Wednesday 25 February 2015

Lagoon - Nnedi Okorafor

Lagoon is full of stuff to think about – here’s my list: Nigeria; Africa; Science-fiction; magic realism; satire; YA; carnivalesque; feminism; Bollywood; Nollywood; melodrama; spectacle; blockbusters; B-movies.

I include Bollywood because my knowledge of Nollywood is virtually zilch. I’ve only read three other Nigerian novelists - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinua Achebe and Ben Okri but no other African sci-fi except Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City; my knowledge of Africa in general is largely political and historical but without personal experience – I’ve never been. I write all this because though I’ve done my best to think about context and to cherish the novel for its vibrancy and is difference – and I did enjoy it,  I just didn’t enjoy it half as much as I thought I was going to. It’s had great reviews; it’s on the BSFA shortlist and the Kitschies shortlist so I feel like I’m the one that’s got it wrong. Ho-hum.

Most people will have an inkling of the plot – aliens visit Lagos. At the beginning, three people – Adaora, Agu and Anthony - are chosen to meet the representative of the aliens, Ayodele. In the first section various characters are introduced – Adaora’s bully of a husband Chris, a brutish evangelical priest, a group of students hoping to try and kidnap the alien and a gay and lesbian activist group all have encounters with Ayodele. And this is just the beginning – you will also meet all manner of gods and monsters, superheroes and aliens. It’s frenetic, it’s a romp, it’s weird, it’s political; it’s antagonistic and daring, provocative and silly – all good things: very good things.

Furthermore the writing is functional and clear, and that’s OK - there is so much going on in terms of ideas that any kind of ornate writing could easily get in the way. Style and tone are fascinating. When you love Bollywood as much as I do you become used to different styles within a single work - melodrama as mode and hyper-dramatic plotlines - so as soon as I understood some of the things the text was doing, and playing with, I relaxed into it. The first section is often very funny though it becomes less so, by design, as the novel progresses. The middle section where the Nigerian gods appear is often intriguing. Overall, in terms of craziness, I was reminded of Ismael Reed, though it’s fifteen years since I read him so I could be wrong.

I thought about Pynchon too. Its kind of hard to care about the characters in a Pynchon novel but there are other compensations - the language, the humour,  the ideas and the complexity. Some people will find satisfaction in how Lagoon's challenges sci-fi orthodoxy, in the verve of its playfulness, its conceptual daring and the belligerence of its satire. Still, mixing the novel of ideas with melodrama and comedy is hard to get right and there are fine limits. Unfortunately I never really believed in Adaora or Chris, I wasn't really interested in the characters and some of the dialogue pushed at the limits of dramatic and dropped off the other side. There was something too about the novel's sensibility that I didn't warm to.

In the middle I actually went off and reread a little Bakhtin – just for inspiration, but it didn’t help.
Of that original list above the only thing I’m bored of, and grumpy about, is blockbusters. Right now I’d be happy if I never saw another one. Unfortunately there are moments in this book when I couldn’t think about anything other than blockbuster movies – I kept having flashbacks to Independence Day for instance – not good. Some of the action scenes – the one in the boat in section three – are even, well, a little dull and that last third struggled to keep my interest.

And there’s worse I think, throughout my reading (and film watching life) I encounter film and literature that puzzle and confound me and make me think again. I’m sure that’s true for most people.  Watching Tarkovsky or Kiarostami for the first time or reading Kafka or Toni Morrison or Muriel Spark, though intriguing and enjoyable, made me think, quite seriously, that I was totally out of my depth – unsuited even, for understanding great art. But then you reread, investigate, look for criticism and try to expand your horizons and understand. I’ve read some of M John Harrison’s books 3 or 4 times and as much as I love them, I still don’t understand half of it. Unfortunately, though I’m sure Lagoon has hidden depths I find myself not caring overly much. I appreciated some of the things the text is doing more than I enjoyed it.

I’m really sorry that I can’t fully embrace this novel. It’s fascinating, intelligent and original and I’d urge everyone to read it. It’s exactly the kind of book I want the BSFA and the Kitschies to include in their shortlists. I feel mean not loving it but I don’t. Sorry. Again.

If you want a more positive spin read T S Miller’s excellent review at Strange Horizons.

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