Future Present, Future Schlock
‘Friday Black’ By Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
The title tale from Friday Black, the debut short-story collection from Spring Valley, New York-based author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, arrives in a black-comedic gush of hyper-real consumerism. Here, Black Friday means a day and a guttural dialect. Friday Black, on the other hand, is a psychosis-inducing drug. The protagonist, an underpaid clothing-store clerk, braves the worst of the shopping rush with a nonchalance that belies a life-or-death capitalist hysteria threatening to eat him alive. The pan-class “Friday Black” might also be read (sarcastically) as a case study of retail professionalism or crisis management. But it’s also reminiscent of George Saunders’ celebrated, lucid absurdities, which is probably why Saunders’ laudatory blurbs grace Friday Black’s front and back covers.
Adjei-Brenyah has likely baked his own experiences into these dozen stories. Characters touch on writer’s block, retail travails, constantly mispronounced surnames, and the instinctual need to code-switch. But social commentary is his modus operandi. Some efforts prove successful; others, less so. A troubled college student who murders a classmate and then commits suicide gets the opportunity, as a ghost, to redeem himself in “Light Spitter”. A noble attempt to humanize the kind of person humanity doesn’t care to understand, the story falls flat, coming across like a student assignment or rote exercise in narrative dot-connecting.
The Tao Lin-tinged “The Era” imagines a society predicated on excessive honesty and institutionalized opioids, but it’s way too much of a obvious fable to truly soar. Far more successful are “Zimmer Land,” about an interactive amusement park that allows attendees to live out Stand Your Ground fantasies, and a creativity-as- Mephistopheles-conferred imperative waking nightmare named “The Hospital Where”. In stories like “Things My Mother Said” and “The Lion and the Spider”, where Adjei-Brenyah defies his own future-schlock framework to embrace poignance, Friday Black is especially transcendent. You sense that he’s writing half-coded prose poetry directly to his family, and possibly to a younger version of himself.
My favorite Friday Black story arrives at the collection’s end. The author tells “Through the Flash” from the perspective of 14-year old Ama, stuck with her father, brother, and neighbors in an infinite time-loop triggered by an incomprehensible future weapon. They re-live part of the same day, again and again. It’s like being trapped in Level 5 of a video game or a chapter in a book.
Though Ama reports from far past the point where this scenario has exhausted its novelty, her narrative is an almost tender, loitering one. Adjei-Brenyah embraces the nihilistic possibilities inherent in a consequence-free reality. He simply shows what shape life takes in such circumstances. A short story should leave you wanting more, and this one succeeds. Adjei-Brenyah strays beyond Groundhog Day, only gestures Blood Meridian-level depravity, and winds up fairly close to Robert McCammon. He hits the sweet spot for clued-in post modernists on the come-up.
(Mariner Books, October 23, 2018)