CULTURE & ARTS
03/04/2016 10:14 am ET

The Bottom Line: 'Blackass' By A. Igoni Barrett

A young Nigerian named Furo Wariboko awakes one morning to find himself transformed ... into a white man.
Graywolf Press

It was only a matter of time before some resourceful author used Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as the foundation for a novel explicitly about racial and gender identities. A racial transformation forms the central drama of A. Igoni Barrett’s Metamorphosis-themed satirical novel, Blackass, though not the type readers have typically seen in the past.

In 2014’s Your Face in Mine, by Jess Row, a white Jewish man voluntarily undergoes racial reassignment surgery to become black -- he identifies more strongly with that culture and wants to fully take it on. In 1961, white writer John Howard Griffin published Black Like Me, a nonfiction account of traveling through the South dressed in convincing blackface; the book documented the abrupt shift in treatment he received when he presented as a black man. Narratives of people willfully choosing to give up (if only temporarily) their white privilege to live as black people aren’t novel.

In Blackass, the protagonist, Furo Wariboko, neither chooses his transformation nor does he want it, despite the sudden social capital it endows him with. A young Kalabari man who lives with his family outside Lagos, Nigeria, Furo has been crushed under the wave of unemployment stifling the career prospects of the country’s youth. One morning, however, he wakes up with plans to head into Lagos for an interview -- only to look down at his recumbent body and see that in his sleep, he’s metamorphosed into a red-headed white man.

In a panic, Furo dresses for his interview and escapes the house without being seen by his family. He’ll never be able to explain that this white man in their house is their son and brother, he realizes, so his only option is not to return. In his neighborhood, his new identity immediately causes issues. The mere presence of a white man, or oyibo, raises suspicious eyebrows from people he long considered friends and neighbors.

As he approaches the city center, however, his fortunes turn. White men aren’t so uncommon in Lagos, but they are uncommon in the lines of jobless unfortunates waiting for entry-level interviews. Furo is quickly yanked from the line to his interview, brought in to speak to the CEO, and offered a senior-level marketing job on the spot. “I’ll be frank with you,” his new boss tells him, shortly before establishing that Furo meets none of the skill-related criteria for the job. “We need a man like you on the team.” His unspoken words, “a white man,” hang in the air.

Furo’s familiarity with Lagos and Nigerian culture, his Nigerian accent and fluent dialect, and his name make him an oddity as a white man, but this also allows Barrett to show the web of countervailing advantages experienced by black Nigerians and white foreigners. Perceived as an oyibo, Furo finds himself newly taken advantage of by locals who expect a naive, wealthy out-of-towner, or treated with tense suspicion. When his Nigerian background becomes apparent, he’s accepted as a fellow, presumed to know the rules of the game.

Still, his whiteness imbues him with an overwhelming aura of sudden authority and importance that arguably outweighs the feelings of displacement and alienation Furo struggles with. After years of increasingly desperate unemployment, he’s suddenly bombarded with lucrative job offers. Having left home suddenly, he’s without a place to live for two weeks before his new job begins, but as a white man he’s almost immediately picked up by a beautiful sugar baby, Syreeta, whose comfortable lifestyle is funded by a wealthy man she sees once a week. Though Furo has no money, his light skin makes him appear a more desirable partner, someone who could give her a biracial child like those of her socialite friends who married foreigners.

Thanks to his whiteness, Furo suddenly has a job, the deference of local Nigerians, and a gorgeous lover who takes him in and buys him a new wardrobe.

Furo’s blackness doesn’t simply evaporate quietly into his past, however. He’s plagued by signs of his true identity, from the increasingly publicized search his family has begun for their vanished son to the melanin-rich zone on his buttocks. Yes, Furo does indeed retain his black ass, even as the rest of his skin has paled to the shade of mashed potatoes.

This struggle chimes with the stories of light-skinned black people in white-dominated countries “passing” as white -- a similarity that resonates more strongly as Furo struggles to distance himself from the life he thought he could simply walk away from. Torn between how profoundly he misses his family, his social network, and his true identity, and how desperately he wants and needs the money and status that come with his whiteness, he finds himself taking dramatic steps to ensure that he can forever leave behind the past he deeply misses so that he can reap the benefits of his new life.

