Alana Mohamed | Longreads | November 2018 | 11 minutes (2,988 words)

There is a certain genre of viral news story that we recycle every so often: odd activity on the earth’s seemingly stable surface that, while probably having a reasonable explanation, is reported on with breathless excitement when its cause is still unknown. “Mysterious Crack Appears In Mexico,” one headline shouts. “Mysterious crack appears in Wyoming landscape”; “A giant crack in Kenya opens up, but what’s causing it?”; “Splitsville: 2-Mile-Long Crack Opens in Arizona Desert”; “The White House lawn has developed a mysterious sinkhole that’s ‘growing larger by the day.’”

The follow-up stories (“Giant Wyoming Crack Explained”; “Let it sink in: The White House sinkhole is no more”) rarely gain the same traction. The mystery offers a chance to surrender control, an increasingly tantalizing option in a world algorithmically engineered to offer us the appearance of optimized choice. We choose, momentarily, to believe in something bottomless and chaotic.

Answered questions can be the least satisfying ones. Or, “nothing is more boring than a happy ending,” as the Twelve-tongued God says in Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s story “The Hospital Where.” The Twelve-tongued God is criticizing the choices the narrator, a writer, has been making in his recent work — too many happy endings — but she’s also hinting at his failure of imagination when it comes to the fate of his father, whom the writer has brought to the hospital to get a sudden arm pain checked out.

“The Hospital Where” escalates from slice-of-life drama to hallucinatory fable with a startlingly natural fluidity. The writer, who lives in poverty with his father, long ago traded his soul to the Twelve-tongued God for literary power, but has nonetheless been unable to find success as a writer. When the Twelve-Tongued God taunts him about his bad writing and his father’s illness, she is suggesting that his failure to write a convincing story is linked to his inability to grapple with real-life trauma. In the end, the writer attempts to write into existence an impossible story: a hospital where everyone is cured. But the ending is ambiguous, the question unanswered, and the final spectacle one of horror more than hope. When mysticism runs up against the limits of real life, disaster awaits.

The people who populate Adjei-Brenyah’s worlds are simply trying to get by… Their bravery manifests not in the scaling of mountains, but in quiet refusals.

The two forces meet constantly in Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, a collection of twelve stories, some of which slant toward fantasy and others to science fiction, but none of which feel completely outside the realm of possibility. Fantasy and science fiction are often lumped together under the label “speculative,” which implies a question, and an answer, that are a degree or several removed from our current reality. Isaac Asimov attempted to articulate the difference between science fiction and fantasy as one of possibility: Science fiction, because it is based in science, might happen, whereas fantasy cannot. But when we choose to live in a world where the earth opens up without explanation — when we choose not to search for answers — it is increasingly easy to believe anything is possible. Indeed, Samuel Delaney touched on the ways technology might intersect with the fantastical:

But when the hardware goes — when one of those chips get a crack or a scratch — [programmers are] just as lost as anybody else. And that means, at the material level, our technology is becoming more and more like magic — with a class of people who know the incredibly complex spells and incantations needed to get the stuff to work, but almost none of whom can get in there and fix it.

The line between fantasy and sci-fi diminishes when access to and knowledge of technologies become stratified by class. Now, both modes of reality feel equally possible, and Friday Black revels in this new era mystery. In “Lark Street,” for example, science and fantasy both peer into a familiar unknown when two aborted fetuses visit their would-be teen dad in the middle of the night. The twins are wide-eyed, foul-mouthed, half-formed monsters, but they’re also so small that their dad can’t help but feel protective of them. It’s an exercise in futility that the story pokes fun at when father and twins get ready to visit a psychic.

“You guys gonna be okay?”

“No,” they say together.

Their curious manifestation ultimately seems to be caused by a rift between the teen and his girlfriend. “You don’t believe in anything,” she chides him earlier on, and it seems this includes her. His skepticism hampers his ability deal with the ghostly visitation; the task, like the abortion itself, is left to his girlfriend to sort out.

