Book review: Blackass imagines a Kafkaesque metamorphosis in Nigeria
A. Igoni Barrett’s provocative debut novel is bursting with ideas and anger as he surveys a corrupt and divided society that cannot tell fake from real – and seems not to much care
Blackass: A Novel
by A. Igoni Barrett
Invoking the opening of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, A. Igoni Barrett begins Blackass – his smart and provocative debut novel – with his protagonist waking from sleep to discover that he’s been utterly transformed. Having dreamed of being white, 33-year-old Furo rises from his bed in Lagos a white man.
Initially discomfited by all the attention he now receives from his fellow Nigerians – among whom he stands out, particularly as he retains the pidgin that marks him as a native – Furo soon embraces all the advantages his new appearance provides.
Having never landed a real job despite his college education, Furo is suddenly besieged with career opportunities. Women – including the beautiful, high-flying mistress of a Nigerian politician – want to sleep with him. A lifelong loser who’d still been living at home with his family, Furo suddenly seems destined for greatness.
But appearances can be deceiving, and the past isn’t so readily left behind, even after Furo takes the name “Frank Whyte”. Not when one’s own behind remains black, despite otherwise white skin, red hair and green eyes. Furo slathers his rear in whitening cream, but to no avail. “His buttocks felt like a weight dragging him back to a place he badly wanted to forget.”
Blackass makes clear why anyone like Furo – a member of that university-educated but unemployed “caste of young adults who grew up in the ruins of Nigeria’s middle class” – would want a different life.
Much like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Americanah (2013) or Teju Cole in Every Day is for the Thief (2014), Barrett’s novel includes a scathing indictment of a Lagos “locked in a constant struggle against empathy”.
Bribery is rampant and corrosive. Women such as his new girlfriend are cold “hustlers”, selling themselves to the highest bidder. Traffic jams on shoddy, pollution-choked roads last hours. Nothing works; blackouts are common. Government corruption and privatisation have made “every man the king of his house, every house a sovereign nation, and every nation its own provider of security, electricity, water”.
Furo isn’t the only one who therefore chooses to reinvent himself. Ditto a writer who befriends Furo and who, like the author of this book, is named Igoni; he even quotes from interviews Barrett himself has given. Igoni the character speaks to us in alternating sections, told in the first person (Furo’s longer sections of the novel are told in the third).
Igoni’s reinventions include becoming a woman – a fascinating, largely unexplored left turn in the narrative that forces one to question why and how this gendered transition is different from Furo’s efforts to pass as white. Or, for that matter, how such transfigurations are different from what we all attempt every day on social media, a topic that the novel’s Igoni explores in a section in which we watch him become friends with Furo’s sister through Twitter.
“We are all constructed narratives,” Igoni the character tells us, while noting his “distrust of digital personas” and adding that “calculation always trumps sincerity on social media”.
If everything is fake, can one ever be real? And if a country like Nigeria is forever looking elsewhere for models of how to be, can it ever become itself?
True to his decision to remain in Nigeria, Barrett answers by suggesting that one can never entirely escape the past, even if one’s experience in this troubled country leads to “disappointment” that “became a hole with an endless bottom”. As Furo’s black ass continually reminds him, one can’t simply leave Nigeria while striding toward elsewhere.
Tribune News Service