Friday, January 3, 2014

Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey Ndibe

Foreign Gods, Inc.
Readers of this blog are treated to two reviews for this book, one by guest blogger, Zak, who won the giveaway for this title, and one by myself. Zak gives a well-rounded account of the novel and with our two reactions, you get a good idea of how the novel reads.

ZAK: Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc is a welcome insider’s tale about West Africa and West African émigrés to the US. The setting is specific to southeastern Nigeria, and in some ways the book could be considered a pastiche following the descendants of the people in Things Fall Apart, but most of its themes are universal enough to reveal essential truths all readers should be able to relate to.

The story follows the flailing attempts at success by a New York cab driver from Nigeria named Ikechukwu “Ike” Uzondu. A decade after graduating from Amherst with a degree in economics, Ike is an educated man stuck in a blue-collar job he considers beneath him. Even while in college in the US, he seems to have clung to the delusion that America is a place where immigrants are greeted at the airport with duffle bags full of cash, a Hollywood star for a spouse, and the keys to a mansion with a fully stocked six-car garage. In the shock that followed his eventual disillusionment, Ike allowed himself to be repeatedly conned, bullied, and beaten down. He is on the cusp of middle age with nothing to show for a decade of work except an empty apartment, incipient alcoholism, and a growing gambling problem. (See, the themes DO work for any culture!) Well, he actually does have a lot of generous, gregarious friends who try to reach out to help him and a family back home, but his priorities are for wealth and status, and people are just tools to reaching those ideals. When Ike discovers an ongoing fad among the super-rich for buying up “primitive” idols from foreign cultures, he concocts a scheme to return to his village in Nigeria and steal the image of the local war god; Ngene, which has been in his family’s care for generations; and then to sell it to a gallery owner for a king’s ransom.

So, Ike is not a particularly sympathetic character, and aside from a few good friends in NYC, we don’t encounter many through the rest of the book. The trip home to his village is like Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street recast in contemporary Nigeria; portrayed as a nation of ignoramuses ruled by the vulgar; where the credulous are fleeced by the marginally more clever; a place where there is no ladder to climb; where police exist only to remind people how small and powerless they are; and where every encounter with authority is an exercise in humiliation, prostration, and potential danger. (To be fair NYC is shown in largely the same light.) Is this the whole story of Nigeria? No. But there’s enough truth in the presentation of what life is like for many people living in countries with weak institutions and limited recourse to legal protection to believe that Ndibe knows what he’s talking about.

The only wholly likeable characters are Ike’s grandmother and his old uncle, Osuakwu, who is the custodian of the local god whom Ike plans to steal. Ndibe thankfully resisted any urge to paint the traditionalist Osuakwu as a saint or mystic—the men who gather daily in the shrine with Osuakwu tell crude jokes and pursue petty rivalries—but Ndibe convincingly implies the constancy of their traditional values has let them retain something most of those around them have lost: their sanity. This may include Ike.

The weak point in the book is Ike himself. He is not a hero or even an antihero. We know he was talented enough to win what must have been a coveted scholarship to come study in America, but he shows few hints of any talent or drive other than his attempt to rip off his relatives. Even his “plan” for getting the god isn’t very clever. He is mostly shown as weak-willed, or at least someone whose will has failed him at critical moments in his life. When he’s not crumbling before his bullying wife or a slick art dealer, he’s making inappropriate stands against the wrong people (his religiously deranged mother) at the wrong time (customs agents at the Lagos airport.) If he were a complete loser, he wouldn’t have had such engaging friends, but whatever charms he used to win them over in the first place are never shown, and I felt not so much that I couldn’t relate to Ike as much as he seemed a hollow shell.

The main character’s limited appeal notwithstanding, I’d recommend Foreign Gods, Inc to anyone looking to understand a little more of the African, post-colonial, or immigrant experiences. There were some very interesting parallels between the families “left behind” in this book and those in Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, in that those who stayed behind in the old country have absolutely no sympathy or any idea that they should perhaps have sympathy for those who emigrated. It's also very amusing that Nigerians apparently send those same ridiculous emails to each other, not just to foreigners! The language in the book is also great, and I especially like the way Ndibe shows how academic jargon is its own kind of pidgin, but one that expresses class identity more than actual content. This is often a very funny book, but ultimately more bitter than sweet in its outlook.

------------Now, this is my take on this second novel of Ndibe's-----------------

TRISH: This picaresque bildungsroman, spiked with folktales, horrors, and gorgons aplenty, features a young man seeking his fortune in an un-fortun-ate world. The young man discovers instead his own base nature. To be honest, I thought this was going to be a funny, light-hearted read. I have grown accustomed to comic novels that harbor hideous truths. But Ndibe does something entirely different with this fiction. He uses a nineteenth or early twentieth-century sensibility and style in this novel with some success, and creates a tragi-comic naïf for whom we reserve a special pity. Only the time frame of the novel and its actual language are modern: the rest is as old as man himself.

Ike (pronounced Ee-kay) is a Nigerian immigrant to the United States. Although he attended a fancy New England college and graduated magna cum laude in economics, his thick Nigerian accent bars him from landing a job in his field. He struggles to find paying employment, finally landing a job as a taxicab driver. At the same time he searches for a wife to give him the infamous green card legal status he requires for higher paying low-level jobs for which he is (over)qualified.

This lacerating novel peels back the veneer to uncover the reality of immigrant life in the United States and in the home country for an educated man. Ike struggles mightily to rustle up the needed cash to return home in response to repeated requests by his family, but he also uses his visit to Nigeria to steal the effigy of a deity from his native village to sell on the New York art market. With this, he plans to vanish his financial woes and make his fortune.

Whirled about and confused in the maelstrom of humanity on two continents, Ike resembles a modern Don Quixote, though he seeks the good life promised by America rather than the chivalry, human goodness, and true love sought by Quixote. Like Quixote, Ike comes to his senses occasionally, only to sink back into a feverish belief that his dreams will come true. Comic elements abound (two bribe-taking customs sessions, a visit to a corrupt politician’s home, an interview with a Nigerian Christian pastor, as well as the absurdity of a high-end art market for religious deities), and although we are ready to laugh through much of the book, we come to realize this horrible dream is really true, and Ike is desperately spiraling out of control into the black hole of penury and despair.

Foreign Gods reads like a big short story, partly because of the ending, and partly because the time frame is short. We have character development but not resolution. We grow to like, if not admire, the character of Ike. He is more acted upon than actor, since he can’t seem to come to grips with the world in which he lives. He is perhaps not very clever, despite his degree, for he is guilty of the basest naiveté when it comes to his get-rich-quick plan. He is a good man at heart, but we onlookers know that will probably not be enough to get him through.

And if our reactions are not enough, here is Janet Maslin's take at the New York Times. This book was sent to me by Soho Crime in return for an honest review.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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