A white man in Lagos has no voice louder than the dollar sign branded onto his forehead.
Half way into A Igoni Barrett’s debut novel, ‘Blackass’, this sentence assails you with its truth and can effectively be described as the mission statement of the novel.
Furo Wariboko, 33, Kalabari, unemployed, is a faceless Lagosian – a mere statistic of a third-world nation’s population — till the first sentence of this book when he wakes up in the body of a white man, on the Monday morning of his job interview.
In spite of his physical transformation, Furo remains a Lagosian in thought, action and phonation. He tries to adopt his new persona and adapt to it. Ultimately, he chooses not to return home but first, he attends his job interview in his new skin, which throws doors open. He clinches the job of a book salesman, takes up with a Lagos big-girl, Syreeta, and meets a writer, Igoni, who also experiences a bodily transformation.
Mr. Barrett’s foray into the use of transformation as conceit draws deeply on the Kafkaesque literary tradition, but Furo Wariboko is no Gregor Samsa, who at least was already employed as a salesman before his transformation, and Furo does not become an insect.
There are several ways to read Blackass: as a satirical novel about decolonization; as a contemporary novel that maps modern Lagos and, by extension, Nigeria; as a contemporary novel about social media, alter egos and the subtle transformations they bring about in us; as a post-modern novel blurring the lines between fiction and reality; as a retelling of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in contemporary Lagos.
One exciting thing about Mr. Barrett’s novel is the multiplicity of perspectives, yet three things remain constant: the author who features as a character, steadfastness to the theme of physical transformation, and an exploration of the human geography of Lagos. It has become a popular, post-modern indulgence for writers to write themselves into their books as characters. Mr. Barrett introduces Igoni, a writer like himself, into the novel and perpetuates that character through several encounters with the novel’s protagonist.
Mr. Barrett also uses Twitter as a storytelling device. One must point out that this isn’t new. Jennifer Egan once published a story in Tweets. Teju Cole once ordered a story into coherence by retweets, receiving generous encomium for his use of social media in the exploration of literature. Blackass takes a different approach to these types of explorations by blurring the lines of fiction and blending it in with social media, using the author’s real-life Twitter persona to investigate the reactions of Furo’s family following that character’s disappearance from home.
In the section of the book that is told in tweets that are interspersed with authorial commentary, the Twitter atmosphere is recreated with fidelity to the pretentiousness that is characteristic of those who suddenly find themselves able to project their alter egos on that social media platform. Tekena, Furo’s sister, finds on Twitter an escape from the crisis that ensues following her brother’s disappearance. She amasses followers, trolls strangers and meets @_igoni (this handle actually exists) who insists on being called Morpheus.
From all indications, Furo is a callous person. He leaves home and doesn’t look back or concern himself with the plight of his distraught family. He selfishly embraces his whiteness and uses it to relocate himself to a swanky locale in Lagos, the area frequented by people who share his new skin colour, the ‘Island’ end of the Third Mainland Bridge. To everyone who shows him any form of kindness, his affective response is constricted; at best, he offers only apathy in return.
This debut novel, which begins on a bed in Egbeda and negotiates, on foot, to Ikeja and from there to Oniru, charts contemporary Lagos with infectious vivacity and exactness. People from all walks of life – food vendors, kept women, business owners – are portrayed in their fullness, warts and all. The power of acute observation brought to bear on portraying Lagos in Blackass is as intense as that evident in Ayi Kwei Armah’s portrayals of Ghana’s cities.
Although the initial verve ebbs as the novel winds down to a predictable end, Mr. Barrett must be given full marks for writing a refreshingly contemporary novel that bears echoes of powerful literary traditions.