Thursday, January 16, 2014

Foreign Gods, Inc., by Okey Ndibe

Soho, 2014
336 pp

arc from the publisher -- thank you!

New this month, Foreign Gods, Inc. is definitely an original.  The premise is very different, the writing is first class, and frankly, even the ending is unlike anything I've ever seen before.  It's the story of one African immigrant for whom the dream has become a veritable nightmare -- and the unorthodox way in which he tries to remedy things for himself.  

Ikechukwu "Ike" Uzandu  (pronounced "Ee-kay") has been in New York for thirteen years.  Coming here from Nigeria, he earned a degree (cum laude) in economics from Amherst College, which he thought would be his ticket to a prosperous life.  Where once he used to believe that "America offers great opportunities,"  during a job interview at a prestigious firm,  he is basically told that the company would love to have him, but his accent is too strong so he won't be getting a job there.  Two job interviews later, where he was also well qualified but without proper authorization to work in the US, he married Bernita, aka Queen B, but quickly learned that
" a man chasing simultaneously after love and a green card had to contend with the elusiveness of the ideal spouse." 
His marriage, one he'd never revealed to his mother, didn't last long -- Bernita had demands for his money that didn't quit, and because he tried to keep her satisfied,  quickly ran out of money to send home to his family.  Constant fighting, his own mental emasculation and her constant demands for cash to fill her closets lead Ike into gambling a year after moving to New York City, but this "brings him only sorrow."  Bernita eventually leaves, taking Ike's savings with her. Now, as the novel opens, Ike has hit on a way to make some desperately needed cash -- his plan is to return to his Nigerian home, steal the local war deity named Ngene, for whom his uncle is the chief priest.  He'd read an article about a gallery some time earlier called Foreign Gods., Inc, a place where people traded in deities.  At first, "the idea of a few wealthy individuals buying so-called foreign gods and sacred objects didn't sit well," and the  "sport" was the "height of arrogance." However, his  friend put the idea of stealing Ngene into Ike's head saying that a) it really wasn't needed there since there were no wars; b) if it were to come to America it could "enter the oppressive system and fight the power," and c) a revolution was needed.  Ike continued to read the article until his "initial disgust disappears," and realizes that perhaps there is a way Ngene can do him some good -- he'll sell it to Foreign Gods Inc. From the catalog listing the inventory of a by-invitation-only room of the gallery called "Heaven," he sees that gods are going for unbelievable prices -- on the low end about 172 thousand, moving to the high end of over a million dollars.  Selling his god will change his life -- or so he believes. With a maxed-out credit card, borrowed money and the dream of future riches to solve all of his problems, he leaves for Nigeria.

The book is really good in  terms of the examination of immigrant experience, but the best parts of this novel take place in the small Nigerian village that is Ike's home. A reader can lose himself/herself here, caught up in the people who inhabit this place. It is a place where corruption abounds; where the capitalist present and traditional past meet head to head; where Christianity is in conflict with local religious tradition and divides the locals, even within families.   It is a place where so much has changed while Ike's been gone that people from his past are hardly recognizable in the way he remembers them, and not always for the better. It's a place where everyone assumes that just because Ike is in America, he's living the dream.  It is also a place with its own "foreign gods," who hold out promises of their own for those who dream of something better, as in one scene where Michael Jordan becomes a deity in his own right.  As crazy as this entire story is, it is definitely the Nigerian characters and their colorful language  who make Foreign Gods, Inc. the wonderful novel it turns out to be, especially Ike, who clearly has a foot in both worlds.  They range from the scamming church pastor to Ike's uncle and Ngene's chief priest,  to Ike's mother who is worried that Ike will be possessed by demons by hanging out with said uncle, and Ike's first love, whose life turned out so badly that he hardly recognizes her.   Thematically, this is a rich book -- well beyond being just another take on the immigrant experience, there's much to say here about art, about conflict (especially inner conflict within a troubled and divided soul), about religion, about the importance of the past and tradition vs. the modern world; you also get a look at the very male-oriented culture in this country, the colonial aspects, and there's also quite a lot in here about the power of stories. The river is also ever present throughout this book, as a source of life, power and conflict.

I loved this story with its  conflicted main character who faces a number of  obstacles before he can reach his intended goal.  However, the strange but highly appropriate ending is unlike anything I've experienced before -- seriously, it was almost at the edge of surreal, something along the lines of  the bizarre endings in novels of many works of  weird fiction I've read.  Its abruptness immediately leaves pause for the reader to conjure in his or her head exactly what's going on here, and it's a stunner.  Foreign Gods, Inc. is a novel I highly, highly recommend, one that casual readers like myself can fully enjoy.  It's a book that I know is going to stay with me a very long time.

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