This year has been exhausting in so many ways, asking us to accept more than it seems we can, more than it seems should be possible. But really, in the end, today’s harsh realities are not all that surprising for some of us — for people of color, or for people from marginalized communities — who have long since given up on being shocked or dismayed by the news, by what this or that administration will allow, what this or that police department will excuse, who will be exonerated, what this or that fellow American is willing to let be, either by contribution or complicity. All this is done in the name of white supremacy under the guise of patriotism and conservatism, to keep things as they are, favoring white people over every other citizen, because where’s the incentive to give up privilege if you have it? Now more than ever I believe fiction can change minds, build empathy by asking readers to walk in others’ shoes, and thereby contribute to real change. In “Friday Black,” Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah has written a powerful and important and strange and beautiful collection of stories meant to be read right now, at the end of this year, as we inch ever closer to what feels like an inevitable phenomenal catastrophe or some other kind of radical change, for better or for worse. And when you can’t believe what’s happening in reality, there is no better time to suspend your disbelief and read and trust in a work of fiction — in what it can do.
Adjei-Brenyah grew up in a suburb of New York and graduated with his M.F.A. from Syracuse University, where he was taught by the short story master George Saunders. “Friday Black” is an unbelievable debut, one that announces a new and necessary American voice.
This is a dystopian story collection as full of violence as it is of heart. To achieve such an honest pairing of gore with tenderness is no small feat. The two stories that bookend the collection are the most gruesome, and maybe my favorites. Where they could be seen as gratuitous (at least to those readers who are not paying close attention to the news, or to those who intentionally avert their eyes), I find them perfectly paced narratives filled with crackling dialogue and a rewarding balance of tension and release. Violence is only gratuitous when it serves no purpose, and throughout “Friday Black” we are aware that the violence is crucially related to both what is happening in America now, and what happened in its bloody and brutal history. Adjei-Brenyah exaggerates only ever so slightly, or uses a futuristic hypothetical premise to reveal something true about this country’s underhanded, undermining underbelly of an unconscious, which acts out its most base insults, impulses and injuries to the detriment of black communities (and many other communities of color). More often than not his characters struggle with not knowing what to do, given these seemingly impossible, extreme circumstances, and not all of them figure it out. But we don’t need them to: His many truths, insights and beautifully crafted sentences just sing on the page. “All I do is sweat and feel hurt all around my body and in my head,” says one character. “It gets dark. By then, I feel like death / poop”; another articulates, “How I feel about Marlene: She could keel over plus die and I’d be happy plus ecstatic.” In smart, terse prose, Adjei-Brenyah is unflinching, and willing, in most of these 12 stories, to leave us without any apparent hope. But the hope is there — or if it isn’t hope, it’s maybe something better: levelheaded, compassionate protagonists, with just enough integrity and ambivalence that they never feel sentimental. Each of these individuals carries a subtle clarity about what matters most when nothing makes sense in these strange and brutal worlds he builds.
The first story in the collection, “The Finkelstein 5,” is about chain-saw decapitation, innocence destroyed by white privilege via brute force, and the lack of white accountability in our nation’s maddening racial bias and failing justice system. The main character, Emmanuel, who throughout the story tempers his “blackness” on a 1-to-10 scale, is trying to figure out how to exist in a society that expects you to play by rules it means to rule you with, unjustly. Does there come a time when enough is enough, and violence must face violence with violence?
In the story “The Era,” the author paints a cold, sterile, prophetic world as seen through the eyes of a teenager, Ben, who is not genetically modified, but a “clear-born.” “The Era” explores what humanity might look like in the future of scientific advancement, and what is true and authentic vs. syndicated or synthetic. Who is to say who is more valuable: the genetically modified beings or the “clear-borns”? Most compelling in this story is Ben’s increasingly addictive relationship to a socially acceptable, regulated drug called “Good,” and our eventual understanding of how cold and lifeless is the idea of gene manipulation technology if you follow it to its logical conclusion. “I look in the medical kit just in case. No Good. I take the empty injector and bring it to my neck. I hit the trigger and stab and hope maybe I’ll get something. I hit the trigger again. Again.” If Ben’s voice borrows a little from Saunders’s narrator in “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” the influence is understandable. Whether or not that writer’s tutelage shows here, I can think of no better a short story writer to borrow from or emulate. That being said, Adjei-Brenyah’s voice here is as powerful and original as Saunders’s is throughout “Tenth of December.”
The title of the collection is an inversion of our most bloodthirsty, capitalistic annual ritual — Black Friday — and in the titular story Adjei-Brenyah turns everything inside out to expose our blood and guts and desire and greed and savings. Every bit of hyperbole holds more truth than most of what the news, which only sometimes tries its best to be cool, calm and objective, has to report.
Fiction in 2018 has gotten it right in finding truth without relying on fact. “Friday Black” is one of three stories in the book exploring capitalism and mall culture in a way I’ve never read before. It’s one of the shorter entries in the collection, but it sets the gruesome scene for two later stories that tackle the same world from distinct points of view. All three mall stories are smart, funny and fun, despite having morbid tendencies. I could read a whole novel of voices from the many storefronts of this generic American Anywhere.
The final story, “Through the Flash,” is an intense and harrowing Groundhog Day journey through the possibilities of infinite time, and its potential implications for morality and redemption. At one point in the story, in which an infinitely looping reality means each day starts over again with a flash, the main character, Ama — a.k.a. “Knife Queen”— reflects on a particularly horrific period of time: “Every inch of my black skin painted the maroon of life.” The word “maroon” here refers to blood, but I had to explore whether there were more meanings to unpack in it as well. Turns out it also means a firework, or a bang used to signal a warning, or, as a verb, to leave someone trapped and isolated in an inaccessible place, abandoned. Black Americans and other Americans of color are already carrying the weight of cruel, unreckoned-with histories on their shoulders; so to live amid unmitigated, too often racially motivated violence with little to no accountability on the horizon feels a lot like abandonment. Adjei-Brenyah, with his own “maroon of life,” is here to signal a warning, or perhaps just to say this is what it feels like, in stories that move and breathe and explode on the page. In “Friday Black,” the dystopian future Adjei-Brenyah depicts — like all great dystopian fiction — is bleakly futuristic only on its surface. At its center, each story — sharp as a knife — points to right now.