Book Review: The Virgin of Flames by Chris Abani.
291 pp. Penguin Books.
The writer Chris Abani has earned a well deserved reputation for telling excruciatingly sad stories mined from the desolate playgrounds of West Africa. Abani is one very unhappy thinker. Those who have read his books speak in hushed tones about becoming overwhelmed by Abani’s unceasing grief about the situation that Africa finds itself. Abani’s sense of unending despair swarms his stories and sometimes almost overwhelms their beauty. Joy is not a word in Abani’s world view. One thing about Abani is he is consistent. His latest book, The Virgin of Flames is not going to cheer you up. You finish reading the book feeling like you just escaped a giant vat of carcinogens. One feels like taking a long shower. Really. The Virgin of Flames is a sad, sad book. Too bad. We should dare to be happy. Sometimes. Sing me a happy song, wailed the Emperor. And the bard wept.
However, I must say, after reading The Virgin of Flames that I heartily recommend it to all lovers of good literature. This book is a delightful riot of sizzling prose, robust poetry and keep-me-up-at-night issues. In this book, the reader is pleasantly confronted with a beautiful partnership between a truly professional publishing company and a gifted writer. Abani can put ideas to paper and make words jump out of a page and slap the reader awake. Abani’s prose is scrumptious and pretty. And the publishing house, Penguin Group (USA) can certainly make a book sizzle with beauty and attitude. Penguin Books must take manuscripts through an exhausting and rigorous editorial process. And the results show in Abani’s beautiful book. Every sentence stands like a pretty sentry daring the reader to find something wrong with it. This is a book that you would want to grace your book shelf.
You have to give credit to Abani, he experiments and he takes risks. This novel takes him out of his depths as a Nigerian writer as he seeks to establish himself as a writer who happens to be of Nigerian extraction. This time, Los Angeles is the canvas on which he paints his bold experiment. It is a successful experiment. In my humble opinion, Chris Abani is easily one of the most brilliant and visionary thinkers to come out of the troubled breasts of Africa in recent times. He has the ability to spin really fresh prose that leaves you panting for just a wee bit more. Prose is Abani’s strong point and he mines it well. A deadly combination of brains and penmanship ensures that Abani will continue to profit mightily from his neuroses. And man, his neuroses are legion.
Black, the main character is biracial (the offspring of a Nigerian father and a Salvadoran mother) who is hobbled by serious sexual identity issues – he loves cross dressing and he is troubled by his attraction to other men. He leads us by the hand, through a tortured labyrinth of a troubling journey. It is a very disturbing look inside a troubled soul – narcissistic, self absorbed to the core. Thanks to Black, one never really remembers Los Angeles. Instead we descend into the valley of hell, a subculture of despair and longing inhabited by characters like Black, Pretty Girl (a transsexual former male who is a lesbian), Ray Ray (a black dwarf who is named after Raymond Chandler, a poet he quotes ad nauseam), Iggy (the landlord of the Ugly Café, a seer who has metal hooks inserted in her back with which she hangs herself from the ceiling), Bomboy, the Rwandan butcher and the list goes on and on. On one level, the characters are too self-absorbed to really care for their surrounding. The descriptions of the neighborhoods of Los Angeles is an eerie voice over – an echo that no one hears – so absorbed is the reader in the characters’ narcissism and self-immolation. So the reader neither sees nor hears Los Angeles. Instead the reader sees people screaming silently into the darkness seeking to exorcise their demons. The characters’ narcissism shuts out much of Los Angeles and it becomes an opaque cesspool of unending despair. Indeed one’s imagination doesn’t travel too far from Black’s favorite haunts – his despondency reduces the landscape to the size of a postage stamp out of which oozes pure unadulterated sadness. On another level, this could be on purpose, to force the reader to reflect on the plight of those who turn on America’s light in at dawn and turn them off come dusk.
Abani has produced an important work, a daring commentary on how America should define today and write living breathing history. Abani does not insert new people into America’s history. He asserts correctly and astutely that this is how history should be written. Abani tell us in so many words: There are not new people, these are new attitudes. Robust, refreshing and powerful thinking. I would recommend this book to anyone who is even remotely interested in that socio-cultural phenomenon I call the movement. The exodus of people of color from familiar climes to the new world has created subcultures that have in my view not been properly studied and documented in words and in song. Certainly not by its occupants. Abani gives this study a good first try and The Virgin of Flames is an immensely readable study of the kaleidoscope that the movement has bestowed on huge swathes of America. As a painter, the main character Black uses the combination of colors as a metaphor for the new dispensation that is East Los Angeles. He paints a mural and for each section he mixes the colors with a consistency and uniqueness so that the paint could be applied in layers that never bleed or dry into each other. Just like Los Angeles.
