Roiling Contradictions

AmericanahThe best book I read in my nine-month adventure of reading books only women of color was Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I composed and deleted several “reviews,” but I found it hard to get a handle on the material. The truth is that I loved the book for its two deftly-drawn protagonists and their story, but didn’t know quite what to make of the bloggier parts of the book. Ifemelu, one protagonist, has a blog and the book includes many of her articles, which are wry commentaries on race in the U.S. Were these an opportunity for Adichie to include her own commentary? Or was she showing the inner workings of Ifemelu’s mind? I had a hard time correlating the observations made by Ifemelu in her blog with the third-person glimpses into her mind.

The passage I think about the most is one where she gets a sales call from a long distance company and has a friendly but awkward conversation with the telemarketer. It’s a loaded scene for a simple phone conversation.  She accepts his compliment that she “sounds totally American,” after she tells him she is from Nigeria, but later resents it. She tells him she calls London a lot and he says he will look up the rates for France; his astonishing ignorance of geography amuses her. She visualizes him as pudgy, white, and naive, and obsessed with video games. In particular, Ifemelu sort of pities the young man for not understanding the “roiling contradictions” of the real world.

Is an appreciation for such roiling contradictions present in her own blog entries? I don’t think they are. They are amusing for the most part, sometimes have a good insight or observation, but tend to be broad-brushed. How white people think and what black people experience are represented as universal truths without roiling contradictions. If I knew Ifemelu only through her blog, I would think what I think about many blogs: passingly entertaining, but shallow and quickly tiring.

My central question about the book is whether Adichie means for readers to be struck by that contrast. If so, it is not clear enough. If not, it is a problem with the book. Mind you, I still think it’s brilliant novel and I’ve recommended it to everyone, but the bloggy parts fail for me as a critique of social media (too subtle) and fail more if this whole notion of the wisdom attained from hardship and travel doesn’t come through in the ultimate representation of Ifemelu’s experience, her own writing.

In any case, I think there is a conversation worth having. As bloggy-type commentaries becomes a bigger and bigger part of how we gather information and form opinions, the fact that they rarely appreciate roiling contradictions is very much on my mind. The whole economy of the Internet, the way clicks are baited and things go viral, relies on being able to do a quick take: give a soft elbow to the ribs like you’re nudging a friend. Whether it’s outrage or an inside joke (or both), I feel like if the prevailing McLuhanesque message is one of affinity. We find the like minded and feel less lonely.

Some who disagrees with you on the InternetThe problem is that those circles of affinity give us tunnel vision. We become less inclined to seek out opposing points of view, unless we mean to roast the author on Twitter with our like-minded friends. We become less inclined to express a slightly different point of view, because the response can be swift, unforgiving, and alienating. We become more inclined to go along with whatever everyone else is saying. And, over time, we become more like minded, more indoctrinated by the group, and more reactive to challenges from “outsiders.” From the inevitable fire-breathing Sanders-fan response to anything positive I say about Hillary Clinton, you’d barely know we have the same political values.

A while back a friend retweeted something about video games teaching you that when you’re encountering enemies, you know you are moving in the right direction. It had like a million retweets and comments that it was “brilliant.” For me it conveyed the central problem with getting your world view — like Imefelu’s telemarketer — from video games. You see not opponents, not good people with a different point of view, or even better information (heaven forbid), but “enemies.” And of course in video games, you never have a conversation. You hack and slash and defeat the enemies: that’s the point of the game. But I think this worldview has more to do with the effect of Twitter on a person’s worldview than playing video games.

Maybe I’m lapsing into my own simplicity by assuming people are as cut-and-dried as they seem in aggregate, and that they really stand behind every hastily retweeted platitude. But assuming that people were since in their appreciation of that sentiment, that life has no roiling contradictions, simply a path to find and follow, enemies to defeat, I have worries bigger than whatever we’re actually arguing about.


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