In a conversation with Mark Dery, Greg Tate once said that science fiction “represents a kind of rationalist, positivist, scientific codification of that impulse [to philosophize death], but it’s still coming from a basic human desire to know the unknowable.” The science-fiction ethos, as described by Tate, came to define Silicon Valley at the turn of the century. Tech giants were fearless adventurers, spelunking into the deep mysteries of humanity, armed with rationality. Now, there is an app for every ailment; and we can talk to each other in so many ways, no one can hear.

Communication surfaces as a point of tension in several stories, but most notably in “The Era,” a story set in a future where a sort of neutral, steady functioning is valued over emotions. Niceties, politenesses and platitudes are seen as lies that sow “distrust and misfortune” and lead to war. Feelings, especially bad feelings, are sub-optimal. Valley-type talk of efficiency is prominent in “The Era,” and its use results in cruelty and isolation. To combat this, a drug called Good is administered to schoolchildren, further blurring the lines of authenticity for humans who have, ironically, been genetically optimized and socially conditioned to be brutally honest. The result is addiction: when the narrator of “The Era” becomes too dependent on Good, his consumption is monitored and he’s designated a Shoegazer, a hopeless emotional wreck.

Friday Black, has been been called “#BlackLivesMatter meets Black Mirror,” but it’s less concerned with technology than the latter is. Technology is still present, as in “The Era”; and in “Zimmer Land,” in which white patrons visit a theme park to indulge in vigilante justice. White visitors roleplay at “killing” black loiterers and brown terrorists, who are actually park employees shielded by hulking, cybernetic muscles. Even then, the technology takes a backseat to the premise of the park itself, an externalization of popular attitudes about white innocence and black criminality. A young black employee who plays the part of a hulking black threat in a quiet suburban neighborhood uneasily believes that the park is helping (Maybe, he thinks, “it was better for me to get fake blasted ten or twenty million times a day than for an actual kid to get murdered out of the world forever. Did anyone ever think of that, ever?”), even as he is harangued by protesters daily. But it doesn’t matter if the park reduces murder rates outside its doors. The horror lies in the assumption that murdering the foreign is a natural instinct, something to be accommodated and coddled in the form of profitable thrill-seeking. At the heart of the story is the devaluation of black lives and feelings, something echoed throughout the American legal system.

‘Friday Black seems to warn us that appeals to nature and adaptability have long been defenses of white supremacy, capitalism and cis-heteropatriarchy.

Within the collection there is a constellation of stories set in a bustling retail dystopia called Prominent Mall, where employees’ survival requires them to dehumanize their customers and, inevitably, themselves. In the titular story, “Friday Black,” set during a Black Friday sale, the customers become ravenous, single-minded beasts that the employees must corral and satiate with the sale items that properly fulfill their deepest desires for intimacy, family and professional success. The poor zombie consumers, incapable of speaking, destroy each other in search of prized items. The narrator is the top salesman because he understands his customers like no one else. “C-C-COAL BUBBLE. SMALL, ME! COAL,” one man barks at him while beating his chest. He knows instantly that what the customer means to say is: “I’m the only one at work who doesn’t have a Coalmeister! How can I be a senior advisor without? The only one!”

Hewing closer to reality, yet all the more disquieting because it is set in the same fictional horror-mall, is the far more quotidian retail employment experience recounted in “How to Sell a Jacket as Told by IceKing”: the narrator, IceKing, skips his break to make a massive sale to a rich family, only to have his sale stolen by a coworker who was once his mentee and is now his rival. By the end of the story, the store manager, the regional manager, the customers and even IceKing himself are staring hungrily at the new star saleswoman, Florence. Settings like the mall and the theme park, where fun-house exteriors barely conceal capitalistic hunger, have earned Adjei-Brenyah comparison to George Saunders, a professor of his at Syracuse University. This is also what makes Adjei-Brenyah’s prose so disorienting to read. I began to recognize myself in IceKing’s hunger for recognition on the sales floor and the sadness he feels when he’s cast aside by a money-hungry system; the distance between our lives and Adjei-Brenyah’s fictions aren’t that wide at all.

