Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Checking Out” was originally published in the March 18, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

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Click for a larger image.

Trevor

I’ve never really enjoyed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s stories. I’ve never read her novels and in fact have wondered whether I’m approaching her work in the wrong way. Perhaps she’s a novelist who cannot really write short stories, so I should try one of her novels. “Checking Out” leads me to believe that even more. This piece is an excerpt from her forthcoming novel, Americanah. I don’t think it’s a successful short story, as readable and emotional as it may be, but I do get the sense that it will be a piece of a good novel.

The basic premise is this: Obinze has left his native Nigeria and has been living in England for two years, most of that time undocumented, suffering from the draconian demands of those who, under the guise of being helpful, take advantage of his precarious situation.

He’s already learned that these people have absolute power over him. Not long after he arrived it was agreed he could use the documents of a man named Vincent to secure work. He just had to pay Vincent forty percent of anything he got. When Vincent called to increase his share to forty-five percent, Obinze thought he could simply ignore the request. Why, after all, would Vincent give up his weekly payments by reporting Obinze. Because Vincent has the power and only keeps the power if he uses it. Of course, there’s also a sick pleasure in exercising such power to punish.

When the story begins, things might be looking up for Obinze. He’s met with some people who are arranging a sham marriage for him. It’s expensive, yes. And, again, they, and the woman who agrees to marry him, have absolute power over him. At any time they can demand more money by threatening to walk away or turn him in. This woman won’t, though. Obinze knows that. Cleotilde seems genuinely attracted to Obinze, and Obinze certainly is attracted to her. Though a sham to secure his legal status, he is hopeful their marriage will have other benefits:

There were difficulties in her life that he wanted to know more about, parts of her thick, shapely body that he longed to touch, but he was wary of complicating things. He would wait until after their wedding, until the business side of their relationship was finished.

It’s a compelling story about the inhuman status of undocumented immigrants. So sad is Obinze’s life, you can’t help but hope all turns out for the best. As usual, Adichie’s writing is emotionally gripping.

That said, my problems with the story stem from the fact that I cannot help but see it as a somewhat simplistic piece of social criticism. The precarious state of immigrants is tragic. Certainly the events of this story happen again and again and again in cities around the world. Immigrants suffer indignities, often at the hands of people who simply want to deal out indignities. It’s tragic and inhuman. This story does little other than tell it again with a sympathetic, honorable, capable protagonist. I’m not even saying Obinze is unrealistic; I spent years working in Newark and New York City and became very close to many undocumented immigrants. I’ve met people just like Obinze, intelligent, good-hearted, generous people who do not deserve what’s happened to them — not that anyone does — but are essentially powerless to change their situation. What I’m saying is that this story builds up our sympathies but in the end only confirms what we already know:

Removed. The word made Obinze feel inanimate. A thing to be removed. A thing without breath and mind. A thing.

This is worth remembering. But, sadly, this story feels like phony humanism. Obinze is presented to us as a sympathetic human being, but really he’s only an object on which Adichie piles on indignities, all in an effort to offer up criticism and morals, like this:

Sometimes he would stop outside a tube station, often by a flower or a newspaper vender, and watch the people brushing past. They walked so quickly, as if they had an important destination, a purpose to their lives. His eyes would follow them, with a lost longing, and he would think, You can work, you are legal, you are visible, and you don’t even know how fortunate you are.

All this is not to say I didn’t like the story. I couldn’t help but have hope for Obinze and felt the impact any time things went wrong. Still, in the end, there’s little here other than the social criticism, which I found simplistic in this form. There is so much here, and this story seemed to take the easy way out.

I actually think this will work better in a novel, especially as novels are usually better vehicles for social criticism. From what I understand, this is only an episode in the broader life of Obinze, hopefully giving him a bit more room to breath and become more than an object for our sympathy.

Betsy

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Checking Out” is complicated by its title, suggesting as it does the idea of being able to check out of a homeland the way you check out of a hotel. In this case, it is Nigeria that Obinze wants to leave behind — the Nigeria of “no good roads, no light, no water.” But Obinze is a dreamer, and he seems unprepared to make the leap. In fact, when he arrives in London, fellow Africans (even a fellow Nigerian) cheat him and make his humiliating deportation a certainty.

The story is bleak and almost hopeless, except for the promise a beautiful girl of Angolan-Portuguese descent provides, given that she is an English citizen. An arranged marriage to Clotilde, one for which he has paid the price of two thousand pounds, would mean Obinze would be set for life.

The real “checking out,” however, is that done on Obinze by the Angolans and Nigerians who run the marriage scam on him, cheating him of his money, his future and his hope. He is their mark. Possibly, probably, even the beautiful Clotilde is in on the scheme.

