book review

Schulz on Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Photo: David Levenson/Getty

In a 1973 essay called “Approaches to What?,” the French writer Georges Perec coined an excellent word: endotic. The opposite of exotic, it refers to anything so familiar that we fail to register it—paper towels, say, or the kinds of beds we sleep in, or the fact that, unto others, we have accents. Generally speaking, only outsiders notice these particulars, which produces something of a paradox: Those who are least at home in a culture often perceive it best.

That outsider acuity is both the subject and the method of Americanah, a new novel by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It is her third, after the 2003 ­coming-of-age story Purple Hibiscus and the 2006 Half of a Yellow Sun, about life during the Biafran War. Both books are ­excellent—the first won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the second the ­Orange Prize—as is her 2009 short-story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck. But Americanah, which does us the great if uncomfortable favor of exposing parts of our culture many of us fail to see for ourselves, is a work of a different order.

I use that phrase deliberately: With this new book, Adichie has scaled up. Americanah traverses three genres (romance, comedy of manners, novel of ideas), three nations (Nigeria, Great Britain, the United States), and, within each, a swath of the social spectrum as broad—and as difficult to nail—as the hand spans in a Rachmaninoff concerto. It is a book about identity, nationality, race, difference, loneliness, aspiration, and love, not as distinct entities but in the complex combinatorial relations they possess in real life.

The book opens in Princeton, a town so pristine it actually sounds that way. Immediately, though, it swerves south, to Trenton, the closest place where its protagonist, Ifemelu, can get her hair braided. That’s a long way to go for a hairdo, but it’s nothing compared to how long braiding can take—in this case, 365 pages. Adichie is hardly the first person to use hair to show how the personal and political become, so to speak, entangled; see Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Chris Rock—or, heck, Hair. Still, her version is clever. Adichie, too, is braiding and weaving, and the longer she leaves Ifemelu in that dilapidated, overheated salon, the more clearly the strands of her story emerge.

That story begins nearly twenty years earlier, in Nigeria, when the teenage Ifemelu and a boy named Obinze fall in love. They are bright, motivated, and earnest—which is to say, everything the Nigerian state is not. Surrounded by corruption and dysfunction, they eventually respond, as many members of their real-life generation did, by leaving. Ifemelu goes to the United States. Obinze, rejected by America’s post-9/11 gatekeepers, heads to England, on a tourist visa he soon overstays. Eventually he is discovered and sent back to Nigeria, where he begins an ascent that culminates in a fancy house, a wife and daughter, and a distant, viscous, alienated boredom. Meanwhile, in America, Ifemelu finds herself surviving through work so humiliating that she cuts off all communication with Obinze—and, effectively, with herself. Gradually, though, her life swings upward as well. She launches a blog about race in America, earns readers and speaking fees, buys a condo, and begins dating a handsome, conscientious Yale professor. Yet by the time we meet her in that salon, she has decided to trade all this for a one-way ticket back to Nigeria.

Much of what keeps the arc of this book taut, then, is the question of whether Ifemelu and Obinze will reunite, and on what terms. But on top of that most familiar of all narrative scaffoldings, a love story, Adichie builds an altogether different tale: one about all the ways we humans fail to love each other—and one that, in the end, isn’t familiar after all.

“This is America. You’re supposed to pretend that you don’t notice certain things.” That’s how a friend explains to the newly arrived Ifemelu the curious behavior of a cashier in a clothing store—who, in asking which of two salespeople helped her, attempts to distinguish between them on every imaginable basis except the obvious one: skin color.

Pretending not to notice certain things about America is exactly what Adichie refuses to do in this book. On the contrary, she notices nearly everything, from how we socialize to what we eat to what we say. (Endotic also refers to the inner ear, and Adichie has a keen one. The two words she identifies as most distinctively American are trouper and blowhard.)

