A white man in Lagos has no voice louder than the dollar sign branded on his forehead. Half-way into A. Igoni Barrett’s debut novel, Black Ass, this sentence assails you with its truth and can effectively stand in as the mission statement of this novel.
Furo Wariboko, 33, Kalabari, unemployed, is a faceless Lagosian, a mere statistic of a third-world nation’s population till the first sentence of this book when he wakes up in the body of a white man on the Monday morning of his job interview.
In spite of his physical transformation, Furo remains a Lagosian in thoughts, actions and phonation. He tries to adopt his new persona and adapt to it, ultimately skipping home but, first, he must attend his job interview with his new appearance which throw doors open for him. He clinches the job of a book salesman, meets a Lagos big-girl, Syreeta, and a writer, Igoni, who also suffers from his own transformation.
Mr. Barrett’s foray into the transformation metaphor deeply borrows from the Kafkaesque literary tradition but Furo Wariboko is no Gregor Samsa—who was at least employed—and he did not become an insect.
There are several ways of reading Black Ass.
1. A satirical novel about decolonization.
2. A contemporary novel about mapping modern Lagos and, by extension, Nigeria.
3. A contemporary novel about social media, alter egos and subtle transformations.
4. A post-modern novel blurring the lines between fiction and reality.
5. A retelling of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in contemporary Lagos.
The exciting thing about Barrett’s novel is the multiple perspectives but three things remain constant: the author featuring as a character; steadfastness to the theme of physical transformation and a cartographic exploration of Lagos.
It has become a popular postmodern indulgence for writers to write themselves into their books as characters but Mr. Barrett pushes it even further by introducing Igoni, a writer like himself, into novel and perpetuating his character with several encounters with Furo.
He also used Twitter as a storytelling device. This is not a new event one is inclined to say. Jennifer Egan once published a story in Tweets. Emmanuel Iduma did same in his ambitious first novel, Farad. Teju cole ordered a story into coherence by retweets and received encomium for his use of social media in exploring literature. Black Ass pushes this exploration even further by blurring the lines of fiction and blending it with social media by using his Twitter persona to investigate the reaction of Furo’s family following his disappearance from home.
Told in tweets (better still, in caches of timelines) interspersed with authorial commentary, the twitter atmosphere is recreated along with the dominant trait of a pretentiousness perpetuated by being able to project one’s alter ego on this brand of social media. Tekena, Furo’s sister, finds escape from the family crisis that ensued following her brother’s disappearance on Twitter. She amasses followers, trolls strangers and meets @_Igoni who insists on being called Morpheus (this handle actually exists)
In a sense, Furo is a callous person. He lives home and doesn’t look back at his distraught family. He selfishly embraces his whiteness, relocates himself in the part of Lagos frequented by people who share his new skin colour—on the island side of the Third Mainland Bridge. And everyone who shows him any form of kindness, his affective response to them is constricted; at best he offers only apathy in return. Furo’s character flaw foreshadows a post-coital observation that lends itself to the risqué novel title: his physical transformation spared his “robustly black” ass.
This debut novel which begins on a bed in Egbeda negotiates, by feet, to Ikeja, to Oniru, charting contemporary Lagos with infectious vivacity and exactness. People of all works of life—food vendors, kept women, corporate business owners—are portrayed in their fullness, warts and all. In Black Ass’s power of acute observation on Lagos is as intense as Ayei Kwe Armah’s works on Ghana.
Like all novels loose on plot, the initial verve ebbs as the novel winds to a predictable end but Mr. Barrett must be given full marks for writing a refreshingly contemporary novel that leverages on powerful literary traditions.