If I had to pick the book which I have picked up and put down most in book shops in 2015 then A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass would probably win that title. Everytime I picked it up the same things went through my head. Yes, for the name, which I found cheekily (no pun intended) daring. No, because it compared itself to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which takes itself far too seriously and takes me back to secondary school drama where I was a beetle for a month and a table for two. Yes, lots of people I trust really loved it and spoke of it highly all over the shop. No, lots of people I trust felt let down by it at various points. Someone at Chatto &Windus clearly felt my panic in the ether (or as some call it Twitter) and soon it kindly fell through my letter box and, instead of my usual ‘pop it on my chest of drawers and think about it’ routine I started reading it straight away…
Furo Waiboko awoke this morning to find that dreams can lose their way and turn up on the wrong side of sleep. He was lying nude in bed, and when he raised his head a fraction he could see his alabaster belly, and his pale legs beyond, covered with fuzz that glinted bronze in the cold daylight pouring through the open window. He sat up with a sudden motion tha swilled the panic in his stomach and spilled his hands into his lap. He stared at his hands, the pink life lines in his palms, the shellfish-coloured cuticles, the network of blue veins that ran from knuckle to wrist, more veins than he had ever noticed before. His hands were not black but white… same as his legs, his belly, all of him. He clenched his fists, squeezed his eyes shut, and sank into the bed. Outside, a bird chirruped short piercing cries, like mocking laughter.
When Furo wakes up on the morning of a very important job interview, as job interviews are few and applicants many, he initially thinks that he is still dreaming for the body he seems to be housed in no longer resembles his own. Overnight it seems that somehow he has turned white, well not quite all of him, as the titles suggests part of his anatomy is still very much its original colour (something we the reader know from the off but Furo discovers sometime later in a very funny scene). What follows in Blackass is how Furo deals with the physical change, initially just in the interim and then over the longer term, followed by the deeper change as he discovers life as a white man in Nigeria is initially alienating and then quite useful, if somewhat detrimental to his soul.
I found following Furo a rather eye opening experience unsurprisingly. As he walks through the streets of Lagos people point, jeer and mutter. He has become a minority very quickly, yet once he starts to speak to people in Nigerian he becomes an oddity, why would a white man know pidgin Nigerian, something must be suspect with him. Yet at the job interview this makes him a valuable asset in the business world and soon finds him offered a position far above the one he was aiming for, all because of his skin colour, but what will he do in the two weeks before he starts his job? Can he go back to his family and if not what will he do as a poor man, easily noticeable and therefore vulnerable?
He had always thought that white people had it easier, in this country anyway, where it seemed that everyone treated them as special, but after everything that he had gone through since yesterday, he wasn’t so sure any more. Everything conspired to make him stand out. This whiteness that separated him from everyone he knew. His nose smarting from the sun. His hands covered with reddened spots, as if mosquito bites were something serious. People pointing at him, staring all the time, shouting ‘oyibo at every corner.
Initially we have the discussion of race and skin colour, how does the colour of your skin affect you and define you? Yet as the book goes on the remit gets wider both as Furo’s situation changes but also through the people he meets along the way. Through his circumstance we soon look at how the world changes be you rich or poor, lowly or powerful. As he meets Syreeta we are initially given an insight into the world of the trophy mistress and the kept woman, yet with her relationship with Furo we find ourselves looking at the trophy white lover and the kept man, which I found fascinating.
In a rather unexpected twist, with the character of an author called Igoni, we also look at the changes in gender and hinted sexuality. If I had one wish it was that the Igoni sections had been fleshed out and explored more as they were really interesting and yet we don’t get into the crux of them as much as I would have liked, there felt much more to discuss rather than a whole section of the book being in tweets. There was a lot that could have been done here and whilst I found a whole section of the book in tweets very modern, and rather meta with the character of the author having the same name as the, erm, author, I felt we only skimmed the surface of this transition and we could have got even more riches if Barrett had gone deeper. Anyway, a small quibble that has lead me to digress.
There are many layers and many riches in Blackass. I found the way Furo changes externally drastically yet changes internally much more slowly compelling and rather confronting reading. It raises all the questions I mention before whilst also unflinchingly and bluntly looking at society and the flaws it can all too often try to hide. Yet whilst doing this it doesn’t take itself all too seriously or do it without any witt or vibrancy, quite the opposite and how could it with its title which is a very clever move. Lagos pours off the stage with it’s hustle and bustle, the smells, tastes and noises all unfurl around you and the characters, if often not always likeable, arrive fully formed with all their complexities and quirks.
I can’t really comment on the parrallel’s or riffs that it has with Kafka’s Metamorphosis if that is what you are after, I have tried to wipe those weeks being a table from my memory. I don’t think it is right or beneficial to either. How can you compare the two? Yes they both have levels of metamorphosis in them, yet one is a cult European classic and one a new satirical (and a lot more fun) tale of modern Nigeria. Where does it get us to compare the two? Read them both if you like, or don’t – personally I would suggest reading this one, you’ll have more fun and be made to think just as much.
I think Blackass is a really interesting and different novel from many of the things I have read, or have seen published, this year. You can simply read it as a darkly witty escapist fairytale/myth/fable or you can or as a wonderful, sattircal and occasionally daring way to look at society and questions of class, gender and race. Either way you are going to have a great read ahead of you. One thing I know for sure, I need more of this kind of quirky and thought provoking fiction in my reading diet. Don’t we all? I should have picked it up off the book shop shelves sooner.
I didn’t read this book for #DiverseDecember, it would be a great one to add to your reading list for the month though if you are still looking for titles, really it should just be on your reading list regardless. Has anyone else read Blackass and if so what did you make of it? Have you read Barrett’s short story collection, I shall be adding that to my collection at some point in the future.