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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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