“Furo Wariboko awoke this morning to find that dreams can lose their way and turn up on the wrong side of sleep.” That’s the first sentence of Blackass, the debut novel from Nigerian author A. Igoni Barrett, and if it sounds familiar, there’s a good reason for that. The book is a long, bizarre riff on Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, in which a salesman wakes up to find he’s become an insect.
Furo’s metamorphosis is markedly different: “His hands were not black but white … same as his legs, his belly, all of him.” His hair has become red; his eye color has changed to green. He’s gone “full oyibo,” a Nigerian Pidgin word for a white person.
After realizing that he is not, in fact, dreaming, Furo panics. He has a job interview that he can’t be late for, but he doesn’t want his family to see how he’s transformed. He’s able to sneak out of the house that he shares with his parents and sister, and instantly draws stares as he walks to his prospective employer. “Lone white face in a sea of black, Furo learned fast,” Barrett writes. “And he learnt how it felt to be seen as a freak: exposed to wonder, invisible to comprehension.”
Furo is shocked when he’s instantly hired as a salesman for a book distributor. He encounters a woman named Syreeta, who lets him move in with her. And he befriends a writer named Igoni, who he meets in a shopping mall food court. Furo decides to embrace his new life as a white man (or mostly white — he learns, from Syreeta, that his buttocks have remained black). He changes his name to Frank Whyte, and throws himself into the bookselling business. He doesn’t make contact with his family, who are trying desperately to find him.
It’s obvious that Blackass is a satire; what’s less clear is what exactly Barrett is satirizing. He does write beautifully, and sometimes humorously, on the topics of race and identity. Furo is initially homeless after he’s hired at the company, and starts to question his previous assumptions: “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.”
Barrett also has a lot to say about Nigeria, and the city of Lagos in particular, and these reflections are among the best parts of the book. “Life in Lagos was locked in a constant struggle against empathy,” he writes. “Empathy was too much to ask for, too much to give: it was good only for beggars to exploit in their sob stories aimed at your pocket through your heart.” Barrett’s depictions of Lagos are cutting, but also reluctantly admiring.
But the rest of Blackass gets mired down by the increasingly rambling plot. Furo’s relationship with Syreeta is interesting, but Barrett’s depiction of the young man’s life at work is aimless and plodding; it almost feels like an afterthought.
It’s obvious that ‘Blackass’ is a satire; what’s less clear is what exactly Barrett is satirizing.
Perhaps the most bizarre sections of Blackass are the ones narrated by Igoni, who appears to be a fictional version of the author. (The character Igoni quotes lines from an interview he once gave, and they’re nearly identical to ones from an interview Barrett did with Granta.) The character Igoni becomes obsessed with Furo’s sister’s Twitter account, and abruptly announces that he’s transitioning to a woman. Neither of these things is ever really explained; they feel like another novel shoehorned into this one.
Barrett’s writing is strong enough that it almost doesn’t matter — it’s an easy novel to read, very funny in places, and undoubtedly audacious. And he’s capable of the kind of profundity that seems obvious, but really isn’t: “No one asks to be born, to be black or white or any colour in between, and yet the identity a person is born into becomes the hardest to explain to the world.”
It’s a fascinating observation, and one that might explain why Blackass, though very good in parts, doesn’t really work as a novel. Barrett definitely has great ideas and original observations, but it seems like he’s tried too hard to force them all into one book. The result is a novel that’s not unenjoyable, but one that never really comes together.