Saturday, October 02, 2010

Short-a-Day: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "Birdsong"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, Sept. 20, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 93.

This is such a structurally tight story, with such lovely flourishes, that I don't mind not totally understanding the protagonist. How much are we really expected to understand another person, in any case? What stands out is how close Adichie comes to helping the reader understand what it's like to be a woman who is having an affair with a married man, and moreover, to be doing so in Lagos, Nigeria, where being an independent woman in that sort of relationship is apparently an even bigger issue. And she does so in very neat steps, jumping from the present--in which the protagonist sits in a car, watching an expensive-looking woman who happens to be looking at her. "She was the kind of woman I imagined my lover's wife was, a woman for whom things were done." From there, the story follows her memories as she establishes--on her own terms--the social distance between her and the people around her, from the way her co-worker Chikwado abases herself at work for the men to the way her lover's chauffeur scorns her, and the waiter ignores her. She is not a woman for whom things are done, in other words, but a woman who happens to be with a man for whom things are done, and that's a huge difference.

To clarify: I understand her perfectly--what I don't get, and what she doesn't understand herself, is why she goes back to him so often, for a thirteen-month period. I get why he stays with her--only the second woman he's had an affair with, which he considers worth some small congratulations: he finds her "feisty." But I don't understand why his texts to her from his other home in America are the trigger that suddenly cause her to break things off with him. Yes, it's a dagger-in-the-heart reminder that she is not actually there with him, will never actually be there with him, but hasn't that been clear a hundred times over? Almost from the beginning, as she learns to love what he loves (birds), and impresses him by already liking what he likes (sports and business), it's as clear that she wants more as it is clear that he's never going to give her that:

"You'll want to settle down soon," he said. "I just want you to know I'm not going to stand in your way." We were naked in bed; it was our first time.... He was telling me that he played the game better than others, while I had not yet conceived of the game itself. From the moment I met him, I had had the sensation of possibility, but for him the path was already closed, had indeed never been open; there was no room for things to sweep in and disrupt.
Then again, we often deceive ourselves, especially about that which we most desperately want, and since the narrative is told entirely from the first person, it stands to reason that we'll be just as infected by that delusion and confusion as she is. In any case, all these things work to the story's advantage, especially in the way this short piece manages to show the protagonist's shifting temperament: she's far from feisty at the end, she's downright prickly. Her final scene with the man sums things up: she reminds him of their culture, of the way they have learned to protect themselves against the masked "kindnesses" of the city by assuming "rituals of distrust": "Don't give to street beggars because they are only pretending to be lame; look through tomato pyramids for the rotten ones the hawkers hide underneath; don't help people whose cars have broken down, because they are really armed robbers." In other words, "We know the rules and we follow them, and we never make room for things we might not have imagined. We close the door too soon," and it's at this point--which echoes his opening speech to her that she finally realizes there is "no room for things to sweep in and disrupt."

Cleverly done, interestingly told, exotically situated, yet universally true. Not much more you can ask for.

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