'Speak No Evil' is a queer tragedy that's gorgeously written, but hits familiar beats and loses focus
Uzodinma Iweala knows how to write about violence. The Beasts of No Nation author broke out a little more than a decade ago with his harrowing account of a child soldier coming of age in a war-torn African country; its 2015 film adaptation, directed by Cary Fukunaga, elicited both praise and backlash for its faithfulness to the intense material, its focus on the senseless brutality witnessed by an innocent. The juxtaposition of the childlike and the traumatic was superbly calibrated: Exploring a place so foreign to most Western readers, and telling a story so devastating, Iweala’s book resonated for both its shock value and its humanity.
But violence takes on a different meaning when explored in a queer context. The author’s new novel, Speak No Evil, centers on Niru, a gay Nigerian-American high schooler who’s Harvard-bound; his deeply religious parents have instilled in him a profound homophobia, the fundamentalist edict that same-sex relations are blasphemous. Niru reluctantly comes out of the closet to Meredith, his white friend who’s crushing on him, and she assumes the responsibility of thrusting him into the world of dating apps and hookups. She installs Grindr on his phone after he misplaces it; he engages with the app, if only briefly, before his father discovers his plan to meet a boy named “Ryan” and punishes him.
He beats Niru, badly; in this blistering scene that closes the book’s second chapter, Iweala’s penchant for realizing the ugly mechanics and disorienting immediacy of violence is in full evidence. You hear the cacophony of screams as Niru’s mother races down the stairs after taking a shower, her face wet; you feel the quake of the earth when Niru is thrown against the wall by his father, the moment when you see there’s no going back.
Niru is devised not unlike Beasts’ Agu: a victim of circumstance. He exists in the contemporary Western world; he’s a scholarship-qualifying track runner, he sits in noisy and disruptive classrooms, and his closest friend is straight, white, and of considerable means. But Niru is also black, gay, and the son of immigrants — the deck is stacked against him. He’s sketched out thinly to make a societal point: his world fills out his blank canvas for him, defines who he is and the choices he gets to make. With unrelenting straightforwardness, Speak No Evil reveals the worst-case scenario for such a person. It interrogates what it means to live in a climate of police brutality, or to develop an identity that intersects with multiple marginalized groups.
Iweala is a unique and surprising writer; the story he tells is neither of those things. His new book, which had been in development for years, unfortunately arrives at a time when expectations for the bleak queer novel have risen — this year, Joseph Cassara’s House of Impossible Beauties and Patrick Nathan’s Some Hell have particularly made for fresh new additions to the subgenre. The tragic inevitability of Niru’s journey is less illuminating than familiar, less gut-wrenching than exhausting. The page-turning effect is monotonous, a screed inflamed by anger and pain. We’re not permitted to get to know Niru, goes the novel’s argument, because he’s not permitted to know himself.
Speak No Evil feels patched together in that respect, alternating between stunning and tired chunks of narrative almost on a whim. Its opening chapter, especially, starts a little scattered and conventional before moving into Niru’s coming-out. The moment of his confession is tremendous, an infusion of unnerving suspense into a gay coming-of-age milestone. Iweala details every self-loathing thought, every tremble of the body, the delicate mixture of relief and fear which follows the words “I’m gay” being spoken for the first time. “I start to cry,” Niru says. “I’m overwhelmed by the sound of my own pain.”
Iweala’s forceful writing, defined by sentences of only a handful of words that move at an accelerated clip, shines when he digs into Niru’s psyche. He has a rare gift for capturing stream-of-consciousness thought, tackling it at a pace that’s quick but authentic. His book’s structure is rooted in the style, and so it’s strange the degree he seems to resist its potential: to have Niru consistently narrating, yes, but to squeeze the life out of him as his father — another fascinating character given the short shrift — catches him, attacks him, and plans to send him away. With every step Iweala takes toward tragedy, our window into Niru’s soul gets narrower.
This, again, seems by design, but misguidedly so. There’s a richness to Niru’s life — family, school, romantic — that’s left underexplored. Instead, about two-thirds through the (already slim) book, Iweala ditches his perspective for Meredith’s. It’s here where the book really veers off track. There is, once more, a shockingly violent incident, described with the alarming velocity that marks Iweala’s signature prose. It’s just explosive enough to overcome the familiarity factor, but then there’s the lingering issue of Meredith: a device more than a character, a mere representation of Iweala’s impassioned motivation for telling this story. She’s a catalyst for trouble, a well-meaning liberal blinded by her privilege. We’ve heard her story before. And by the end of it, we’re still waiting for Niru’s to come to life. B-