Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Short-a-Day: Nuruddin Farah's "YoungThing"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Dec. 13, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 29.

Brilliant opening line: "A Yankee cap- and Ray-Ban-wearing boy of indeterminate age gets out of a car that has just stopped." Note the familiar use of American signifiers, and how readily they cloak the boy's true purpose, revealed at the latter part of this paragraph: "new conscripts drafted into the Shabaab-led insurgency." By throwing these terms around -- without attaching the weighted opinion of a word like "terrorist," -- we are better able to focus on the nameless everychild for what he is, and what he is not. After all, for all his bravado in carrying explosives and a gun, he is easily tricked (by a "body tent"-wearing woman, who sadly sees him for what he is, a killer) into going to the wrong rendezvous point, and his posturing is naked mimicry: "His gun poised the way he has seen it done in movies" or "He moves stealthily forward, as silent as the leopard in stories he has heard." Ultimately, "A young thing like him can't comprehend the intricate political games adults play," games in which he is clearly a pawn.

Sadly, these are all generalities: Farah ultimately leaves us with as vague an idea of child soldiers/martyrs as we had before; the character is indistinct, the plotting tedious and blandly written.

The centerpiece of the story revolves around a confrontation between the boy, YoungThing, and an old man, Dhoorre, and it's telling that Farah is forced to switch to the older man's perspective. The story promises that "He is aware of the huge difference between martyring oneself and making a blunder of things and getting oneself killed," but that self-awareness is hidden away, lost in an emotionless third-person.

Readers are much better off picking up a copy of Dave Eggers's What Is the What. Farah's story has nothing new to say, and no new ways in which to reiterate what is already known. Even the descriptions are flat: worse, there's an absence even of tension in the "plot." Sad to sum it up like this, but short fiction must do more than play the "foreign culture" card; it must help us to understand it, too.

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