by Christopher O’Halloran (@Burgleinfernal)
Poll the average HOWLer and you’ll get the same opinion: the world is a dumpster fire. Many find it hard to point at the marvels around us without being overwhelmed by the constant injustices going on every day. Whether that’s the mistreatment of minority populations by both authority figures and fellow humans or the passing of laws restricting rights of women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. How do you illuminate society’s achievements while these social issues get worse and worse?
If you’re Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, you shine a floodlight on all of it, all at once, in a way that is nothing but overwhelming.
Editor’s note: With so many current issues on display in Friday Black, it’s important for readers who utilize Content Warnings to do so. This collection deals with mature subject matter and contains content that can be very affecting. A comprehensive warning list can be found here.
BEHIND THE PEN
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is from Spring Valley, New York. He graduated from SUNY Albany and went on to receive his MFA from Syracuse University. He was the ’16-’17 Olive B. O’Connor fellow in fiction at Colgate University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Guernica, Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing, Printer’s Row, Gravel, and The Breakwater Review, where he was selected by ZZ Packer as the winner of the 2nd Annual Breakwater Review Fiction Contest.
Friday Black is his first collection, universally praised with the New York Times calling it “an unbelievable debut, one that announces a new and necessary American voice.”
A NO-SPOILER SUMMARY
In the stories of Adjei-Brenyah’s debut, an amusement park lets players enter augmented reality to hunt terrorists or shoot intruders played by minority actors, a school shooting results in both the victim and gunman stuck in a shared purgatory, and an author sells his soul to a many-tongued god.
Adjei-Brenyah’s writing will grab you, haunt you, enrage, and invigorate you. By placing ordinary characters in extraordinary situations, Adjei-Brenyah reveals the violence, injustice, and painful absurdities that black men and women contend with every day. These stories tackle urgent instances of racism and cultural unrest and explore the many ways we fight for humanity in an unforgiving world. (Goodreads)
VOICES FROM WITHIN
The hopes for this collection started at an all-time high. Those who had previously read Friday Black (myself included) raved about it without a single detractor. The modern commentary is strong, oftentimes leaving subtlety at the door, dropping it into an oubliette and forgetting it indefinitely. Adjei-Brenyah’s tackling of the issues is unflinching and unapologetic with satire clearly on display.
“What I enjoy about the stories,” says @ProbableHag, “is that they explore uncomfortable, trapped feelings.”
We became very familiar with these “uncomfortable” feelings ourselves when day one of discussion was met with strong disapproval—specifically toward the story “Lark Street”.
“Lark Street” deals heavily with abortion and anthropomorphized fetuses leading a man on a journey to find their mother. Most members found issue with this as it utilized much of the same imagery used in anti-choice propaganda. Though discussion took place before the Supreme Court leak of May 2022, harmful legislations were already being advanced in multiple American states. In such a climate, this story felt offensive to many, prompting heated discussion and divisive conversation that took over the channel for two full days.
But when Adjei-Brenyah knocks it out of the park, he knocks it way out. “The Finkelstein 5” was universally praised for its portrayal of code-switching—”I don’t usually have to be that extreme in my code switching these days, but it definitely hit me right in my soul,” says @auverus—and how the basic concept feels simultaneously outlandish and also something nobody would be surprised to read about in the news. It approaches violence against Black people in an all too frustrating and demoralizing way that is revisited shortly after by “Zimmer Land”.
Day two of discussion involved two stand-out stories “Zimmer Land” and the titular “Friday Black”. “Zimmer Land” centers around a theme park in which patrons are free to exercise violence against minorities under the guise of “a safe space for adults to explore problem-solving, justice, and judgment.” Or, in the words of @ArthurBea, “How do violent, racist beliefs become violent, racist actions?” The world-building is strong in this story, but for some, that aspect wasn’t enough. “It reads like someone who got really into world building an idea story and never wrote the story part,” says @psyche. “I wanted plot.”
“Friday Black” approaches that violence from a different angle. It takes the savagery of retail shopping during a sale and ratchets the craziness all the way up. It puts a magnifying glass on the myths propagated within consumerism: namely, that if you get the perfect coat for someone, it just might make them love you. @TKettle captures the essence of it in a way that can be ascribed to the entire collection: “It was another bit of over the top exaggeration that wasn’t too far off.” The comparison of Black Friday shoppers to rabid zombies is one that any retail worker can sympathize with.
“There is so much pain in all his writing at the systems we exist in and how they’re oppressive to everyone on a personal level.” — @pepperdrop
Friday brought some transcendent stories that shone after the high-concept, depressing ones. “In Retail” showed a different side to consumerism than “Friday Black”, prompting HOWLers to remember instances in their retail jobs where they didn’t want to crawl under the covers and never come out—fleeting though those instances may be. “It reflects the more positive experiences I’ve had,” says @Probable Hag, “and those little happinesses you get when you find a moment of connection with another person.”
None of that is to say that the high-concept stories ended in the final third. The last story, “Through the Flash,” is one about a neighborhood stuck in a Groundhog Day from Hell. Violent, terrifying, but wise in the way that so many of these stories are. “Unlike the other dystopian/cyberpunky stories in this collection,” says @psyche, “this one felt entirely fresh. I don’t think I’ve read a story quite like it.” The story ends on a note that perfectly captures the bittersweet feeling of living in our modern age. Where we can connect so easily, but choose to hate so freely; where love and forgiveness are a simple option so rarely chosen that to see it is to witness something of a miracle. A flash before the end. The momentary glimpse out of the cycle in which we exist.
WELCOME TO THE BLURBS: HOWL SOCIETY MEMBERS’ REVIEWS IN THEIR OWN WORDS
- This is a surgical knife of satire and social commentary. Nana is livid at the system he exists in and he lampoons all of it while deftly embracing the subtleties of humanity and perseverance against an unjust world.
- One of my favorite bleak/darkly comedic collections. Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s wonderful writing is absolutely committed to a brutal/absurd vision of America. It ain’t the most nuanced satire, but it is some of the best.
- Errs on the side of too satirical, which sometimes makes the satire a little too hard to see through, at least for me. A standard short story collection, in which a few stories are great, and the rest fall somewhere in the middle of the road.
- What a tough book to rate! There were moments of incisive, brilliant satire (e.g., The Finkelstein 5), beautiful fever dreams (like In Retail), and wondrous real-world family drama intertwined with folklore (The Lion and the Spider). Then there were stories that just fell flat, and a couple that began to leave a very bad taste in my mouth that tainted the whole collection for me (especially Lark Street, using the same talking points as anti-abortion protestors). I’d recommend some stories, but not quite the collection as a whole
HEAD OF THE PACK: OUR TOP THREE STORIES
3rd – “Friday Black
2nd – “Zimmer Land”
1st – “The Finkelstein 5”
If you’re into uncomfortable criticisms of modern society and thorough deconstruction through satire, you’ll love Friday Black. Adjei-Brenyah pulls back the curtain on it all, so be warned going in that it tackles some very heavy topics. For better or worse, this collection is affecting.
HOWLS SCORE: GROWL! (3/5)
Christopher O’Halloran is a milk-slinging, Canadian actor-turned-author. Catch up with him on Twitter @BurgleInfernal or check out his available stories at COauthor.ca. Order HOWLS FROM THE DARK AGES to read his short story, “The Lady of Leer Castle”. Available in paperback, audio, and ebook May 12, 2022!