Tuesday, September 24, 2019

FRIDAY BLACK by a brave new voice in speculative fiction, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah


Mariner Books
$14.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: In the stories of Adjei-Brenyah’s debut, an amusement park lets players enter augmented reality to hunt terrorists or shoot intruders played by minority actors, a school shooting results in both the victim and gunman stuck in a shared purgatory, and an author sells his soul to a many-tongued god.

Adjei-Brenyah's writing will grab you, haunt you, enrage, and invigorate you. By placing ordinary characters in extraordinary situations, Adjei-Brenyah reveals the violence, injustice, and painful absurdities that black men and women contend with every day. These stories tackle urgent instances of racism and cultural unrest and explore the many ways we fight for humanity in an unforgiving world.


My Review
: A young African American man writes speculative fiction about the alt-present/near-term future from the point of view of the deeply disadvantaged, the ones whose American Dream is a nightmare. An editor sees it, is probably appalled but is certainly moved, and for a minor miracle of a wonder, buys this amazingly assured debut collection of stories by first-generation American Author Adjei-Brenyah. Wherever he saw an odd, he beat it, did the young author. Syracuse University MFA? Now, with this man's debut, that means something to me, where before I'd never have so much as fluttered an eyelid as the words crossed my field of vision.

And speaking of vision, this cover is something special, isn't it? (He's no slouch in the handsome derby either!)

A statement of the powerful reading contained within. This detail image is so pretty I can't resist sharing it:

Author Adjei-Brenyah says, "I do bad at school because sometimes I think when I should be learning." (p29) I nod. I totally understand this kid who's speaking. As the school day unfolds over the next four pages, the Long Big War and HowItWas class, and not only am I clear on how we got here, I'm pretty darn sure that somehow he's come back from the future to warn us what's coming. And man is he pissed off. You won't blame him when you read the collection. Note absence of conditional in previous sentence. Not if, when. These are stories you need.

As is my habit, I'll offer some impressions of each story a la my quondam pal Bryce in his inimitable Method. (He did it better than I do, I'm only aping the form.)

The Finkelstein 5 made me want to vomit. I had to google it to be sure it wasn't reportage. Emmanuel's chant of "Fela St. John, Fela St. John" will haunt my nightmares. How we can look at ourselves as we shave and titivate in our sparkly mirrors is beyond my emotional comprehension. There is a slow-motion genocide against African Americans and this story shouts, "they released the brakes! and the hounds!" at the top of its paper lungs. 4 stars

Things My Mother Said is, in 500 or so words, a complete and compelling worldbuilding sketch. This man has the chops. 3 stars

The Era is an updated Brave New World/This Perfect Day tale about industrial mood management; its effects on high schoolers, families, hierarchies; it packs one helluva wallop as deeply undesirable "shoelookers" claim another "dumb/slow" clear-born, someone whose parents didn't use OptiLife™. Chilled me more than a martini in a shaker. Haunting for its deep anger. No one should ever think for a second that the Millennials' kids are safe.
She steps to me. I stretch my neck out for her and close my eyes. She puts one hand on one side of my neck. Her hand is warm plus strong. She stabs the injector needle in. My head feels the way an orange tastes. I open my eyes and look at her. She waits. I look at her more. She frowns, then gives me another shot. And then I feel the Good.
Soma, anyone? Extra treatments? Yes, Author Ira Levin, I see your vision refuses to die as it steadily approaches. 5 stars

Lark Street is one fucked-up fever dream of guilt, loneliness, bad decisions, the crushing weight of morality grinding a boy into his mortality's disease vector.
An impossible hand punched my earlobe. An unborn fetus, aborted the day before, was standing at my bedside. His name was Jackie Gunner.
"So, I guess you didn't have the balls?" Jackie Gunner said. His voice was a stern squeak. My eyelids rolled open. He was a tiny silhouette on the end of my pillow. Smaller than a field mouse.
"Well, say something, Dad." He said Dad the way some people say cunt. "Do you even feel bad?"
"Yeah," I said. "I feel real bad."
"I feel real bad," Jackie Gunner repeated. "Is real bad a hole big enough to fit our lives in?"
"Our?" I said.
"It's a metaphor, Daddy," said a new voice, this one shy, charming even. A second tiny fetus climbed up my comforter onto my bed. Her name, I knew, was Jamie Lou.
There is no hiding from consequences in Author Adjei-Brenyah's world. 4.5 stars for some frankly unworthy-of-him gender stereotyping.

