MacArthur Genius Storms Princeton in Nigerian Love Story

Ifemelu and her boyfriend, Obinze, are middle-class Nigerians, hardly “starving, or raped, or from burned villages” but still “mired in dissatisfaction.” They consider Lagos a backwater and they want out.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fascinating, infuriating novel “Americanah” recounts their respective experience of the U.S. and Britain and, later, of the Nigeria they return to.

At 35, Adichie is already distinguished. Her 2006 novel “Half of a Yellow Sun,” about the Biafran War, won the Orange Prize for Fiction, and in 2008 she received one of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grants. She writes beautifully polished, semiformal prose with a slight English accent.

And she likes to argue. Ifemelu could be speaking for the author when, told that one of her opinions is “pretty strong,” she shoots back, “I don’t know how to have any other kind.”

“Americanah” jumps around in time and space, from Ifemelu’s present at Princeton to her past in Lagos, to her early American years in Philadelphia and Baltimore, to Obinze’s difficult period as a paperless foreigner in London, and finally back to Lagos, where, after many years, they meet again.

Insofar as this big, baggy novel has a structure, it’s their love story. But the real action is in their sharp observations of the alien cultures they encounter and their equally withering takedowns of their native land.

Sunny People

Adichie reserves a special viciousness for privileged liberals, like Ifemelu’s first American beau and his friends, “sunny and wealthy people who existed on the glimmering surface of things.” She has no patience with their kindhearted cluelessness and finds them grotesquely insensitive about race.

“Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it,” Ifemelu writes (or rants) on the blog that becomes her ticket to success.

Um ... you don’t? The white volunteers who lost their lives in Mississippi during the struggle for civil rights -- don’t they at least deserve a pat on the back? Ifemelu is such a porcupine of racial resentments that I was stunned when her blog addressed the following advice to white Americans:

“American Blacks are not telling you that you are to blame. They are just telling you what is. If you don’t understand, ask questions.”

Not me. Ifemelu is about the last person to whom I’d address a possibly vexing question about race, given her alacrity for dressing people down. I had started to think Adichie simply dislikes white liberals when she supplied Ifemelu with a black liberal boyfriend who’s even worse:

After Obinze

“He cooked organic vegetables and grains ... He ran every morning and flossed every night.” A virtuous stiff, and an academic to boot. Ifemelu can hardly seem to bear any of the men she sleeps with after Obinze.

I wouldn’t find Adichie’s generalized contempt so annoying if she didn’t exempt her protagonists. With very few exceptions, she reduces the other characters, white and black, Nigerian and American and British, to easily satirized types while granting Ifemelu and Obinze the dignity of complexity.

That may be why blogging suits Ifemelu. “Americanah” often reads like a gorgeously written blog. And because Adichie is such an accomplished arguer, I enjoyed having my buttons pushed even when I was seething.

But I kept wishing for a Comments section. I could have pointed out, for example, that the book has a disproportionately small number of gay characters, and that those it does have are unsympathetically depicted.

Equal Time

In truth, I think that’s a silly if not ridiculous piece of literary criticism. Adichie is under no obligation to give equal time and attention to every minority.

In the novel’s own prickly terms, though, it’s fair. Adichie/Ifemelu (often I couldn’t differentiate their opinions) is constantly harping on the insensitivity of the majority and the invisibility of the minority.

Well, other minorities can play that game. That’s all it is, though -- a game. And you don’t get a cookie if you win.

“Americanah” is published by Knopf in the U.S. and Fourth Estate in the U.K. (477 pages, $26.95, 20 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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