The cover of Americanah is designed to look like the “plain brown wrapper” of a couple of generations ago, which to me suggests one of two things: either a textbook wrapped in a paper grocery bag to preserve the cover or the wrapping in which pornography or other illicit materials are shipped in order to avoid triggering the curiosity of neighbors. While I can’t imagine that this could possibly be intentional, with this novel the plain brown wrapper seems appropriate to me because this book strikes me as a generic novel. Remember those products in grocery stores a few decades ago, with the yellow wrappers and black block letters that read DICED TOMATOES or KIDNEY BEANS or TOILET PAPER? This novel ought to have a yellow cover with black print reading CONTEMPORARY NOVEL.
Now, for people like me who enjoy contemporary fiction, this description isn’t entirely pejorative. There is much to enjoy in this novel: a plausible and complex protagonist, prescient social commentary, well-managed prose. Yet no writer wants her work to be called generic, and I’m sure Adichie would be less than satisfied by my characterization of her work.
Ifemelu, the protagonist of this novel, arranges to finish her college degree in the United States because political unrest and labor disputes frequently shut down operations at the university she attends in Nigeria. She leaves behind Obinze, her boyfriend, who lived in the United States as a boy and has always longed to return but cannot get a visa. In the U.S., Ifemelu meets up with aunt Uju and cousin Dike. Uju is a qualified doctor in Nigeria who, when Ifemelu joins her in the U.S., has not yet passed the exams that will allow her to practice medicine in the U.S. A few years earlier, Uju’s own hasty emigration to the U.S. took place after a change in the balance of power made it unsafe for her and her son to live in Nigeria, since she was the mistress of an important general who was the father of her son. The constant presence of corrupt officials and the need to curry favor with an ever-shifting network of powerful people is a consistent theme of the parts of this novel that take place in Nigeria.
Her transition to life at an American university is difficult but ultimately successful – Ifemelu graduates from college, remains tightly knit to Uju and Dike, authors a highly successful blog about race in the U.S., and dates a series of American men. Obinze, however, she cuts off almost completely, after a humiliating incident in her early weeks in the U.S. makes her feel ashamed to return his calls and emails. When the novel begins, Ifemelu is a sophisticated, confident, and successful American taking a train to Trenton to have her hair braided.
Although the device never takes over the plot in an intrusive way, the hair salon in Trenton is actually the setting of the first three-quarters of the novel. The story of Ifemelu’s childhood, her relationship with Obinze, her university years in Nigeria and then in the U.S., her relationships with her friends and lovers in the years after college, and her successful career as a race blogger is told in flashbacks from her seat in the hair salon. I usually deplore flashbacks that are so excessive that they take over the plot (and therefore should be the plot), but in this case I wasn’t bothered by the use of the hair salon as plot device (although it’s worth adding that I don’t think the device added much to the novel either). Ifemelu’s complicated relationship with her hair is significant in the novel, of course, and the occasional returns to the salon help to remind the reader of her divided loyalties.
When she takes her trip to the hair salon, Ifemelu is finishing up a prestigious fellowship at Princeton. Her boyfriend, Blaine, is a professor at Yale, and Ifemelu’s blog is generating significant income and helping Ifemelu to make a name for herself as a social critic. Her blog revolves around the idea that as an African, Ifemelu was unaffected by the concept of race until she moved to the U.S., where she is not exactly “African American” but, instead, a “Non-American Black.” This is the sort of nuance that she likes to probe in her blog. One of the topics Ifemelu explores on her blog is that of hairstyles for black women. She considers the ironies involved in the fact that black women are expected to spend significant money and time in hair salons, getting their hair “relaxed” in a process that strikes me as anything but relaxing. Ifemelu prefers to wear her hair in an Afro, and she knows that she faces criticism from other black women for doing so. On the day she spends at the salon in Trenton, she is getting her hair braided in preparation for her trip home to Nigeria – she has decided to end her long sojourn in the U.S. and is even considering the idea of reuniting with Obinze (who, she has recently learned, is newly wealthy and successful – and married with a young daughter). Because the relationship between an African woman and her hair is so thematically important to the novel, I didn’t mind the lengthy series of flashbacks – but I didn’t really admire it either.
The most interesting theme of this novel, for me, is the culture of dishonesty that Ifemelu and others bring with them back and forth across the Atlantic. Ifemelu is dishonest with each of her boyfriends, including Obinze, in ways that I found maddening but also perfectly plausible. As she crafts a life for herself first in the U.S. and then again in Nigeria, she keeps parts of herself hidden from one population or another – again, in ways that are plausible (and sometimes seem even to be unavoidable) even as they are indefensible. As portrayed by Adichie, Lagos is full of up-and-coming young Nigerians on the make, returning from a few years in London or New York with enormous bank accounts. Even Ifemelu, by remaining anonymous on the blog that brings her money and success, participates in this world of trans-national Africans operating under veiled identities. When she steps into the role of Obinze’s mistress toward the end of the novel, Ifemelu almost seems to be accepting the culture of sexual deception that swirls around her – but then at the last minute she swerves and confronts Obinze, demanding transparency and honesty.
I want to return for a moment to the idea that this is a generic novel (and really – I don’t mean that to be quite as insulting as it sounds). I did find myself flipping to the cover and title page every so often as I read, feeling a little disoriented. This is by Zadie Smith, right? I asked myself, remembering Irie’s untamable hair in White Teeth and the complex, biracial, multinational families in On Beauty. A few dozen pages later, reading about the pretentious “salons” hosted by Blaine’s sister Shan, I thought, Oh, this is the part where that character who’s an artist causes all that trouble with her installation about Asian women, right? Wrong again – that pretentious salon was in Don Lee’s The Collective. And somewhere in Ifemelu’s rootlessness and indecision I heard echoes of Jeffrey Eugenides’ heroine Madeline in The Marriage Plot – even thought that book has nothing whatsoever to do with race.
It’s not a bad thing when books talk back and forth to one another. Adichie may have read Eugenides or Zadie Smith – in fact, I’m sure she has – but what’s more likely is that all three authors have read George Eliot and Henry James and E.M. Forster and all the other great masters of the long, slow, torturous decisions that make up adult life – at least, for those of us privileged enough to have the freedom to make decisions.
That is what this book is about – the painful privilege of freedom. And maybe, when I say it strikes me as “generic,” what I mean is that Adichie has successfully distilled several centuries of what other writers have had to say about this privilege and this pain. And that – of course – is a good thing.