Adjei-Brenyah is skilled at tricking us into thinking his characters are the epitome of normalcy. Fiction likes to demand a hero’s journey of its characters. But the people who populate Adjei-Brenyah’s worlds are simply trying to get by. They are helpless in the face of an overwhelming presence — magical, technological, or financial. Their bravery manifests not in the scaling of mountains, but in quiet refusals.

In “Friday Black,” whichever employee makes the most money that day gets to take home whatever they want from the store (bonuses are no longer granted) and the narrator, in an ironic twist, begins to become infected with the emotionally starved spirit of Black Friday as he zeroes in on a jacket he believes will buy his mother’s affection. There’s only one in her size, but in a moment of radical compassion, he parts with it to save a coworker from a rabid customer. These kinds of decisive actions mark most of Adjei-Brenyah’s characters, who choose to deviate from the cannibalistic norms of their frustrated societies in favor of mercy and self-sacrifice.

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Octavia Butler once said that though people want change, “They don’t like changes. Even important ones…they just tend to want things to say the same.” For Butler, humanity’s failure to adapt is a failure to live. But Friday Black seems to warn us that appeals to nature and adaptability have long been defenses of white supremacy, capitalism and cis-heteropatriarchy. These forces argue, as they do in “Zimmer Land,” that discriminatory and life-endangering behaviors are simple evolution, just human nature. The story relies on a kind of white obliviousness, but in doing so reveals the limits of hegemonic imagination, which cannot see beyond its own interests — the adaptability of whiteness is a false adaptability, because racism is a closed system, an eternal return to the site of violence.

In Friday Black’s opening story, “The Finkelstein 5,” the question of human nature is front and center. After a white man, George Dunn, is found not guilty of slaughtering five black children with a chainsaw outside a grocery store, Emmanuel finds out that a friend is plotting with a group to join in a recent wave of revenge killings, in which white targets are chosen at random, beaten and murdered, while the black attackers chant the names of the five slain children. Intercut with the story of Emmanuel’s radicalization are scenes from Dunn’s trial, in which he relies on masculinist, white supremacist conceptions of nature as a defense. He returns to empty platitudes (here the inherent violence of empty phrases that is denounced by the future society in “The Era” seems suddenly much more understandable): “These days, you just never know,” and “That’s just being a parent,” audible shrugs that stand in sharp contrast to the fixed, desperate pleas of the conspirators. Dunn’s testimony is a testimony of white comfort, where a sort of blurry obtuseness is not just a luxury of being white, but a prerequisite. Blackness, on Emmanuel’s part, is dialed up or down, controlled as much by the fear of the white people around him as it is by the tenor of his voice or the clothes he chooses to wear. It is the beginning of a conversation, or negotiation, whereas Dunn’s whiteness is the final decision.

Though ‘Friday Black’ is bloody, horrific and full of death, it doesn’t default to the quitter’s nihilism. This is a world of actors meeting their unsustainable worlds head on.

Adjei-Brenyah’s work has been described as dystopic, which is apparent in the bloodiness of stories like “The Finkelstein 5.” But that same whiff of white obliviousness can be caught online in the multiplying, Hydra-headed videos of white women calling the cops on their black neighbors, or in casual conversation when rich white gentrifiers call their new neighborhoods “sketchy.” Critics have often pointed out that for all the praise of Hulu’s adaption of The Handmaid’s Tale as timely, it has drawn on elements of existing oppressions from around the world. Speculative fiction is a way to imagine our future, but also a way to reconstitute our present, and the violence committed in the name of the Finkelstein 5 is a sort of litmus test for readers. While the violence, which feels wild and senseless, is condemned, it might also strike some as closer to reality than reality itself — a more ‘realistic’ expression of our frustration than how we actually react. Which world, the story seems to be asking, yours or mine, is the dystopian one?