Robust prose and a keen attention to detail combine to drag the reader from one end of Los Angeles to the other on an admittedly exhausting trip as Abani dissects the lives and dreams of the occupants of the underbelly of America’s seeming successful enterprise. Nicely done. Hear him describe the run-down despair in a strip joint: “Charlie was a down-home strip bar on Manchester and Crenshaw. It wasn’t seedy as much as it was run-down: the floor covered in carpet so old and worn it looked like a pattern in the floor. Walls covered in faded wood paneling. A couple of pool tables listed dangerously by the door, and it was unclear if the table legs were uneven or if the floor just sloped that way.” (p 25) The first chapter is exactly one page and its design and composition are worth the price of the book. It fairly sizzles with refreshing prose like this: “World-weary tenements and houses contemplating a more decadent past, looking undecided, as if they would up and leave for a better part of the city at any moment. A human silhouette on a park bench, reading a book. Junkies hustling the afternoon.” Abani has a unique way of giving life and voice to inanimate objects and the book comes alive with the electricity of his words. Inanimate objects become live characters with personality and attitude. Only Abani can see something as banal as a mop and breathe smoky spirit on it as in “a mop listed in its bucket, waiting out the day.” (p 29) Nice.
This is a book of eclectic lunacy running placidly like the River that haunts Black, the main character. It is a strange book divided into five sections with intriguing titles doused in dew-wet drops of spiritual undertones: The Annunciation, the Unconsoled, Idolatry, The Anointing, Benediction… One does not know where to begin to describe the startling weirdness of this book. Let’s see… images of a black man wearing racist slogans on a tee shirt: Just Hanging draped across the image of a hanged black man. The visual of The American Gothic, an exhibit of the most vilely racist and sexist slurs I have ever come across in my life weirdly displayed with soothing poetry interspaced between the words of hate (p 94). Strangely, these are jokes collected from the walls of men’s rest rooms. In the words of Black, racism and sexism have retreated from the overtly public to the private but the soul of America is still deeply prejudiced and bigoted. Deep, and deeply disturbing. When Black utters this observation “Mami-Wata is an Igbo sea and river goddess” the reader’s jaw drops with fascination and unbelief (p 205).
Abani’s book does throw up several issues that are not new, all of them filtered through the kaleidoscope of the main character’s confused sexuality and evolving sensuality. And Abani does it without any apologies to an unctuous, judgmental world. This book is not for the squeamish. Every question is asked. Traditional notions of sex, sexuality and sensuality are turned on their heads and they spin and spin and spin until the reader is giddy with shock. Abani’s Los Angeles is a place that never sees relief; even paramedics don’t come when they are called. Corpses are not picked up for days and sometimes the book is directionless in a truly directionless way. But again, one suspects that it is on purpose. The lush descriptions of neighborhoods, communities, and storefronts always lead to the self absorbed musings of Black, the main character – a deadly hell of unabashed narcissism. It can be annoying. One wants to feel the neighborhoods. Black never really strays too far from the comfort of his “space ship.” This is an abject lesson on how fear freezes the imagination and marinates and drowns it in a vat of despair and hopelessness. But in the meaninglessness of the lives of the book’s characters, there is the birth of meaning and a harvest of profound lessons for the universality of the human condition, the mysteries of the human spirit, our bodies and of the connectedness to the clan that houses us. Abani pulls this off quietly and brilliantly.
The Virgin of Flames is a veritable feast of well formed characters and exquisitely crafted dialogue. You feel like you are looking in and listening to real conversations. The result is that the book sucks the reader into the main characters’ personal hell and keeps the reader there. Release is like child birth – exhilarating and exhausting. That takes skill and daring and Abani has both in copious supply. Abani writes beautifully: Any aspiring writer who truly wishes to advance his or her craft is well advised to run, not walk, to the nearest cyber-café and order a copy of The Virgin of Flames. Now that is how to write a good book.