Most of all, though, she notices how race works. Some of those observations are recorded in Ifemelu’s blog, which includes posts on the phrase oppression olympics, for instance, and on dreadlocked white guys who dismiss racism as “totally overhyped.” But her more successful observations emerge through the interactions between characters. Adichie is uncommonly sensitive to the space between people, the way it ripples with all kinds of invisible forces: physical beauty, economic discrepancy, sexual attraction, intellectual appraisal, guilt, resentment, envy, need. In America, she recognizes, the most potent of all the invisible strings—the strong nuclear force of our social physics—is race.

Adichie’s analysis of that force is specific, damning, clarifying, and comprehensive. She is merciless about white liberal attitudes toward race, with their prevailing mix of awkward self-consciousness, contented ignorance, self-satisfaction, and submerged fear. (White women gush to their nannies about the “rich culture” of Africa; white party guests hasten to tell Nigerians about their charity work in Malawi.) But she is equally caustic about everyone else’s anxious racial jostling: black immigrants toward African-Americans, Caribbean immigrants toward Africans, Senegalese toward Nigerians, Nigerians who went abroad toward those who stayed behind, Nigerians who stayed behind toward “Americanahs”—local slang for those who return home after a stint in the United States.

This cataloguing sometimes goes awry, as do other parts of the book. Adichie is never less than astute about racism, but her treatment of it can blur the line between fiction and op-ed. She is an excellent raconteur, but some threads of this story escape her—notably, one about Ifemelu’s cousin, who suffers an incident too serious for its slim handling. Obinze feels fully human, but Ifemelu is mostly a voice, and one that sometimes slips from character to author.

I was also somewhat troubled by Americanah’s ambient temperature. Half of a Yellow Sun, a book about atrocities, overflows with love; its characters are inclined by kindness, and forced by war, to transcend both the narrow fissures of private difference and the broad fissures of nationality and class. By contrast, this new book, about lesser atrocities, is cool and withholding. Only Ifemelu and Obinze fully love and forgive each other. (Very fully. Adichie writes great sex scenes: specific, private, hot, tender—so convincing you could slide your hand under their shirt.) That reflects a reality, of course: We sometimes love most those to whom we don’t need to explain ourselves. But I missed the warmth of the earlier novel, and I felt uneasy about what its absence implies about the limits of empathy and the intransigence of difference.

Still, none of this trumps my admiration for Adichie’s grasp of social dynamics, and her precision and fearlessness in committing them to the page. Midway through her cultural anatomy lesson, I found myself laughing—ruefully, from recognizing myself and my country, but also delightedly, from recognizing an echo of a familiar voice. In Americanah, Adichie is to blackness what Philip Roth is to Jewishness: its most obsessive taxonomist, its staunchest defender, and its fiercest critic.

Roth’s transformational imaginative act was to reinvent the marginal Jew as an American Everyman, even while refusing to downplay the specificity of Jewishness. Adichie does him one better. From The Namesake to The Joy Luck Club to Pnin, stories of immigrants adjusting to the United States are as central to American literature as they are to the American Dream. But Americanah, which seems in some ways like that kind of story, surprises us: Its arc is one of return. In the end, Ifemelu goes back to Nigeria, not because she didn’t succeed in America, not because of any crisis back home, but simply because she wants to. Roth challenged the identity of the hero. Adichie challenges the end point of the journey.

That makes Americanah a new kind of migration story, one that reflects a political shift and suggests a literary one. It’s one of the better novels I’ve read about life in contemporary America, but I’m not tempted to call it a Great American Novel. Instead, it strikes me as an early, imperfect, admirable stab at something new: a Great Global Novel. Ifemelu was well on her way to becoming an American—that promise dangled before, and coveted by, so much of the world for so long. She chooses, instead, to become an Americanah: an identity predicated on experience rather than nationality, trajectory rather than place. It’s an open question whether identities like that will change the world for the better. But, in Adichie, they have already done so for literature.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Alfred A. Knopf.

*This article originally appeared in the June 3, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Schulz on Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie