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Delightful Gumbo or Strange Brew?

By (June 1, 2009) 11 Comments

The Thing Around Your Neck

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Knopf, 2009

A good story is like a good meal. You know immediately when you’re about to eat something wonderful. Not only does it fill you up, it engages all of your senses. Its aromas tantalize. Its arrangement on your table inspires you. Arrested by its visual beauty, you pause before eating. A good meal’s flavors dance in your mouth. Sweet flavors are balanced with tangy ones; succulence is in counterpoint with drier textures. So if storytellers are cooks, then Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Jhumpa Lahiri, and, especially, Chinua Achebe are just some of its master chefs.


So what about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? Sure, her stories have all the necessary ingredients—that is, they have characters, settings, plots, resolutions, and all that. Her stories are technically perfect. They carefully navigate all the moods, conflicts, and changes. But is that enough? No. At best, the stories in The Thing Around Your Neck simply follow familiar recipes. At worst, they’re leftovers. The only things distinguishing them their unfamiliar settings (primarily Nigeria), sprinklings of a foreign language (Igbo), folk wisdom, and other cultural markers (foods, dress, customs, and sayings). Like the characters in the stories of her more accomplished predecessors, Adichie’s characters are embroiled in questions of identity and allegiance, face the challenge of reconciling their upbringing with the demands and pressures of a new cultural environment (in this case mainly New England), and find themselves at odds deciding where they fit in, aching for familiarity, the security and comforts of “home.” Adichie is certainly an accomplished technician, one deftly handling plots often hinged on misunderstandings, misreadings, doubts, and fears within unfamiliar settings. But as I read her stories I repeatedly asked whether command of conventional storytelling craft was enough.

“Cell One” is the story of a well-off family in Nigeria whose world is ripped apart by the antics of their ne’er-do-well son. He pawns his mother’s solid gold necklaces for a few nights of debauchery. The son, during a stint in prison, sees an innocent old man humiliated by corrupt guards. Outraged, he challenges them. For speaking up, he’s subsequently beaten and sent to Cell One and treated far worse than before. The story ends with the son telling the tale to his family. His sister reflects: “It would have been easy for him, my charming brother, to make a sleek drama of his story, but he did not.” “Cell One,” while not exactly sleek itself, is a perfunctory dramatic rendering of adolescent angst and betrayal. The only lift I felt reading the story was when the sister picked up a stone near an ixora bush (the requisite unfamiliar cultural marker) and hurled it toward her parent’s Volvo. Hitting the windshield, she “saw the tiny lines spreading like rays on the glass” and the next day she saw that the “cracks had spread out like ripples on a frozen stream.” As I said, not exactly taking flight, but a lift.

The reader need go no further than reading the title of the next story to know what its theme is. In “Imitation,” Nkem, a Nigerian woman living in America, is told that her husband has been cheating on her. She’s waiting for him to arrive from Nigeria to spend time with her and the kids. Imitating the look of the suspected mistress, she cuts her hair and uses a texturizer to make it curly. Later, she despairs that she can’t find “real African yams, not the fibrous sweet potatoes the Americans sell as yams. Imitation yams, Nkem thinks, and smiles.” And so it goes in this labored story. Just in case the reader misses the overarching theme, Adichie hammers it in by having Nkem intermittently reflect on replicas of Benin masks and Nok terra-cotta heads. The story is also peppered with rather uninspired critiques of Britain and America. For instance, there is America’s “plastic” people and its “abundance of unreasonable hope”—a “country of curiosities and crudities.” There is the equally accurate but well-worn critique of how the Brits in the late 1800s “had a way of using words like exploitation and pacification for killing and stealing.” Nothing new here. But just like “Cell One” the story has another not-quite-saving phrase. Here a woman’s imagined scrunched up mouth is “a sucked-until-limp orange.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie begins another representative story “Jumping Monkey Hill” with a postcard description of the setting. It’s what an uninspired English teacher might call “introductory exposition.” I can almost imagine Adichie checking it off her recipe list after writing it:

The cabins all had thatch roofs. Names like Baboon Lodge and Porcupine Place were hand-painted beside the wooden doors that led out to cobblestone paths, and the windows were left open so that the guests woke up to the rustling of the jacaranda leaves and the steady calming crash of the sea’s waves. The wicker trays held a selection of fine teas. At midmorning, discreet black maids made the bed, cleaned the elegant bathtub, vacuumed the carpet, and left wildflowers in handcrafted vases. Ujunwa found it odd that the African Writers Workshop was held here, at Jumping Monkey Hill, outside Cape Town. The name itself was incongruous, and the resort had the complacence of the well-fed about it, the kind of place where she imagined affluent foreign tourists would dart around taking pictures of lizards and then return home still mostly unaware that there were more black people than red-capped lizards in South Africa. Later she would learn that Edward Campbell had chosen the resort; he had spent weekends there when he was a lecturer at the University of Cape Town years ago.