The Hospital Where brings us on a w-verb-filled journey through a young writer's bargaining with the Twelve-Tongued God (I love this concept!), who promises him Everything in return for his abject servitude to Story. It's gloriously weird; it contains multitudes (of winks); it resonates with the agonized scream of an abandoned boy demanding his daddy not leave. What, indeed, have you done.
Soon I was staring at a small entryway sign that read RADIOLOGY I. In the hall there was an extremely old man in a wheelchair. He groaned steadily. His white skin looked stretched and spotty. It seemed someone had forgotten him or maybe was using him to prop open the door. There were so many tubes going in and coming out of him that I couldn't imagine where they began or ended. I walked past quickly. Farther down the same hall, a black guy in a wheelchair stared in my direction with eyes so empty I thought they might suck something out of me.
Shivery horripilatingly pure prose telling of a son's psychotic break...or possibly apotheosis...as his father succumbs by degrees to cancer in an uncaring, unfeeling system with classist assumptions informing its death-care. 5 stars

Zimmer Land felt so real to me that, again, I had to google it to be sure it wasn't. It's what I feel about the oddly innocuous-sounding "first-person shooter" games that scare me, disgusting visceral violence as the perp sees it, made more revoltingly real. Living, breathing black men get shot (but not harmed...physically) for a living. In a world where George Zimmer is free but Trayvon Martin is dead, it's almost pornographic. No, it isn't. Scratch the "almost."

The first day of Zay's new job in Zimmer Land's Creative department, a job his ex landed for him thus dragging him up from a mere black body in a safe place for a white "patron" to enact his violent racist fantasies on, is moved an hour earlier; his boss "forgot" to tell him, one senses because his boss was nudged that way by the company founder...a Zardoz-like holographic head whose body is in Cabo schmoozing the banksters for R&D money...since the founder is dating Zay's ex. Corporate politics, racism, end-stage capitalism (the park is about to allow minors in to experience the thrill of murdering a black man). What a piece of work is Man, man. 5 stars

Friday Black reminds me of why I don't do shopping during the xmas rush. I'm not all the way sure it's fiction. The insane stuff-lust that I've seen on news broadcasts as hordes violently rush displays of useless brummagem objects in a desperate race to Buy to Have to Possess the Latest...! Deaths are still rare on Black Friday...for now.... 3 stars

The Lion & The Spider interweaves the Trickster Anansi outwitting the boastful Lion with a son's fear, rage, betrayal as he learns his father is a human being without losing his need to be a son. A well-made story, if not precisely to my taste. 3.5 stars

Light Spitter takes us inside the void created when the world shovels its shit into a kid who has no way to say "no, NO, it hurts, NO" so the weight piles in-on-up until a gun answers the taunts. Horrible, horrible cruelty answered by the sneer of ballistic ammunition. Added bonus: Author uses homophobic slur! Lovely. 4 stars

How to Sell A Jacket As Told by IceKing is the continuation of "Friday Black" told by the same narrator a few years down the line. IceKing's still at the top of his game pushing crap onto people who probably don't need it, but time's ticktickticking. No one wants to be trapped in retail forever. It's not my favorite setting or PoV plus it's got a w-bomb in it, so...well...like that. 3 stars

In Retail is the other side of the rivalry from IceKing...not gonna lie, even six pages of it was no fun, I don't think this is the place Author Adjei-Brenyah needs to be setting his focus. Maybe it's all out of his system now? I for one sure hope so. 3 stars because it's not like it's poorly written, I just don't like it

Through the Flash is the hell of Eternity, the unceasing wretched quotidian repetition of one then another then another cycle of waking, eating, dying...world without end. A future bleaker than any dystopia you've ever read, packed into 27 pages full of the bile of human cruelty, the scalding freeze of knowledge without wisdom, the immutability of lives meant to be impermanent frozen into a rictus of deathlife.

So now we come to the hardest thing for Humanity to bear: Boredom. Not hunger, not violence, not anger. Boredom is the thing that will kill a human being from the inside out. A human will resort to violence and will court anger to escape from the misery, the unending loss, lack, void that is Boredom:
It's very hard at first for some people. But then if you figure that you are infinite, you are supreme and therefore the master of all things, and it's silly to be sad about things like how much your hip is always going to hurt or how you're so old that the flu means a life in bed or how gone forever your mother is.
The film [Groundhog Day] always seemed to me to be a singularly vicious and cruel torture-porn exercise. But hey, I never thought Don Rickles was funny even as a kid. If I laugh at someone's misfortunes or disabilities, it's because I hate 'em personally. In general it's just not fun or funny to watch someone suffer, especially of boredom.

How did the world come to be so small? How does Ama, our narrator, come to be the sole possessor of life and death in her eternally renewed Inferno? Ama tells us the Water Wars wrought some awful changes on the world we thoughtlessly squandered:
I don't know much about other grids in our state block, because way before the Flash came, the soldier-police—the state-sponsored war-coordination authorities—took away everyone's cars. Their slogan—"For us to serve and protect, you must conserve and respect"—is emblazoned on posters in the school, on the windows of some people's homes. ... Back before the Flash ever came, a lot of people actually loved the SPs. They thought they were keeping us safe. People believe lies, believe anything when they are afraid. That's another thing. Aren't we lucky that before the Flash all the soldier-police were deployed elsewhere?
So the Flash comes, the anomalous great horror of eternal and changeless repetition, and there is absolutely no one to stop the predators from consuming their fill of the prey's agonies.

Author Adjei-Brenyah understands cruelty and despair and the viciousness of the indifferent physics of the Universe far too well for someone who hasn't hit middle age. I'm sad for him. I'm grateful he chose to make his horror into art. I want to read more of his unnervingly precise images and his unpretentious prose before I shuffle off to, well, whatever it is that's next.

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