Just outside of a public library, a white man has decapitated five black children with a chain saw, and he’s in the process of being acquitted of the crimes as Friday Black begins. “I love America more than I love my children,” his attorney claims. “That’s what this case is about…. That is what I’m defending here today.” His argument echoes throughout Friday Black like a chorus of hate, illogic, and injustice.
Yet such extremity — murder by chain saw — feels pretty mild for Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, the fearless writer behind this major literary debut. Already longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence, Friday Black develops into the most unnervingly unpredictable short-story collection I’ve read this year; after that first piece, “The Finkelstein 5,” the book shifts toward stark speculative fiction, imagining alternate realities that, rather miraculously, fuse the bizarre with the hideously familiar.
Friday Black ought to land as publishing’s definitive addition to an exciting pop culture trend: new black surrealism. Films such as Get Out and Sorry to Bother You, or Donald Glover projects like Atlanta and “This Is America,” derive political power from a kind of absurdist framing, which this book shares. One tale, an “homage” to George Zimmerman, depicts a theme park in which white people play out simulations of violent racist fantasies through the eyes of a black employee; another realizes a purgatory afterlife occupied by the spirits of a school shooter and one of his victims.
Adjei-Brenyah, recently named a prestigious “5 Under 35” honoree by the National Book Foundation for Friday Black, executes his premises with an elegant Black Mirror-like realism, though his world-building is a bit uneven. The book drops recognizable faces — a teen drawn to activism, a retail worker drained by Black Friday’s spectacle — into worlds so strange, they couldn’t possibly resemble reality. And yet in their gnarly intensity, their polemical potency, they hit us where we live, here and now. Sometimes it takes a wild mind to speak the plainest truth. B+
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