Ujunwa, like most of the other characters, is attending a writers’ workshop with the intention of completing a story for a forthcoming anthology of the group’s work. Over the course of a week, members take turns reading their stories aloud and being critiqued by the group. The story hinges on Ujunwa’s interactions with Edward, his wife, and the haughty and aloof “Ugandan.” Throughout the week, Edward preys upon Ujunwa, leers at her and makes slimy comments. At one point, Ujunwa offers her umbrellaed seat to Edward saying, “Would you like me to stand up for you…?” His response: “I’d rather like you to lie down for me.” This “inciting incident” moves us toward the inevitable main conflict. Complications in the plot result from “rising action” sequences like Edward referring to a story about a homosexual as not being “reflective of Africa, really.” Here, as everything gets stirred, the story builds in drama. “Jumping Monkey Hill’s” “climax” is really two inevitable “explosions,” the first: where Ujunwa speaks out against her group’s silence after Edward’s remarks and looks, and the second, where she finally takes Edward to task.

Here is the story’s final paragraph:

There were other things Ujunwa wanted to say, but she did not say them. There were tears crowding up in her eyes but she did not let them out. She was looking forward to calling her mother, and as she walked back to her cabin, she wondered whether this ending, in a story, would be considered plausible.

Once again, I imagine Adichie dutifully checking off “falling action” and “resolution” from her recipe.

It becomes wearying reading story after story about this one’s dislocation or that one’s anxieties in the midst of unfamiliarity, constructed using formulaic narrative arcs. These are labored and, to use the food metaphor again, cookie-cutter stories. By the time I came to the part in “Jumping Monkey Hill” where Ujunwa lies to her host, claiming “that she was indeed a princess and came from an ancient lineage and that one of her forebears had captured a Portuguese trader in the seventeenth century and kept him, pampered and oiled, in a royal cage,” I wished to hear that story instead of the plain stuff I was being served. What would happen if Adichie used this imaginative aside as a premise, as a starting point for a new narrative? The title story and “Tomorrow Is Too Far” and the kind of-sort of ghost story “Ghosts” do break form a little—the first two primarily because they’re written in second-person—but I wonder what would happen if, instead of following the dictum: “write what you know,” Adichie used her prodigious craft to write what she didn’t know. What if she found other ways to express her characters’ dislocation and fragmented sense of self than through low-frequency drama built from angst and awkwardness? What if she threw her cookbook away and improvised? My guess is that her prodigious technique would finally be wedded to invention, resulting in something not only uniquely her own, but also getting closer to addressing her characters’ deep sense of loss and longing, and perhaps even produce a vehicle for transformation.

Although she resists the label, Adichie writes “postcolonial” stories—that is, stories of women living between worlds, struggling with identity, with mapping, navigating, and trespassing boundaries. Her work sits squarely in the tradition of writers as diverse as Wole Soyinka, Arundhati Roy, and Amitav Ghosh. But perhaps her greatest influences are Chekhov, Cheever, and Updike. So how do the stories in The Thing Around Your Neck measure up? Like those of her heroes, Adichie’s stories are elegant evocations of family, loss, and sadness, albeit translated into a different milieu. While certainly carefully crafted, however, they are ultimately unexceptional. It’s a chore to see such a talented writer bound to the strictures of conventional patternmaking. In “Jumping Monkey Hill,” Ujunwa asks: “How could a story so true be passé?” Reading The Thing Around Your Neck, I found myself repeatedly asking the same question. How can stories so realistic and carefully plotted be passé? How can stories with characters in believable settings speaking in believable voices be passé? How can this be the result of stories that do indeed cover all the traditional steps of preparation to deliver characters who arrive at some greater awareness, resolution, or fulfillment? Adichie’s fiction would be well-served if she took a cue from Chinua Achebe and finally allowed things to fall apart.

John Madera is a writer living in New York City. His work has appeared in elimae, Bookslut, The Quarterly Conversation, New Pages, and forthcoming in The Diagram and Little White Poetry Journal. You may find him at hitherandthithering waters and editing The Chapbook Review. He sings and plays guitar for Mother Flux.

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  • Ben says:

    I get the feeling you didn’t want to like this from the beginning. Your description of “Cell One” is misleading and leaving out a lot of the questions that make the story successful. I think attributing gang violence among well-off teens to “adolescent angst” reflects a lack of understanding of the issue. Adolescent angst may cause the character to be upset with his parents and, maybe for the sake of your argument but not actually, steal his mother’s jewelry and sell it. “Adolscent angst” would not cause murders of innocent people or a gang epidemic. True, it is unclear whether the character committed the crime, and that is one of the main dramatic points of the story which is left out in the review. Standing up for the old man at the end shows that the character isn’t as selfish and cruel as his actions suggest and, like the rest of the story, suggests deep-rooted cultural problems and the feeling of futility that comes to those who try and change them, NOT adolescent angst. I feel yours was a gross misreading. I didn’t read the rest of the review after that for fear of the same. Further knowledge of the situations in Nigeria or post-colonial studies in general might make a difference.

  • Ann-Marie says:

    You obviously believe that what you think and feel about this book is the truth. I,like Ben did not bother to continue reading.
    “the requsite cultural marker?” I don’t really understand why you critiqued this book. I feel that you were harsh and bitter, and your unprofessionalism showeed. A critic leaves somthing for the audience, in this case the reader to discover. Let me decide. Why are you trying to deprive this women of earnings? Get over your pompous, prentetious self.

  • Paul says:

    I could not disagree more. I think these are the finest modern short stories I have ever read. I do not find them at all passé, and would submit that you are choosing to find them so.

    Personally I think Adichie is one of the greatest writers working today. You describe Achebe as a ‘Master Chef’. I agree. He himself has lauded Adichie in no uncertain terms, and so I hope you forgive my favoring his assessment of ‘cooking’ over yours.

  • Maxime says:

    Well, John, I may be the only one that agrees with you. I am not a professional writer but I grew up reading the classics and great authors from across the globe from age 6. I think the buzz about Adichie is due to her being one in a few published African authors. More Africans should write and publish. I have read a number of unpublished (and published) African writers who are equally good or even better. But I give it to Adichie: she is a brave person and this may well be where her success lies. Her writing is fraught with an undisguised effort to please the reader so that her work becomes unnatural. I think this effort to please her readers is what you refer to when you use the phrase “labored story”. Also, her perching off icon, Achebe, does not allow me to give her much points on originality. Her creation is in no way comparable to Achebe works. However, a tie to Achebe (she lived in his former house) has been used as a successful marketing gimmick. I also get the idea that Adichie does not have a lot of ideas regarding what to write about. For example, I do not consider Jumping Monkey Hill, and some of the other short stories, worth the tell, and they should not be the turf of a great storyteller. Adichie’s stories are very simplistic, and I think you allude to this, John, her stories do not give the reader much “lift” except for the exoticism of them which comes from the “cultural markers”. The greatest authors are people who have been changed by what they write about. The emotions flow through in such writing. The Thing Around Your Neck features, in my opinion, Adichie’s least impressive pieces. Things do not seem to be getting better for the young writer, rather they seem to be falling apart. One can only hope that these criticisms are constructive for the nonetheless distinguished Adichie (and other African writers) to turn out more classic material.

    My question to you, John, what do you hint at with your phrase, ‘perhaps even produce a vehicle for transformation’?

  • Atokaa Paul says:

    Adichie’s book, “The Thing Around Your Neck” got me going the first time I turned over the first page.Indeed she has mastered the art of story-telling and her stories portray a rich view of cultural disparities.But good as her work seems to be, her endings are rather too straight-to-the point. For example, I don’t see a professional ending in “Cell One”. The story just comes to an abrupt end where one least expected. It leaves me wondering what message the story passes across. Similarly, “Imitation” also has an abrupt end and the title of the story does not portray the message which the story passes across.
    In addition to this, a good work of literature should have a “climax”(i.e. a moment of peak tension)but I do not see this in “Imitation”. The story just begins and ends in the same tempo. I hope these criticisms would help Adichie to improve on her future writings.

  • Mary says:

    The most interesting part of these stories to me are the observations. Those things that happen and eat you up until you are able to pin-point what happened and are able to express it. Surprised that all you had was negative criticism for these stories. I don’t think the reason she is getting attention is because she is African. It’s because what she writes about hits home for a lot of people. Is a story good only if the author has invented a new narrative style? Personally, I was very moved by several of these stories.

  • Ukwueze samuel says:

    There’s something about Adichie’s novel that intrugiues you,even though some of her stories lack climax,motif,resolution and so on,it captivates you with its descriptive narrative and use of different narrative pattern.

  • Anonymous says:

    is this ‘john’ a sadist or what???

  • sundaki says:

    When someone talks like this it shows a misunderstndin of culture social structure

  • Elliot says:

    ” “Cell One,” while not exactly sleek itself, is a perfunctory dramatic rendering of adolescent angst and betrayal.”

    I think that there is a deeper sense to “Cell one”. We can see a direct link to the post-colonial studies. For example, Edward Said’s theory on how colonized people are seen/described as children. In cell one, the father and mother figure are completely absent, they have no authority. We can also see Melanie Klein’s theory on the colonization of the mind, she explains that the children that are being colonized use a defence mechanism that allows them to survive the trauma of loss, they identificate with the aggressor. This theory appears at the police station when Nnamabia bribes the officer without even thinking about his actions, he feels superior and behaves as usual (theatrical). He also explains how jail works to his sister and seems to like how the system works (corruption, insecurity, violence), he even says he wants to run his country the same way, exactly like his aggressor. Another simple example of identification with the aggressor in “cell one” is when Nnamabia lies. After every act he commits, he lies to his siblings in English, the language of his aggressor. We could also see a link with Franz Fanon’s theory “Black skin, White mask”, Nnamabia’s skin has more and more pimples as he learns about colonization, he is slowly taking this “white mask” off and becoming himself, the real Nnamabia.

  • Sandra says:

    You completely missed the entire meaning of the book… lol

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