Let's get the comparison over with. Yes, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah writes like George Saunders. Yes, the stories in his debut collection Friday Black, which won him a spot on the National Book Foundation's 5 under 35 List this year, stand with the stories in Tenth of December as some of the most empathic, freakiest, closest-to-home dystopias a reader could hope to find. And yes, anyone who likes Saunders should read Friday Black right away. Anyone who could take or leave Saunders should, too. Here's the problem with comparisons: They can tell you what a writer's like, or what he likes, but not what he's truly about. No comparison can convey a book's intellectual heft, and Friday Black is as intellectually hefty as fiction can get. In these twelve stories, Adjei-Brenyah turns over ideas about racism, about classism and capitalism, about the apocalypse, and, most of all, about the corrosive power of belief. His work is fiercely, spikily funny. And no matter how supernatural his stories get, no matter how zombie-ish or futuristic, every one of them takes place in the world we know. Well, almost. Imagine that it were possible to take one step out of reality, into a brighter, crueler dimension, a place where our evils were not changed but clarified. Friday Black takes place in that dimension. In the collection's wrenching opener, "The Finkelstein 5," the protagonist, Emmanuel, struggles to process the exoneration of a white man, George Wilson Dunn, who decapitated five black children with a chainsaw. The murder is more brutal in its details than any we've seen in our dimension, but that doesn't make the case less familiar. When the fictional prosecutor begs the jury not to "let the blood of these five children — with all the potential in the world — spill into nothingness," only a willfully deaf reader could fail to hear Florida prosecutor John Guy's appeal to the jury trying George Zimmerman: "Your verdict is not going to bring Trayvon Martin back to life. It's not going to change the past. But it will forever define it." Zimmerman shadows another story in Friday Black, the exceptional — even by Adjei-Brenyah's sky-high standard — "Zimmer Land." Zimmer Land is a theme park, of sorts. Its mission statement claims it's a "safe space for adults to explore problem-solving, justice, and judgment ... [that provides] the tools for patrons to learn about themselves in curated heightened situations." Translation: In Zimmer Land, patrons pay to pretend to kill black men and Muslims. Isaiah, the main character, works there, getting shot. At night, he dreams about dying. "I dream this dream often," he says. "But this time, after I'm dead, I feel my soul peeling from my body. My soul looks down at the body, and says, 'I'm here.'"
Adjei-Brenyah has a slyly theological mind. He's interested in souls, in angels, in gods. He creates one afterlife in "Light Spitter," an entirely different one in "Through the Flash." His most divinely haunted story is "The Hospital Where," a story in which a young writer devotes himself to the Twelve-tongued God, who imbues his imagination with real-world power. Whatever he writes comes true. The responsibility is total, and hard to harness. His efforts to heal the sick go awry. The story ends with a hospital's worth of patients flying briefly, then crashing to Earth. "What have you done?" the protagonist's father begs, to no response. "What have you done?"
Most characters in Friday Black have a bit of divine power. Sometimes it comes from the Twelve-tongued God; sometimes it's immortality; sometimes it's a preternatural gift for selling jackets. Three of the collection's twelve stories take place in a mall, including the title story, which sounds like a fairy tale but is in fact a zombie-apocalypse version of Black Friday. The mall stories' protagonist is IceKing, the god of jacket sales. He is acerbic, competitive, intensely unhappy. Divine power will do that, it seems.
Adjei-Brenyah has some serious powers himself. The energy in his fiction is wild, barely controllable yet perfectly controlled. Short stories, as a form, tend to compress big emotion into small action, but not these. Adjei-Brenyah fits big emotion, big action, and big thought into each story. His violence is never gratuitous, his ghosts never too chain-rattling to believe. Like the Twelve-tongued God, who constantly switches masks and tongues, Adjei-Brenyah speaks in more voices than seems possible, and those voices will follow you off the page. Like Isaiah's soul in the dream, they will assert themselves, over and over. I'm here, these stories say. Sit up. Pay attention. I'm here.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, D.C. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
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