Race and capitalism in America should be fertile ground for literary fiction. This year’s Black Friday shopping frenzy brought the usual bout of stabbings and shootings to add to the overall death count, not to mention the looming environmental collapse that such consumerism feeds. And the list of things you can’t do while black without having the police called or a gun pulled on you seems to expand by the day, from working out to moving into an apartment to buying Mentos.
Yet Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah startled me by the freshness, directness and urgency with which it dealt with these issues. In this debut collection of short stories, we meet zombie-like shoppers fighting over cut-price jackets, a theme park where visitors can experience the thrill of shooting a black intruder, a white homeowner who decapitates five black children with a chainsaw because he felt threatened.
If the setups sound extreme, that’s because they are. The realities of race and capitalism in America are extreme, so the satirist has to up his game to stay a step ahead. Yet the impressive achievement of Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is to make them believable, to make sharp political points without coming over as didactic. That’s what the best political fiction does, and that’s what the stories in Friday Black deliver.
As the author told Vox in an interview:
“I turned up the volume because it’s interesting to think about how bad the violence has to be for us to care. I got to make more acute points about how readily we allow love to become conflated with things in the stores, things that are purchasable; how often we allow love to be externalized, turned into something we can buy back from whatever company. Exaggeration helps with that.”
I was hooked from the opening of the very first story, where we meet the main character, Emmanuel, consciously dialling his Blackness up and down on a 10-point scale as he tries to navigate life as a black man in America while being haunted by visions of a headless girl (one of the victims of the scared white man with the chainsaw) “waiting for him to do something, anything.”
Throughout the story, Emmanuel is pulled back and forth between bringing his Blackness down below 5 for his own safety and ratcheting it up towards 10 in solidarity with the Finkelstein Five and the movement inspired by their murder and the acquittal of their killer.
As his Blackness creeps up past 7.0, he remembers the advice of his father:
“‘You gotta know how to move,’ his father had said to him at a very young age. Emmanuel started learning the basics of his Blackness before he knew how to do long division: smiling when angry, whispering when he wanted to yell.”
There’s a palpable tension throughout the story between these learnt survival techniques and the anger he feels, the growing sense of obligation. How bad do things have to get before you do something, before you abandon the attempt to survive and try to change things, or at least to be more honest?
Characters face similar dilemmas in other stories. Zay needs a job, but is it worth playing the role of thug and getting beaten and shot multiple times a day by white patrons playing the role of indignant homeowner in a theme park? The retail workers in the stories dealing with mall life also have tough choices to make. They may not want to sell jackets to crazed sale shoppers, but they need work, and they just want to get through it without ending up like Lucy, the Taco Town cashier who jumped from the fourth floor on her lunch break.
Friday Black has received a lot of praise from the likes of George Saunders (“an excitement and a wonder”) and Roxane Gay (“dark and captivating and essential”), along with ecstatic write-ups in the major papers. Normally, when books get this much hype, the reality tends to disappoint me (c.f. The Flamethrowers, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao). But this time, the book actually lived up to the hype. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long while, and if I were talking to you in person I’d press my copy into your hands and urge you to read it (which would be odd since it’s on my Kindle).
There are magical elements in some of the stories, sci-fi elements in others, and straight-up weirder-than-sci-fi reality in others. If you’re looking for something fresh and different and contemporary and beautifully written, do give it a try.