He had begun, in the past months, to feel bloated from all he had acquired – the family, the house, the other properties in Ikoyi and Abuja, the cars, the bank accounts in Dubai and London – and he would be overcome by the urge to prick everything with a pin, to deflate it all, to be free. He was no longer sure, he had in fact never been sure, whether he liked his life because he really did or whether he liked it because he was supposed to.
Allow me a moment of snark: I find it interesting, given the emphasis on plot and the sneers at domestic realism in the preface and introduction of this BASS volume, that the plot of this story is basically: man in blah marriage gets email from old girlfriend; man thinks about this while he goes to a party with his wife. /end snark
It’s a lot more complex than that, of course. For one thing, the man, Obinze, is Nigerian, and has recently gone from rags to riches, a sort of Nigerian Horatio Alger character – though there are indications his line of work may be a bit less than legitimate: “He sometimes wondered if Chief would one day ask something of him, the hungry and honest boy he had groomed, and in his more melodramatic moments, he imagined Chief asking him to organize an assassination.” Perhaps Sonny Corleone would be a better analogy.
The author was born in Nigeria and still spends part of the year there. Her motivation for this story, according to her Contributor Notes, was to convey the “overall air of mutability” in Lagos: “Nigeria’s shift from military to democratic rule brought social changes in the last decade but perhaps none as dramatic as the speed with which some young men became wealthy, particularly in Lagos.”
Obinze’s relationship with his wife, Kosi, is complex as well. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight, though it may have been lust:
Even then he had felt gentle contempt…. Still, he had wanted her, chased her with a lavish single-mindedness. He had never seen a woman with such a perfect incline to her cheekbones, that made her entire face seem so alive in an architectural way, lifting when she smiled, and he was newly disoriented from his quick wealth: one week he was squatting in his cousin’s flat and sleeping on a thin mattress on the floor and the next he owned a house and two cars. He felt as if his life were no longer his. It was Kosi who made it start to seem believable.
His relationship with Ifemelu, the woman whose email opens the story, is also, dare I say it, complex. And obscure. We know she was 17 when they first slept together; afterwards, she tells him, “My eyes were open but I did not see the ceiling. This never happened before.” After that, Ceiling is her nickname for him. He’s impressed with her forthrightness. We never find out why they are no longer together, only that she is in America and is married to “a black man” – I find that phrasing fascinating, since I think all of the characters are what I would call “black” but perhaps it is how an African refers to an American black, I’m not sure.
Obinze can’t discuss his life, his disorientation or his marriage, with Ifemelu, though he wants to: “She was the only person who would understand, and yet he was afraid that she would feel contempt for the person he had become.” So he thinks about her email as he and Kosi go to a party thrown by his boss. We also find out Obinze was deported from London back to Lagos, but we’re never told why; it seems like something he’d rather not discuss. Addendum: a later TNY story, “Checking Out,” provides the answer – and it turns out both these stories are excerpts from the forthcoming-in-2013 novel, Americanah.
The greatness in this story, for me, is in the truly wonderful insight into life in Lagos: the House of David church which holds “how to keep your husband” classes; various instructions given to Obinze initially on “how Nigeria works” (“Find one white man. Tell everybody he is your general manager. It gives you immediate legitimacy with many idiots in this country.”); the debate at the party about whether to send the children to the French, British, or Nigerian schools; some of the subtle touches as we see Kosi through Obinze’s eyes.
The effect this story had on me was the appreciation that things really are the same all over: people get rich and find that money doesn’t buy happiness; we always remember, and perhaps over-idealize, the one who got away; and we always wonder about the road not taken, whether we’re from New England or Nigeria.
An enjoyable story, and a very interesting one. Let’s face it: the only time many of us hear about Nigeria is in spam (and, by the way, it’s kind of cute that an email is the structural mechanism of this story). So I’m very happy to have read this, to have a bit more knowledge about a part of the world I really should know more about. A page turner? Maybe not. But worth reading? Definitely.