Blackass Review

A first time novelist reinterpreting a well admired classic is a risky endeavour. The cynical expectation might be that said work will fall short of the original even before any evidence is tendered. Even if the reimagined tale manages to eclipse the original in scope and ambition (or word count), the mere fact that the tributary can easily be traced to its source lake relegates the novel to feeder status; the question then becomes just how much audacity the writer can bring to the old idea. The writer would do well to quickly concede points on originality and concentrate on putting on a bravura performance. And what a performance this is.

Barret has chosen to butt heads with Kafka. In The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa’s wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a bug. In Blackass, Barret’s protagonist, Furo Wariboko, wakes up to find himself transformed from a black man into a white man. This happens on a Monday, the biblical first day of creation, and hours before an important job interview. Barret wisely moves far away from the world of Gregor Samsa in an admirable fashion. Kafka’s Gregor is confined to his room for the entirety of his ordeal. But Barret’s Furo, on discovering his new state, sneaks out of his home and spends a large part of the book avoiding his family – and even his mother’s impassioned pleas when he picks up her call.

Before his mutation, Gregor was the bread winner in his family. Afterwards, he remains remarkably considerate even when faced with, first confusion, then hostility from his parents. Furo, in his own way, denies his family total knowledge of it all.

Morality aside, there are practical storytelling reasons for this. Confining an entire novel about a black man who wakes up white to one room without relying on extensive back stories would require quite a lot of inventiveness to propel the narrative forward. It would also be a missed opportunity. In making Furo wander the streets of Lagos, all manner of commentary and observations are drawn – the privileges and drawbacks of being white in the most populous black nation, the frustrations of unemployment which encourages ingenuity but breeds opportunism and the impression of a country in its first heady decades of political stability and renewed quest for self-determination.

The Metamorphosis is deeply humanist. This is partly by design for Kafka concentrates on the physical and emotional states of Gregor’s parents, his sister and three guests. Kafka largely excludes the world outside and no external factors are imported into the story distinct enough to root it in any one era (at least not to my mind). Barret, on the other hand, draws a wider canvas accommodating societal ills that stretch back generations to colonial rule and echoes into centuries of slavery.

A third of the way into the book, Furo meets a man with neck-length, dreadlocked hair, in a shopping mall called The Palms. The man introduces himself as Igoni and then offers to buy Furo a cup of coffee while the two engage in a cursory chat about their respective professions. Furo learns that Igoni is a writer of “fiction, stories, that sort of thing”. Furo asks Igoni, incredibly for someone he has just met, if he can put up at his place. Igoni declines saying he is hard at work on a project. Igoni pays for the coffee bids him farewell.

Seeing the authors name in the text has a dislocating effect. I first had to accept that it was not a printing error and knowing it wasn’t did not lower my defences. Meta-fiction does not possess the humility of an alternate reality with its iownn set of rules. What it does is shackle the real with the imagined and like a mortise and tenon joint, the primary aim is to achieve a tight fit first before aesthetics.

This section is titled “@_igoni” and a typical sentence is “And so I, @_igoni, spent bundles of time on Twitter”. Igoni narrates his fascination with “a white man with a strong Nigerian accent” believing he has found material for a story. He googles Furo and finds links to Facebook and Twitter. He has deleted his account on the former due to online abuse (he Igoni is considering sex change hence the abuse) but finds Furo’s sister on the latter. He follows her and her tweets, which alternate between hashtags for her missing brother and off-hand declarations of mundanity, all reproduced on page in the manner it is done online.

The rambuctioness of Twitter is well portrayed. So is the startling proximity with each other it affords its users. Igoni’s narration has the plain but not rigid speak of journalistic entries. Whether this is intended or not is hard to say. That said, it deadens the narrative thrust of the previous section. Some might find the meta-play unobtrusive. For me it was an inconvenience I was prepared to put up with, until the section ends, and Furo’s story, from his point of view, is resumed.

Barret has a fierce command of language. His supreme attention to detail and clever word choices sparkle on page after page all through the book as in this description of Lagos “…Furo gazed over murky waters lapping against the marina behind his bench. On the far shore floated a metropolis of cargo ships and derrick rigs. Canoes and old tug-boats crawled across the waterway, their paddles digging and outboard motors chugging. Scavenging egrets soared and squabbled over the sluggish waves of Five Cowrie Creek: that dumpsite for market refuse and road-kill carcasses; that open into the sewer into which the homeless and shameless emptied their bowels in public view.”

The long quote is needed to give a good idea of just how alert the writing is and what a joy it is to read, especially when there appears to be a good reason for it like the descriptions of scenes, characters and emotional states. But when such firepower is used to describe dead space – the washing of plates, the closing of doors etc – it begins to read like, not wasted, but misdirected effort.

Midway through the book, Furo and another character pay a friend a visit and for an entire page’s worth of words the only real important action that occurs is that the pair arrive at their destination, exit the car and enter the house. All of this is rendered with the same seriousness used to unravel crucial plot points which feels too much like bringing a bazooka to fisticuffs. Perhaps I’m being the ungrateful guest who, when served a delightful feast, eats his way through the table only to complain to the host about how easily the napkins break.