Reading “The Finkelstein 5,” I was reminded of the mental breakdown a bipolar and schizophrenic college student suffered after Trayvon Martin’s murder. Her tirade against students and her professor included creationist arguments and anti-Semitism, but in popular news coverage, it was framed by an unsympathetic, click-hungry media as an expected response to the racial distress on campus. I was reminded of my own deflation when, shortly afterward, Texas chose to execute an incarcerated man with an IQ of 61. The extra-sensationalist media ecosystem was just gearing up and it seemed that many of us were pulverized by the smug commentary most outlets offered on black rage and the injustices of our legal system.

In some ways that sense of hopelessness has led to a time of increasing credulity. There is a hunger for prescience and guidance. When President Trump tweeted out a half-formed thought (“Despite the constant negative press covfefe,” posted at 12:06 in the morning), we quickly spread several hoax etymologies online, urged on by Sean Spicer insisting that “a small group of people know exactly what he meant.” They were all ancient in origin: a rallying Arabic cry, a Biblical story, and myths from ancient times. The expectation that there might be some prophecy or ancient wisdom to explain our current political climate and our typo-ridden president is a weirdly romantic and pre-deterministic belief to nurse in a culture that prizes individualism. (More telling, perhaps, are the fantastically false memes that imply The Simpsons predicted Donald Trump’s presidency.) Magic is in the air, mostly because we want to feel out of control; because if we were in control, what would that say about us?

We’ve become a doomsday cult of a culture, hopeless people waiting to meet their ends. Though Friday Black is bloody, horrific and full of death, it doesn’t default to the quitter’s nihilism. This is a world of actors meeting their unsustainable worlds head on.

This is clearest in the final story, “Through the Flash,” in which, through a government experiment, the residents of a neighborhood are frozen in time, beginning the same day again and again. It is one of the most out-there stories of the collection, and also one of the most sadistic, with rich descriptions of the ways bored and increasingly powerful citizens pass their time. “When I woke up, I was chained to a tree and I didn’t have any fingers on my left hand. I was like, ‘Sheesh.’ That was the beginning of a very, very long day,” the narrator, a 14-year-old popularly known as Knife Queen Ama, remarks as her close friend tortures her. The central thesis, that people harm because there’s nothing better to do, is a remarkably accurate summation of most of the violence in the collection. In each story, people are often trapped, in small spaces with few options. But when given enough time, they choose righteous paths. Knife Queen Ama forsakes her original title. “When I have a knife, I’m basically the queen of the world. Or the old me was. Now I let everyone be their own royalty.”

In “Octavia Butler’s Parable Novels and the Boomerang of African American History,” Marlene D. Allen theorizes that Octavia Butler’s conception of time as a cycle and Ralph Ellison’s conception of a time as a boomerang “reflects an Afrocentric notion that the pains of racism and sexism of the past are ever-present and continue to affect the psyche of African Americans today.” This acknowledgement of time as a continual force may explain why Adjei-Brenyah’s work feels much more rooted in the present than the label “speculative fiction” would imply. This ghost of past traumas stands in stark contrast to other destructive futurisms, like F.T. Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto”, which proclaimed, “We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism, and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.” It’s also what makes Adjei-Brenyah’s gruesome depictions of violence feel earned, necessary and urgent as opposed to gratuitous.

For all the discussion of Friday Black as a gruesome affair, it is buoyed by a promise. The second story in the collection, titled “Things My Mother Said,” is an addendum to the blood spilled in “The Finkelstein 5.” It ends with a message to the narrator’s mother: “For the record, I know I was lucky, I know I am lucky, I don’t think you’re stupid, I know I am not your friend, I hope you can be proud of me.” It is a promise to be good that envelops the characters of Friday Black, who each try in their own way to do a moral thing in a corrupt world, perhaps the strangest fantasy of all.

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Alana Mohamed is a writer and librarian from Queens, NY.

Editor: Dana Snitzky