May 2013

Batya Ungar-Sargon


Love is Power, or Something Like That by A. Igoni Barrett

A good short story creates a moment in time that encapsulates an obscure truth relating to the world we live in, and how it nurtures and then eviscerates our fantasies of living happily ever after. But an excellent short story brings us into close contact with things we abhor; it creates memories of things we could have sworn we had no kinship with; it makes us unwilling participants in what we now understand is the blood-curdling nature of our deepest selves. The nine short stories in A. Igoni Barrett's important Love Is Power, or Something Like That are excellent stories.

Barrett has a few tricks for activating this kind of horrific intimacy in Love Is Power. He has a way of transforming suffering, and its handmaiden abjection, into a thorny kind of power. In "The Shape of a Full Circle," fourteen year old Dimiť encounters a madwoman in an alley surrounded by teenage boys:

Her knees were drawn up to her chest and her hands covered her ears. The skin of her knees was scabrous; her hands were tree-root grimy. Her hair fell on her shoulders in thick, brownish clumps, and it was sprinkled with the confetti of garbage dumps. She reeked of disease.

The imagery is aggressive, oppressive, invasive, the opposite of the inert passivity that usually accompanies treatments of suffering. And out of the awful electricity generated by the utter abjection of the madwoman, Barrett weaves a kind of perverse power. "If crazewoman bite you, you go craze," someone says, and in a way, this is the role of every image -- to bite the reader, transferring its properties to the one who beholds. The reader fully expects Dimiť, caretaker to his younger siblings and his alcoholic mother, to intervene and put a stop to the boys' torment of the madwoman. Instead, he lifts a brick and hurls it at her head. Simply contemplating her has made him slightly mad. He runs from the "superhuman force with which she leaped at her attackers, blood splashing from the gash in her head," and spends the rest of the story running from "the pursuer who had laid grip of his imagination." But we find that it is not his imagination, but the semblance between the madwoman and his own mother that oppresses him, his mother's need and abjection, which is all he gets instead of love.

Barrett's first sentences corrupt. "He began to love her when she was nine and had breasts the size of tangerines," he tells us in the first line of "The Little Girl with Budding Breasts and a Bubblegum Laugh," in a sentence electric with possibility and dread. All that's good in the world seems to hang on who "he" is and more importantly, how old. "He was her cousin, her big brother; he was fifteen years older than her," the narrator says, and all that's good disappears; and then, just in case we were still holding on to the shreds of our hope:

Nobody saw anything suspicious when he clasped her under the arms and spun her -- squealing and kicking -- in a maypole circle, then pressed her to his chest, all the while grinning like a Nok mask to hide the consternation that her milk-and-sugar smell, her puppy warmth, awakened in his body.

But Barrett is not one for easy pieties, and this older cousin becomes the girl's only friend and champion as she grows into a troubled young woman. He is the only person on earth who loves her, a power both wielded and imprisoning. Barrett is fearless in taking his reader to the place between these two bodies, one fourteen and unwilling, one thirty-one and equally unwilling.

But it is his last sentences that cut like machetes, devoured by a reader in search of resolution, an escape from the intimacy she has come to loathe. None is provided. Grandfather clocks toll, a man wakes up in a car, two old women laugh, and perhaps most devastating, "Love means you make me happy until you don't."

The intimacy of strangers is explored in "My Smelling Mouth Problem." A father's love for his daughter is the premise of "Godspeed and Perpetua," the book's most ambitious story, replete with the wife's attempts to cope with feeling "as if her face was pressed against the glass, stuck on the outside while their love blazed on the other side." The story ends with a horrific scene of one of the juntas in the 1980s. Barrett is powerful when showing how the political and the domestic alternately compete with and reinforce each other in the human soul. These stories are in the tradition of Chekhov, Mary Gaitskill, and Lorrie Moore. Did I mention that this is African literature? Before reading them, we know not what we are. Afterward, we long for ignorance restored, as Perpetua longs to unsee the maid's room, which she enters for the first time after many years to find cluttered with a "hoard of scavenged possessions" that the maid has collected from Perpetua's garbage, "a house of mirrors constructed out of her memories."

Barrett wastes no time on compassion -- feeling it or forcing it on his readers. It no doubt takes a compassionate man to write these stories, and yet Barrett is after something much, much better: he wants you to know you are no different, from bully or bullied, from crazewoman or the boy who throws the brick. The difference consists only in the power of love. Compassion is the realm of the naÔve.

In the titular story, "Love Is Power, or Something Like That," we never learn if that sentiment belongs to the author, or to the deeply flawed protagonist. We meet Eghobamien Adrawus, police officer, when he's getting off duty, but not before

The cell at the back of the station had come alive. The prisoners had broken into their morning chant; they howled for mercy and food and invoked God's retribution on the heads of their accusers. The stink of moving bowels wafted from within.

The reader learns of the prisoners' existence when their stench assaults Eghobamien's body -- through the "zoo-cage smell that had been hovering just beyond his consciousness and was now lodged in the roof of his mouth." Barrett is well aware of how sympathy with the less fortunate is in an inverse relationship to proof of their intestines, and by invoking them, we are insinuated further into Eghobamien's reality, and further away from pity for the prisoners. We enter his very body, and we feel his disgust.

Eghobamien proceeds to beat a man for a perceived insult: "You dey challenge my authority -- you no dey fear?" he screams while clubbing the man with a leg of beef, hoof and all. He comes home and speaks sharply to his wife, then falls asleep. When awoken by his son,

Eghobamien Adrawus leaped forward and grabbed the boy by the waist. He swept him into the air and whirled him around. Osamiro slapped his father on the head, then took hold of his ears. He shrieked with laughter when his father thrust his tongue into his belly button and made snorting, wallowing-pig noises.

The reversal is startling, almost as hard to bear as the physical violence that the reader was certain was coming; but no -- the son slaps the father. It turns out that it is his police uniform that makes Eghobamien into a monster. Its removal turns him into a doting father, a loving husband who grabs his wife, throws her over his shoulder, and to her protests of "The children!" says, "They go know sey their papa love their mama." And when they are finished, his wife exhales, and says, "That one good."

Before the night is done, Eghobamian will be forced to witness his superior officer rape a prostitute: "You for don see her face when the condom burst," the superior jokes. Compared to his superior, Eghobamian is just a man trying to get by, a man who feels threats to his authority and self-respect the way his feet feel the pinch of his too-small boots. This is what a uniform does, the story argues. He is a man not who broke his wife's arm in two places, but a man who, "kneeling before her in his underwear, hungover and full of remorse, had given his word" not to get drunk again.

He keeps his word, because love is power -- whether wielded or yielded. And power, Barrett seems to suggest, is a form of love. To enter an abusive situation with someone -- a prisoner, or a corrupt superior, or a madwoman, or a child at your mercy -- is to know the person's need to subjugate or be subjugated.

To know these people, Barrett tells us, is to love them. Or something like that.

Love is Power, or Something Like That by A. Igoni Barrett
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1555976408
176 pages