BASS 2016: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Apollo” from TNY 4/13/15

I sometimes felt like an interloper in our house. My bedroom had bookshelves, stacked with the overflow books that did not fit in the study and the corridor, and they made my stay feel transient, as though I were not quite where I was supposed to be. I sensed my parents’ disappointment in the way they glanced at each other when I spoke about a book, and I knew that what I had said was not incorrect but merely ordinary, uncharged with their brand of originality. Going to the staff club with them was an ordeal: I found badminton boring, the shuttlecock seemed to me an unfinished thing, as though whoever had invented the game had stopped halfway.

~~ Story available online at The New Yorker

Deceptively simple is a phrase that shows up a lot in discussions of literary works. And here it is again: on the surface, this is a story of life changes, of growing old and growing up, of regrets that last a lifetime. That rich surface is supported by text that keeps on giving; I’ve read the story three times, and each time I see worlds I missed before. And then there’s the subtext I never would have seen, like the post-colonial theme Betsy points out on The Mookse and the Gripes, or the nuggets Adichie mentions in her TNY Page-Turner interview about loving an adult voice recollecting the childhood incident, about endings that change beginnings. I’d given short shrift to the opening of the story, but reading it again with that in mind, I see what she meant. And, because this was written by a highly popular literary author and published in The New Yorker, many reviews can be found on many blogs that outline plot, trace themes, and examine the technical details of how the story works.

But I haven’t done that sort of thing in a while now, partly because I’m not trained for it, and partly because I’d rather report my own experience of the story. It’s my reading philosophy that every story becomes a partnership between writer and reader, each with their own experiences, so every reader reads a different story. All I can discuss is the story I read.

I’m struck by the universality of the story set in Nigeria, a story that, Betsy’s comments about post-colonialism aside, could be set in Boston or Chicago or LA, anywhere things like class division, parental expectations and kids who don’t meet them, can be found.

Raphael and I practiced in the back yard, leaping from the raised concrete soakaway and landing on the grass. Raphael told me to suck in my belly, to keep my legs straight and my fingers precise. He taught me to breathe. My previous attempts, in the enclosure of my room, had felt stillborn. Now, outside with Raphael, slicing the air with my arms, I could feel my practice become real, with soft grass below and high sky above, and the endless space mine to conquer.

I’m intrigued by what’s left out: we don’t know what Okenwa is doing in the present, only that he has no family of his own, and visits his family. Did he eventually turn to books? To business? Does he run a martial arts studio? His parents don’t bemoan his lack of professional status; does this imply approval? Why does Adichie not put some clue in the story? Is it because it doesn’t matter, or because it does?

I love the dance of Okenwa and Raphael’s relationship, itself a kind of martial art story, ending with a cutting blow. They progress through stages, leading to a scene of great tenderness and caring when Okenwa medicates Raphael’s inflamed eyes. But the relationship is not balanced; it can’t be, since Raphael is an employee, and alone; Okenwa has his family to take care of him when he gets sick, whereas Raphael only has Okenwa. The film scene that first signals their common interest – Bruce Lee wiping blood from his chest and tasting it – speaks volumes of how these two not only bear their eventual pain, but learn to savor it.

Does Raphael share Okenwa’s growing feelings for him? He might (I think it’s likely he does, in fact), but if he does, he turns away from those feelings. For every reaction there is a counteraction – I’m sure someone more familiar with the martial arts could phrase that better – and his turning away becomes his downfall – and, in a way, Okenwa’s downfall, as well, since he still carries that moment with him still.

I touched his face, gently pulled down his lower left eyelid, and dropped the liquid into his eye. The other lid I pulled more firmly, because he had shut his eyes tight.
“Ndo,” I said. “Sorry.”
He opened his eyes and looked at me, and on his face shone something wondrous. I had never felt myself the subject of admiration. It made me think of science class, of a new maize shoot growing greenly toward light. He touched my arm. I turned to go.

The story as a whole takes place in Okenwa’s parents’ home as a flashback. I’d like to understand better how that works, by the way, the initial conversation Okenwa has with his mom that leads us to the heart of the story, the function of those first paragraphs that introduces to Okenwa and his present-day life, hints dropped like breadcrumbs to prime the subtext of the flashback, to the point where eyedrops become erotic symbols.

The final scene ends abruptly, like a knockout punch (again, the help of martial arts experts would be welcomed). But it ends in the past, still within the flashback. And so so the story leaves us in the past, not with the grown-up Okenwa and his present-day parents, but with him as a twelve-year-old just beginning to try on the guilt of a child’s lie, a lie told from hurt, a lie that echoes in the present, an echo that began the flashback. Did he realize back then that he could fix it? Or does he just realize that now in the present?

I like stories that use standard elements – character, time, setting, language – in unusual ways. Here, I like the simultaneity of past and present as Okenwa remembers his youth, and I especially like the implied link between past and present in the last sentences: the guilt that was, the guilt that is. I like that we’re left with silence, with Okenwa, left to construct our story from the text Adichie has created for us.

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One response to “BASS 2016: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Apollo” from TNY 4/13/15

  1. Context makes a big difference in evaluating a story. If this had been a draft in a workshop, I might have said, “Man, what a great story. You’re like 90% there. Great characters, great drive for the main character. I just need a little more understanding of where Okenwa’s sudden jealousy stems from, a little more link between him and his now-aged parents, and you’re there.” Great, but still slightly incomplete.

    But since this is in BASS as a completed work–nay, a “best” work–I guess I have to assume that the keys are already there. Maybe it’s in the parents now-apparent sentimentality. It is a surprise to Okenwa. The parents he knew were utterly serious, would have laughed at the people they’ve become. But maybe when they were young, they were like Okenwa. They married one another over the objections of their parents. Maybe they are right to find Okenwa’s interpretations of books prosaic. He does lack their poetry, their imagination. That’s why he is now only acting like a good son, rather than being one.

    You mentioned in the last post that this year’s BASS is shorter. This story almost feels to me like a story that was shaped to fit a journal with a strict word count (it wasn’t; the NYer is one of the few places left where writers can stretch their legs). I’ve hated past writers in BASS for no reason other than I resent their established-writer privilege in being able to write longer stories. Now, I am quite fickly expressing my confusion about why this story ended without me feeling like it was all there.

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