Sideways Review: Tuning in to Voice
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Best American Short Stories 2011
~1st in a series
Temptation? Weak tea. Fate doesn’t have time for it. When I want Fate’s attention I don’t “tempt” her with a knowing remark or a foolish brag. No. I stalk over to her corner of the party and toss a whiskey into her face. A double on the rocks.
When I decided to review the selections in The Best American Short Stories of 2011, I knew I wouldn’t love them all. Every BASS anthology I’ve read contains a few stories I consider merely competent, and I was sure the 2011 edition would be no exception. Still, I vowed to identify the unique accomplishment in each story that charmed guest editor Geraldine Brooks. Take that, Fate.
Take that she did, then countered with a plate of stuffed mushrooms. One of those long toothpicks with ruffley cellophane on the end narrowly missed my left eye.
Fate wasn’t the only one pressuring my reading of “Ceiling,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Ms. Brooks herself set me up for a completely different experience. In her introduction she reminds short story authors that we must write for readers who have grown up on J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman. These kids need plot, people! In reviewing her own process for whittling the pile of stories provided to her by the series editor Heidi Pitlor, she says, “I did not spend a lot of time with those that seemed afraid to tell stories, that handled plot as if it were a hair in the soup, unwelcome and embarrassing.” So I expected lots of story in my story. Instead I got a quiet, virtually plot-free piece that consists mainly of a character reflecting on his own backstory.
What, then, did the self-declared champion of plot love about “Ceiling”? In the obligatory run-through of the selected stories, Brooks says “… Adichie perfectly captures the yearning spirit of a man who has settled for the wrong wife, the wrong life, in the stultifying salons of Lagos’s corrupt upper class.” Honestly, that strikes me as both faint praise and simply a concise description of the story. Hard to believe anyone would applaud a story simply because the author accurately conveys how a character feels, even if that feeling is complicated. I can’t think of a single published short story I have read that doesn’t accurately capture at least one feeling.
After re-orienting my own expectations, I discovered what must have enchanted Geraldine Brooks—it’s not something I felt but something I heard.
My first moment of real engagement comes midway through the first paragraph, when the third-person narrator that represents the main character’s own voice says, “First he skimmed the e-mail, dampened that it was not longer.” Obinze is in the back of his chauffeured car, now staring at his Blackberry. The message is from an ex-girlfriend. And he is not disappointed or saddened that the e-mail is not a long one—he is “dampened.” The use of that fresh descriptor is my first notice of the unique and consistent voice the story so quickly establishes, a voice perfectly calibrated for the few hours of Obinze’s dawning realization. A few lines later, when remembering his last, cold e-mail to his ex on the eve of his wedding, he says that his coldness was prompted by a photo of her then boyfriend, “a black American, oozing intellectual cool in distressed jeans.” I smiled at that “distressed jeans.” This is the voice of a person trapped by his own knowing. A man who notices and resents the artifice of distressed jeans certainly can’t invest emotionally in the life of corrupt success he’s chosen—he’s too clued in to what is false and unlovely. In Lagos, he sees the deceit, corruption, danger, and injustice all around him, and he doesn’t like it, any of it. Yet he passively moves along the path, living the life of a man who either doesn’t see these ugly things or who sees but doesn’t mind.
This duality—Obinze believes or thinks one thing but says or acts something else—is illustrated again and again as he reflects on his life and how he came to the present, suddenly very tiring, day. When his daughter was born, his wife promised that the next child would be a boy. He recoiled and felt contempt for his wife for not knowing that he was indifferent to gender. But he didn’t correct her. “Perhaps he should have talked more with her,” he says, “about the baby they were expecting and about everything else.” He remembers a recent episode over a fired housemaid. His wife had searched the new maid’s belongings and found condoms. When she accuses the woman of coming to their house “to be a prostitute” the maid explains that her previous employer had forced himself on her, so she’d brought protection. The story infuriates Obinze’s wife, who dismisses the woman on the spot. When she comments on the “nonsense” of the maid’s story, Obinze counters that it seemed reasonable to him. “How can you feel sorry for her?” she asks. “How can you not?” he thinks—but does not say.
The ex-girlfriend’s e-mail—and its announcement that she is coming to Nigeria—may promise salvation for Obinze, nicknamed “Ceiling” by the ex-girlfriend, a tidy way to represent the passive observer in his head and heart. Every memory Ceiling has of this woman demonstrates her authenticity. “She was seventeen and he was eighteen and other girls would have pretended that they had never let another boy touch them, but not her, never her. There was a vivid honesty about her, which he had found so disconcerting and then irresistible.” More than anything, today, Ceiling wants the authenticity entirely lacking in his wife, his social peers, his imported furniture. Every sentence in the story expresses this longing. The remarkable achievement in the writing is not that Ceiling’s “dampened” spirit is accurately conveyed—but the artful way in which each carefully chosen word contributes to the yearning voice.
So maybe I didn’t get it quite right. Brooks says she admires “Ceiling” because it accurately captures the way the main character feels—I should take her at her word. And I suppose I should assume that she and I mean different things when we talk about plot. I would argue that almost nothing happens in this story—that if she intended to eliminate stories that weren’t much concerned with plot, she missed this one. Okay, so I can’t channel Geraldine Brooks and Fate wins again. But whatever Brooks saw in this story, the gift it gives to me is voice. Ceiling is a man teetering on the edge of a midlife crisis—there will be a lot more “plot” when he tips over. For now the power of his story is in the tension between who he believes himself to be and the man he actually is, tension beautifully conveyed by a knowing voice that speaks with honesty only to the reader.
“Ceiling” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie The Best American Short Stories Mariner Books Geraldine Brooks, Editor Heidi Pitlor, Series Editor 2011