Before long, Furo changes his name to Frank Whyte, even applying for new personal documents, in hopes that he won’t be connected to the reports of a missing black man named Furo Wariboko. But it’s too late; he’s already had a chance encounter with a writer named Igoni who becomes fascinated by the white Nigerian and tracks down Furo’s family -- starting with his social-media savvy sister, who’s been tweeting up a storm about her brother’s disappearance. Furo’s plan of starting over, whole-cloth, as a white man named Frank Whyte seems doomed.

His longer passages trade off with shorter interludes from Igoni’s perspective, which ultimately adds more confusion than clarity. The writer, clearly a surrogate for the book's author and a character who allows readers to see parts of the narrative outside Furo’s viewpoint, never feels fully realized as a character, nor do Igoni’s passages add much to the overall narrative. At some point, it becomes clear that Igoni too has undergone an identity change -- she is a woman, while when Furo first met her, she was presented as a man. But it’s not clear at all whether she made the transition purposefully or in a dream as Furo did, or what purpose her identity serves in the novel.

Barrett seems to be drawing a rough parallel between the experience of Igoni, a transgender woman, and Furo, a black man who woke up white, but doesn’t explore whether such a parallel truly captures the truth of those two experiences. It’s a half-baked and underexamined comparison, yet provocative enough to deserve more from the book. Indeed, much of Blackass seems to suffer from this failing; it’s not a long novel, yet long passages seem to meander needlessly, while other vital, explosive concepts are tossed in haphazardly and all-too-briefly.

Blackass is a blunt, transparently written novel -- the kind that makes the reader feel as though they’re standing inside the skin of the character, going about his day with him -- and though the topic could easily be that of a polemic, it’s also a subtle, circumspect novel about the intersecting, sometimes mutually exclusive needs humans have for family and connection, and for status and power. In Barrett’s debut, it often seems as though his project was simply too ambitious for its 250-odd pages, which aren’t quite capacious enough to grapple with all the big ideas he wants to rope in. An abundance of big ideas, and a compelling voice, however, mark Barrett as a writer to look out for in the years ahead.

The Bottom Line:

Barrett’s racial satire bulges with more ambitious ideas than its length can handle, but its power and insight should put him on to-watch lists.

What other reviewers think:

The Guardian: "His characters’ every foible is captured and amplified for effect. But his handling of plot is not so masterly; the introduction of Morpheus is one too many transformations."

Financial Times: "Blackass is a strange, compelling novel, and Barrett has something to tell us all."

Kirkus: "The story doesn’t quite live up to its brilliant premise, but readers in search of an incisive observer of contemporary life will find one in Barrett."

Who wrote it?

Igoni Barrett is the author of a short story collection, Love Is Power, Or Something Like That. He has received a Chinua Achebe Center Fellowship, a Norman Mailer Center Fellowship, and a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Residency. This is Barrett’s debut novel. He lives in Nigeria.

Who will read it?

Readers who prefer work with a strong social or political theme, as well as fans of reality-bending fiction or magical realism.

Opening lines:

“Furo Wariboko 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 in through the open window.” 

Notable passage:

“And in this state of naked grace -- stripped of the past, curious about the present, hopeful about the future -- he strode to the tall mirror over the vanity table and stared into the face of his new self. A face whose features had altered less in dimension than character, and whose relation to the selfie in the newspaper was as close and yet as far apart as the resemblance between adolescence and adulthood. His face had sloughed off immaturity. Then again, the unexpectedness of his skin shade, eye color, and hair texture was the octopus ink that would confuse his hunters, as even he wouldn’t have recognized himself in a photo of his new face, and so neither would his parents nor anyone who based their looking on his old image. He knew at last that he had nothing to fear. He was a different person, and right here, right now, right in his face, he could see he looked nothing like the former Furo.”

Blackass
by A. Igoni Barrett
Graywolf Press, $16.00
Published March 1, 2016

The Bottom Line is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

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