Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut collection of twelve short stories, published in 2018. I read a first edition Houghton Mifflin Harcourt paperback from the library.
3.5 out of 5 stars. (all stories averaged)
Times Read: 1
As sometimes happens with short story collections, my ratings veer wildly from story to story. The opener (“The Finkenstein 5”, note ) is a stunning 5-star piece and deserves to be iconized like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, while “Light Spitter” (note ), only receives 1 star. (While technically written well, the plot and execution didn’t sit well with me.)
Adjei-Brenyah covers an incredible range of reality to fantasy, from “Things My Mother Said” (note ) which reads as purely autobiographical to “The Hospital Where” (note ) which carries so much nightmare/dream logic that it is barely comprehensible. The other stories fall along this spectrum, some hardly different from reality at all (“Zimmer Land”, note ) to creating their own sci-fi reality (“The Era”, note  and “Through the Flash”, note ).
I love grounded stories with one or two weird elements (the more I think on it, the more moving and incredible “Lark Street”, note  becomes). Adjei-Brenyah delivers sharp satire and insight on being black in America today through fantastical plots. He’s a modern Weird Fiction writer carrying the mantle of 1940s/50s Ray Bradbury.
 “The Finkelstein 5”
5 out of 5 stars.
After a white man is acquitted of killing five black children, something must be done.
 First line (reading this collection, you will quickly learn that Adjei-Brenyah is a master of the opening line; see also notes  and ):
Fela, the headless girl, walked toward Emmanuel.
 “The Finkenstein 5” explodes out of the gate. The situation it’s laying out should seem impossible, outlandish, but disturbingly is hardly satire at all. I’m going to refrain from typing out the quote I wrote from page 2, because you need to experience this thing from start to finish.
He felt his Blackness leap and throb to an 8.0. The people grew quiet. They tried to look superfriendly but also distant, as if he were a tiger or an elephant they were watching beneath a big tent.
 “Things My Mother Said” (can be read on the Foliate Oak Literary Magazine site)
3.5 out of 5 stars.
A short meditation on the title.
She looked up from her Bible. “Auwrade. [sic?]”
According to Glosbe.com, awurade means “God” in Twi (see note ).
The word is spelled “awurade” not “auwrade” on other sites.
 “The Era” (can be read on Guernica’s site)
3.5 out of 5 stars.
A future where absolute truth, unclouded by emotion, is hailed above all.
“The Era” reminded me a lot of Bradbury (I say this with love). It has a shared essence with “All Summer in a Day.”
 First sentence:
“Suck one and die,” says Scotty, a tall, mostly true, kid.
I do bad at school because sometimes I think when I should be learning.
 “The Era” throws you into a world with its own language and the ambition of a novel. In the first page alone, these words and phrases are given:
Big Quick War
Long Big War
Context allows you to keep up, but a first-time reader is at a disadvantage for a good portion of the story. I’m not sure if the length of “The Era” pays off the world established. It feels like we’re just getting situated when it ends.
Leslie is always telling lies about how great things are or how nice everyone looks and how everyone is special. Leslie McStowe is one of the least truthful people around.
 “Lark Street”
5 out of 5 stars.
Aborted twins appear to their father.
Other than the initial premise – two fetuses talking to a man in bed – “Lark Street” is completely contained in modern reality. Again, there’s a Bradbury element here (“The Small Assassin“, specifically). But it pulls something off that I have never seen: a story about abortion which is so personal that it doesn’t take any moral stance at all.
 Another great first sentence:
An impossible hand punched my earlobe.
 The best description of a psychic I’ve ever heard:
“Listen, I’m just the guy who gets up early in the morning and packs the trunk up. I help you get where you’re already going,” the psychic said calmly.
 “The Hospital Where”
2 out of 5 stars.
An aspiring writer takes his father to the hospital.
Too dreamlike to hold together. At a certain point, you realize there are no rules in this story and it suffers for it. (I’m also a hard sell on short stories about struggling writers.)
Her brown hair was spun into something that let everyone know she was very busy and hadn’t slept in a long time.
It wouldn’t matter what I did if my father wasn’t there to see what I’d done.
“What are you writing?” my father asked. I looked up from my notebook.
