In an effort to manage out-of-control stacks of reading, I try to choose disparate stories in the mass of current reads.
Slipping Emily Schultz’s The Blondes in with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah seemed like a good bet.
A fantastic tale of a plague which seems to infect blonde women.
Ifemelu leaves her high-school boyfriend behind in Nigeria and moves to America for university.
And, yet, the stories of these two young women’s lives seemed to intersect, almost from the very beginning.
Readers of Americanah meet Ifemelu when she is heading to the salon, looking to have her hair braided in anticipation of her return to Nigeria. The time it takes for Ifemelu’s treatment and braiding affords plenty of opportunity for her to sit in silence and reflect upon all that has come before.
“There are two things women latch on to when they feel circumstances are outside of their control: their weight and their hair.” So says Hazel in Emily Schultz’s The Blondes.
So, okay, take the superficial. And both writers do.
Adichie writes about Ifemelu’s experience watching commercials on American television, which she loves more than the programs. (In his memoir, Intolerable, Kamal Al-Solaylee observes this as well, so it’s not just a female-thing.)
“She ached for the lives they showed, lives full of bliss, where all problems had sparkling solutions in shampoos and cars and packaged foods, and in her mind they became the real America, the America she would only see when she moved to school in the autumn.”
Questions about aesthetics are paramount in the mind of Schultz’s narrator, Hazel, too. She observes one of the earliest New York City attacks of the epidemic which seemingly afflicts only blonde women, and society tests the limits, trying to determine whether it is the hair colour itself and whether a dye can protect you from contagion, or whether it is a genetic matter.
“Women and vanity? Ways of looking at women? After these past seven months every human left on Earth has become a women’s studies major. We women matter.”
It is not all superficial, however. In fact, both authors include a storyteller in their work. The act of creating a narrative is significant in the lives of both narrators.
While sitting in the salon, Ifemelu considers writing a blog post. “She would file the post under the tag ‘race, gender and body size’.” She orders her world, in a way, with tags and metadata.
And Hazel is keeping notes for her unborn child. “You don’t want to hear what I’ve seen. Still, I’m going to tell you – if only to keep sane while I figure out what to do.”
It’s possible that either of the young women might have said this, about writing:
“She had, finally, spun herself fully into being.” (It was Ifemelu.)
Creating and recreating a narrative, however, is at the heart of both stories. Both narrators are in situations which require not only a certain amount of acceptance but substantial adjustment, and narrating those changes is an essential part of these women’s survival.
Ifemelu is shocked by some of the cultural differences she discovers when she comes to America. Some require little adaptation. She can pass as an “Americanah”.
“And they ambled, these Americans, they walked without rhythm.” But others demand fundamental shifts in her identity. At one point, she barely recognizes herself.
Readers wonder whether Ifemelu will survive (and one plotline considers that a young person might believe suicide is their only option when their identity is completely fragmented).
Hazel has no support in the environment she inhabits when the epidemic strikes in The Blondes. Her degree of personal isolation is magnified by the disaster and paranoia that she faces as the illness spreads, as people around her struggle to and fail to adapt and change.
“The thing about disease is that it’s based on connection.” And, so, paradoxically, the root of the narrative is Hazel’s disconnection; because she exists separately, she has an opportunity to survive (but with limitations).
In this context, her sense of being separate (and her actual separateness, but I want to avoid spoilers) is a bonus, but it is, simultaneously, a strain. She must step beyond the familiar, forge a new identity.
Readers have the same questions about Hazel’s survival (and, indeed, other characters in the narrative succumb) as they do about Ifemelu’s.
And even though their situations are dramatically different (one fantastic and one realistic, for starters), both young women must adapt and change to survive.
One aspect of each novel which sets it apart dramatically, however, is the author’s style.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a slow-boil style of storytelling. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus is slim and contained (a coming-of-age story), and she also writes short stories, but Americanah (like Half of a Yellow Sun) is a sprawling story.
(With this, and with her last novel, it took me about a hundred pages to settle into the story, more than half the pages turned before I realized that I was wholly attached to the characters therein, in such a way that I truly did not want their stories to end. Remembering how sorry I was when Half of a Yellow Sun was over, I spun out the ending of Americanah, reading only a chapter each day for the final week, to try to make it last. I still missed them afterwards.)
But although the story might be slow to boil, some of the issues examined therein are hot.
“If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious. Black writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them, not the ten thousand who write those bullshit ghetto books with the bright covers, have two choices: they can do precious or they can do pretentious. When you do neither, nobody knows what to do with you. So if you’re going to write about race, you have to make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t even know it’s about race. You know, a Proustian meditation, all watery and fuzzy, that at the end just leaves you feeling watery and fuzzy.”
Emily Schultz, in turn, considers sexism and social conditioning. (The Blondes has been compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, but to explain why brushes against a spoiler. Anyhow, despite the fantastic elements of the stories, I would be more inclined to draw comparisons with works by Stacey May Fowles, Charlotte Gill, and Zoe Whittall instead.)
“Take this as a sign of the times, baby: a man had been mauled in front of us by a child who behaved like a rabid dog, and I was thinking about pedicures.”
Her prose is tidy, incisive, and directed.It’s the kind of novel that makes you want to snip out individual lines. Like this one: “Motherhood, I thought, should have a better PR campaign, one that was more inclusive.”
Whereas Americanah contains the kind of prose that embodies Ifemelu’s frustration with making a book about only one subject: “Why did people ask ‘What is it about?’ as if a novel had to be about only one thing.” (Many of the notes I made are passages as long as the one recommending Proustian meditations, as above.)
In his third novel, A Beautiful Truth, Colin McAdam writes: “You can adjust, instead of accepting, and you can make your own world.”
Both Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Emily Schultz adjust and make their own worlds; Americanah and The Blondes are intelligent and provocative novels that remind readers of the joy and power of fiction.