The story is so depressing it is hard to recommend it, especially given that the central artistic metaphor is a pile of human shit left on top of a toilet lid. So much for the impossible dream. Or perhaps the metaphor is actually “arranged” marriage: the way an entire country can wed itself to a hopeless dream of “going to America.” After all, Obinze’s mother says, “One day I will look up and all the people I know will be dead or abroad.” Or maybe the metaphor is the scam — that deliverance will be anywhere but Africa.

The story is an excerpt from a forthcoming novel Americanah. Possibly the novel is not as bleak as this excerpt. In her interview with The New Yorker, Adichie says the novel deals with immigration and remaking yourself. While the experience of moving to another country can be electrifying, I would be disappointed if Adichie abandoned Nigeria and Nsukka as the setting for her fiction. Alice Munro thrived when she returned from the sophisticated west coast to her home town on the prairie; Adichie herself says many people who fled Nigeria are now returning. I hope that her writing will not be confined just to the immigrant experience. We know quite a bit about the immigrant experience from a variety of writers, but what we know that is true regarding the beating heart of modern Nigeria could be put in a tea cup.

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By |2014-06-05T14:36:15-04:00March 11th, 2013|Categories: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, New Yorker Fiction|16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Steve March 11, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    She is such a beautiful writer.
    “It was a performance. There was, in this performance, something of an unbuttoning”: My favorite sentences from the story. Can’t wait for the full book in May.

  2. Trevor March 11, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    Maybe I need to look at that sentence and its implications a bit more closely to get more from this story, Steve. It suggests this is more than social criticism, which is what I got from it.

  3. Steve March 11, 2013 at 6:38 pm

    Wow, I disagree with you about Chimamanda not being a good short story writer. I think you are a stranger to her work. She started off as a writer of short stories; check out The American Embassy, The Headstrong Historian and Ceiling all anthologized in PEN O’ Henry and The Best American. Obinze is actually from a middle class Nigerian family, a fact that contributed to his dissatisfaction with his time in London. I don’t understand what you look for in a successful story.

  4. Trevor March 11, 2013 at 8:09 pm

    Hi Steve. As I said above, I am a stranger to her novels (haven’t read a word of one, except for this excerpt), but I’m not a stranger to most of her short stories. I read The Thing Around Her Neck, which has “The American Embassy” and “The Headstrong Historian.” I have not read “Ceiling,” though.

    I’m not sure I can say exactly what I look for in a short story, but I hope that in some way I’ve explained what I thought failed in this one, at least for me. I expect there are plenty of good responses to what I wrote above. As emotional and important as the story of Obinze is, the way it is presented here has the feel of simple dramatization of a news feature, primarily for the purpose of social criticism. For me, this is limiting. I look for more than social criticism when I read a short story, particularly when the character we’re explicitly supposed to see as human is really only the means to convey the social criticism. I think there’s a contradiction there.

  5. Trevor March 15, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    Betsy’s thoughts have been added to the post.

    So did you like it, Betsy? I get the feeling you may have liked it more than I did but perhaps still felt it was a bit of the same old same old?

  6. Betsy March 15, 2013 at 11:16 pm

    Well, Trevor – I have to hedge. At first, I didn’t like it at all. The story was too much plot, too little character, not enough language, thin on metaphor. It didn’t succeed as a short story. It seemed to be crying out – novel. And then I realized it was from a novel. So I have to wait and see.

    I loved the story published in the New Yorker quite a few years ago that took place in Nsukka, Nigeria. I think she ought to mine that territory.

  7. Roger March 16, 2013 at 1:27 am

    I really liked this. Obinze’s intelligence and sensitivity made me interested in him, and his sometime aimlessness made me wonder whether he would be able to navigate the complicated problem of his immigration status. I appreciated the way he read people based on not only what they said but on their tone and their body language – the arch of an eyebrow, the phoniness of an accent. The peripheral characters were so vividly depicted, too, especially the working class Englishmen like Roy and Nigel with whom Obinze works at the warehouse, or the nerdy but good-hearted Iloba. The dialogue, and the dialects, reminded me of Zadie Smith’s outstanding work, though the tone here is much more serious.

    Trevor, I can see your point about this being principally a work of social criticism, and what I see as your suggestion that this aspect drowns out the individuality of Obinze as a character. When fiction is written about a hot button social issue like illegal immigration/undocumented workers, there is a risk that a lecture will take the place of story. And I’d agree that the very ending, with the wordplay about “removal,” crosses into that territory, and that maybe the details of the arrest and imprisonment are dwelled on too much for a short piece. So that ending struck me as a weakness. However, to me it seemed that the specificity of Obinze and the other characters, the skill with which Adichie depicts them, prevents the social commentary from swamping the story. I thought it was more of an undertone, except for that ending.