“I don’t know,” I said. Which was the truest thing anyone has ever said.
“Don’t be boring,” the god said as she started to leave.
 “Zimmer Land”
3 out of 5 stars.
A near-future park offers patrons the chance to experience killing to “protect” their home.
A compelling idea which ends with the first act.
 “Friday Black”
2.5 out of 5 stars.
Black Friday shopping madness creates monsters.
The first of a three-story cycle (including “How to Sell a Jacket as Told By IceKing”, note  and “In Retail”, note ) about a young black man working in a clothing store in a mall, which might be the weakest in the collection. “Friday Black” is rated the lowest because I don’t buy its reality. I know people are horrific during Black Friday shopping, so I don’t know why this was such a stretch for me.
 “The Lion and the Spider”
3 out of 5 stars.
After his father abandons the family, a young man forfeits his goals to help his mother and sister.
People like my father, who yelled freely in English and Twi whenever things were bad, were heretics to be ignored or hated.
Twi (also known as Akan Kasa) is a dialect of the Akan language spoken in southern and central Ghana by several million people, mainly of the Akan tribe, the biggest of the about 17 major tribes in Ghana and forms some 70% of the Ghanaian population as a first and second language. Akuapem Twi was the first Akan dialect to be used for Bible translation, and became the prestige dialect as a result.
I didn’t have any special thing, but not having a thing when the other two did was kind of like having a thing in its own way.
“Be patient with him. He is not patient. So you must be patient,” she said.
 “Light Spitter”
1 out of 5 stars.
The victim and perpetrator of a college murder/suicide attempt to prevent another one.
I’m turned off by narratives that pity and humanize shooters by making them bullied, tortured souls in sea of cruelty. I think we’ve gotten to the point where we know school shooters are more likely to have been the bullies and assholes themselves. Victims deserve a better narrative than offering forgiveness to their murderer.
 “How to Sell a Jacket As Told By IceKing”
3 out of 5 stars.
A mall employee’s status as top-seller is threatened.
The second of the three mall retail stories.
When the cashiers ask, “Did anyone help you out today?” customers say, “The one with the nice hair,” when they mean Florence. When they mean me, they say, “The tall one,” if they’re white. If they’re black, they say, “The black guy.”
Working here, I’ve learned that married men use their wives as mirrors.
 Links very directly to “Friday Black”:
Last Black Friday, I sold almost eighteen thousand dollars’ worth of coats, fleeces, and jeans by myself. It was a store record. Also, they had a contest that year. Whoever sold the most got a PoleFace item. I got my mom a jacket. It didn’t fit right. She hardly wears it.
 “In Retail”
3 out of 5 stars.
A mall store employee finds happiness where he can.
The third of the mall retail store stories and set in the same world (“Richard” is still a higher-up of our narrator).
 “Through the Flash”
4 out of 5 stars.
The Flash has locked everyone in a time loop, never to age or escape.
Since I’m the new me, I don’t even think about killing anybody. Still, I touch the knife under my pillow.
 The Loop serves as a good metaphor for a family struggling to cope with a death:
We each came to realize we were replaying the same thing over and over, and the realizing happened at different times for everyone. It was a pretty alarming thing. To see you’re trapped in infinity and know that no one can explain exactly how or why.
Imagine the worst thing anyone has ever done. I promise, I’ve done it to everyone. More than once.
My knee bleeds and bleeds. It hurts very badly. I’ve felt much worse, but it’s so hard to remember anything other than what’s now when you’re hurt now.
“But we think we can say for sure that this isn’t going to last forever. Unless it does.”
Everyone should read “The Finkelstein 5”. Otherwise, Friday Black is recommended to people who already have an affection for short story collections (especially Bradbury when he still had a wicked edge) or fans of Boots Riley’s awesomely weird 2018 film Sorry to Bother You.
I’m looking forward to what Adjei-Brenyah will write in the future – if he writes a novel, how sci-fi/speculative will it be? How grounded in the reality we know, how futuristic? If Jordan Peele is looking for scripts for the new launch of The Twilight Zone, Adjei-Brenyah’s work would be an incredible pick.
Next week, reviewing Laura van den Berg’s very short collection with a very long title There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights.