With a title like Blackass (Chatto & Windus, July 2015) you might think A. Igoni Barrett is setting out to provoke; in fact he’s a better writer than that. His debut novel is constructed with some well known tools, among them satire, metafiction and a plainspoken style that often focuses on the banal detail of its characters’ days. But its name is the only hammer blow in a flexible, occasionally odd, always nuanced narrative. Barrett writes calmly and calmingly, and that allows Blackass to do more than rage at the pervasiveness of racial inequality. It’s also by turns a forlorn love letter to Lagos, a broad comedy, and a critique of materialism.
The posterior of the book’s title belongs to one Furo Wariboko, an unemployed Nigerian man who wakes on the morning of a job interview to discover that he’s turned almost entirely Caucasian overnight. Almost. It takes a while for Furo to notice, but while his red hair, green eyes and pale skin allow him to pass as an oyibo, his backside remains stubbornly African.
What follows is a sort of tragicomic literalising of the ‘one-drop’ theory of race, as Furo struggles in vain to shake off his history as a black man and profit from the advantages that come with whiteness. And what about those advantages: Furo’s job interview goes far better as a white man than it would if he’d remained black. He’s pretty much waved past the queue of aspiring salespeople waiting outside the offices of Haba!, a publisher of inane business books with titles like 1001 Ways To Take Initiative at Work and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and he hardly has to speak in the resulting ‘interview’ before being offered an executive role, complete with company car. This would all seem like the stuff of sitcoms if it weren’t so wincingly plausible.
Equally believable, though, is the fragile cordiality that attends Furo’s newfound identity. For all the obsequiousness the Caucasian Furo attracts from his boss, there are individuals like one of his fellow interviewees in line at Haba!, or the elderly food seller he later encounters at a roadside shack, whose friendliness turns to near-violent resentment like the flick of a switch. Again, Barrett hardly needs to exaggerate the tension in these scenes—it’s all too painfully recognisable, and impossible to deny.
If Furo’s presence puts those he meets on edge, it is perhaps less to do with his skin tone than with his money—or at least people’s perception of his access to it. Blackass does not question the continuing importance of skin colour in today’s society. Furo struggles in vain to shake off his history as a black man and profit from the advantages that come with whiteness but—and this is what makes this novel special—he does try to explore some of the complexities of racial inequality: how it’s inseparable from economic inequality, how it roots itself in everyday situations, and, most poignantly, how it destroys the humanity of those on both sides of the power equation. It’s a point Barrett returns to again and again, be it in Furo’s saddening and maddening experience of taxi drivers who have to be “tricked into an honest fare”, or of his new girlfriend Syreeta’s educated Lagos peers, who have no greater ambition than to become Westeners’ WAGs. “A white man in Lagos has no voice louder than the dollar sign branded on his forehead,” as Barrett puts it elsewhere. At the individual level, neither the non-Nigerian nor the local is to blame for this state of affairs, but both are diminished by the bitterness it causes.
Despite its surreal premise, Blackass only becomes truly weird about a third of the way through, when Barrett left-turns into a metafictional subplot told from the point of view of a short story writer named Igoni (Barrett’s two previous publications are story collections, and in 2005 he won a BBC World Service competition for ‘The Phoenix’). I’m not sure how successful this strand of the novel is. It’s not that Igoni-slash-Barrett doesn’t try to do new things with the device, because he does. You can go right ahead and follow him using the Twitter handle he quotes; or, if you can’t be bothered with that, you could just keep reading till the fictional Igoni starts shapeshifting in a way that parallels, but is distinct from, Furo’s own transformation. No, it’s simply that in 2015 metafiction is so profoundly uninteresting, so totally done to death, that not even Barrett’s witty modernising can bring it back to life.
That said, Barrett wields it confidently, as he does all his influences. Blackass makes a virtue of its debt to Kafka, for instance, rather than trying to slip it in unnoticed. The novel opens with a quote from Metamorphosis, and in its first pages Furo watches a cockroach crawl across his bedroom floor, all but offering a knowing insectoid wink as it goes.
Nor do Barrett’s über-precise accounts of his characters’ behaviour seem laboured. We’re frequently told stuff like which hand Furo uses to hold a cup, how Syreeta puts her legs into her jeans, and so on. With many writers this might seem like paragraph-padding, but in Blackass it all contributes to the sensuousness of the world that Furo inhabits. I’ve never been to Lagos, but thanks to Barrett’s placid, unhurried descriptions, it’s no trouble at all to picture the white-person silos that are the city’s air conditioned shopping malls, or the heavy rain storms that approach from afar “like a crashing airliner”, or the egusi soup eaten with the hands. His dialogue, too, is snappy and rich, full of the pidgin dialect that he perceptively diagnoses as “the shortest distance between two thoughts”. Barrett’s style makes Blackass a delight to read, and it adds a spectrum of colour to the sad, amusing story of a character forced to live in black and white.