The short-story writer Carmen Maria Machado has described her work as “realism adjacent.” By this, she means that her stories explore real things via occasionally fantastical means: ghosts, fairy tales, horror tropes, and urban legends. For Machado, realism at a slant is the truest, deepest form.
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s striking and topical debut collection “Friday Black’’ is likewise realism adjacent, taking aspects of our social reality and intensifying them so as to render them more real. Violence against black bodies; the hopelessness brought by the Great Recession; school shootings: They’re all here in slightly distorted, amplified form. Adjei-Brenyah possesses a dark wit, the ability to take a fanciful notion and make it comically, nightmarishly literal. In “Zimmer Land,” for instance, an amusement park monetizes the desire to “defend” oneself against “threats” of various kinds. (The customers tend to be white; the actors playing the threats black or brown.)
The book’s title story tweaks “Black Friday,’’ transforming this holiday of American consumerism into an actual killing ground. Cut-rate prices lead to cut-throat competition; stomping and stampeding and dozens of deaths ensue. But, look on the bright side: “at least a clean-up crew comes with a tarp.” There’s satirical anger, for sure. But there’s also a surprising forgiveness toward the story’s characters. Both shoppers and workers don’t want to savage one another; they just find themselves in a system they can’t think or wish or buy their way out of.
The most unsettling moments in “Friday Black’’ come when the amplified doesn’t seem all that amplified. In “The Finkelstein 5,” the collection’s best story, a man named Dunn is indicted for murder. After sensing a threat to his family from five black children he sees loitering outside the local library, Dunn goes to his truck, retrieves his chain saw, and, as he horribly puts it, “got to cutting . . . Vroom.”
The story’s brutality is, thankfully, exaggerated. Dunn’s affect — “[a]pologetic in an I-sure-am-sorry-acting-well-within-my-rights-caused-all-this-gosh-darn-hoopla kind of way” — is not. Nor is his attorney’s elevation of murder into a constitutional cause: “It’s about an American man’s right to love and protect his own life and the life of his beautiful baby girl and his handsome young son.” Argument-by-implication — white violence implies a right to defend oneself; black bodies imply danger — wins. Dunn gets off.
At the story’s end, a young black man named Emmanuel, ordinarily wary of trouble, finally and violently lashes out, terrorizing a white couple: “Yelling and screaming and banging a bat on the ground, he thought that maybe he was being exactly who he really was for once. Doing exactly what was expected of him. The screaming of the couple there, the honesty of their fear — he felt it giving him wings.”
Emmanuel’s violent actions offer him a kind of freedom: freedom from fear (now they are the fearful ones, not him); freedom from restraint and self-censorship. (In the story, characters can adjust their “Blackness” at will, and Emmanuel frequently does: “If he wore a tie, wing-tipped shoes, smiled constantly, used his indoor voice, and kept his hands strapped and calm at his sides, he could get his Blackness as low as 4.0.”)
But this is a false freedom — one that arises from acting the dehumanized and dehumanizing role that society expects of him. The same thing happens in “Zimmer Land.” The narrator, employed by the amusement park to play a black man walking through a white neighborhood, switches on a suit that increases his strength and agility: “Activating the suit feels like stepping out of water into open air, like freedom.” Becoming what the white imagination fears, the narrator feels perversely free.
The stories generally succeed in their fantastical set-ups. They sometimes fail in their details. In “Friday Black,” for instance, we encounter this confused comparison: “I make it to the food court where the smell of food wafts over the stench of the freshly deceased like a muzzle on a rabid dog.” I don’t fetishize originality, but the influence of George Saunders, Adjei-Brenyah’s adviser at Syracuse, can be distracting, from the capitalized faux-historical events (“the Big Quick War”) to the trademarked futuristic technologies (“SpeedRead™ chips”) to the intentionally flat language of a world flattened by disaster: “All I do is sweat and feel hurt all around my body and in my head. It gets dark. By then, I feel like death/poop.”
Despite the occasional stylistic hiccup, this high-concept and morally rich collection is discomfiting and moving, savage in its social critique yet generous towards its characters. It ends with a lovely, tempered note of hope. As the apocalypse rolls in, the narrator observes, “[I]f you are alone . . . when it comes, you feel silly and scared. And if you are with your family, or anyone at all, when it comes, you feel silly and scared, but at least not alone.” The stories that Adjei-Brenyah tells are terrifying. But, in our reading them, at least we’re not alone.
By Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenvyah
Mariner, 194 pp., paperback, $14.99
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Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.’’