ark Audio on iTunes.

Sarah, former child prodigy, has now shed the vanities of youth by shaving off her eyebrows, yet continues to impress. She has co-authored several books with Giovanna Alesandro and regularly shocks the artworld with her world-renowned cartoons.

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