A dark and mind-bending debut collection of short stories set in a twisted America.
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black made the New York Times bestseller list recently, an astonishing feat for a debut collection of short stories. It’s not surprising because his dark and strange tales are so inventive and stirring that they read as the male counterpart to Leone Ross’s recent first collection, Come Let Us Sing Anyway, with its amazing realist and magic realist concoctions around black women’s lives. Adjei-Brenyah’s stories are equally ingenious, but through a male lens and, like Ross, they’re so daring and mind-bending that you haven’t a clue where he’s going to take you.
The opening story, The Finkelstein 5, is one of the most topical and devastating. A young man called Emmanuel talks about dialling his blackness up or down according to the situation. Speaking to a possible future employer on the phone, he code-switches his voice to “1.5 on a 10-point scale” of blackness, which won’t be possible when seen face to face. He knows that if he wears “a tie, wing-tipped shoes, smiled constantly… and kept his hands strapped and calm at his sides, he could get his blackness as low as a 4.0”. However, if he goes out in “a black hoodie, baseball cap and trainers”, his blackness rises to 7.6. The author cleverly expresses the pressures of assimilation and survival when you are from a vilified minority.
Emmanuel is disturbed at the murder of a group of innocent African American schoolchildren by a white man who cuts off their heads with a chainsaw and tries to justify his actions in court. We’re not sure exactly how Emmanuel is going to seek retribution, but we sense his blackness will be dialled up in the pursuit of it.
In Lark Street, a man encounters the apparently alive and definitely articulate twin foetuses of his girlfriend. Aborted by her the day before, they climb on to his pillow to talk to him. The tiny twins, Jackie and Jamie, refer to him as “Dad”, “Pops” and “Daddy” and accuse him of being weak. Jackie says: “I think I have more balls than you and I’m still, like, a trimester from genitalia.” Deadpan gallows humour and absurdism are motifs throughout this book, as the author takes you into the twisted tunnel of his imagination. The talking foetuses prove to be the personification of the man’s regret about the abortion, yet the story is too complex to read as a simple morality tale.
The Era explores the impact of human genetic modification in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic society where knowledge and intelligence have to be relearned, while in Light Spitter, an isolated high-school gunman nicknamed Fuckton by his classmates, is confronted by the ghost of the young woman he’s just murdered. Together, they try and save another bullied child from going on a killing spree.
Not all the stories are fantastical, but all of the characters seem to be trapped. One of the best is the eponymous Friday Black in which a successful store salesman, simmering in consumerist hell, uses his understanding of human behaviour to sell to customers who don’t realise they’re being manipulated. He hates his job so much that he takes extended breaks where he sits on the lavatory for 15 minutes at a time.
Many of these stories are about outsider male protagonists, often in a deep state of suffering and desperation. Some desire social, self or peer approval. Financial hardship is a recurring theme. Sometimes, their tales are delivered with the extremes of hyperbole to explore a point; other times, it’s the mind-numbing awfulness of the quotidian. Adjei-Brenyah is a versatile writer who creates a micro-universe with each story that explodes our expectations and takes us inside frustrated lives.