    Also worth considering are the unsympathetic immigrants (the Angolans and Vincent – whom I’d love to see deported) in the piece and the sympathetic Roy and Nigel. The scene where Roy reluctantly confronts Obinze about the phone call he received pointed this up in particular. Roy is no saint – he’s not going to take Obinze home and hide him from the authorities. But he is kind enough to supposedly let Obinze bring his passport back the next day to clear things up. One suspects Roy knows Obinze won’t be back and that by deciding not to take immediate action, he is giving Obinze a chance to evade the authorities.

    So I guess my point is we have real-feeling, flawed characters populating the piece and that, plus the plot, made for enjoyable reading and raises it above the level of a morality play (though I recognize, Trevor, that you didn’t use that term). Betsy, I am probably a minority among readers of literary fiction, but I like short stories with strong plots! I love being pulled forward and kept in suspense and don’t want to be forced to go to genre fiction to get that in a short story. Plot is the Rodney Dangerfield of short literary fiction, and I think that’s a shame!

    Of course, we don’t have a short story here, but an obvious novel excerpt, and I was bothered somewhat by the lack of good editing to adapt it so that it more closely resembled a short story, which I believe the New Yorker generally does when taking work from novels. For instance, Obinze borrows clothing from a character, Nicholas, who is not identified except by name, unless I missed it. And there is the scene at the civic center where Obinze looks at a whiteboard and finds the name of a Nigerian he knows. Probably this character figures in the novel, but he doesn’t in the excerpt, so this should have been cut out. Or “removed,” one might say.

  8. Betsy March 16, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    Roger, I really enjoyed your close look at this story.

    I think my difficulties with the story have entirely to do with it being an excerpt. I did not realize until after I had finished that it was not a short story. Many readers must have been in the same position. I think the New Yorker owes it to the reader to acknowledge – right below or above the title – that the story is an excerpt. I know that I could have known this if I’d read the interview first, but I like to receive the literature on its own. I also know I could have guessed at the “excerpt” nature of the piece had I read the “About the Author” section at the front. Even them printing – “an excerpt from the forthcoming novel” on the contents page would be an improvement.

    Taking it as a story, there is a hopelessness that left me swamped, and there was hardly a light to guide me forward from the ending. When I realized that Clotilde might also be part of the scam, I felt devastated.

    Obinze’s story is at the level of tragedy. Any Nigerian author is in the shadow of Achebe, which is a lot of pressure. But I thought about the stubborn, tragic Okwonkwo while reading this story, and Obinze’s fall lacked the surround to give the fall the grandeur it deserves. He seemed too hapless for his situation to be tragic, and yet, what happened to him is tragic.

    The novel may show us a sweep that gives it a scope and voice that is fitting of tragedy, or in the converse, fitting of a young man learning about how to proceed in a dangerous world.

    I think it is interesting that this story was placed in an issue where a Russian ballet master is betrayed and assaulted by his company. The author managed to show suggest a larger societal problem – an acceptance by ordinary Russians that vast corruption and selfishness just is the norm. Did Adichie succeed at that in this story? It’s hinted at, by her reference to the past period of Nigerian assaults on its citizens in the streets, but Obinze’s consciousness of the corruption in government is to think he wants to be in a place where he can have a Fanta if he wants it. He’s at a childish level of political development, and in the course of the story we see hardly any growth in him. Of course, that’s appropriate for a section from a novel.

    I also felt that the pile of shit was an overwhelming metaphor for so short a piece, especially with a character who is in such a weakened state. But if the excerpt is part of the beginning of the novel and Obinze (or the narrator) shows growth, then I can face him and that overwhelming pile of shit.

    Henry James’s Isabel Archer could also be called “hapless”, and Obinze would be in very good company, given that her access to vision and comprehension grows as she proceeds. Hopefully, Adichie’s novel will provide us some of the same.

    Anyway, thank you for giving Adichie a focused, spirited defense – she deserves it. I hope you let us know what you think of the novel.

  9. Trevor March 16, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    Yes, thanks to both Roger and Betsy for continuing the discussion here and providing a good defense of the piece, which I, unfortunately, still cannot get behind. I agree that Adichie can write and that I genuinely felt for her characters, but it all seems so wasted here in an effort to preach to us (in much the same way we’ve been preached at before, so I don’t see how anything is gained) rather than really examine the issues involved. Nothing here was surprising or new. Nothing that happens to Obinze was unanticipated; we knew where he was going in the first paragraph when he sat in the tube station thinking that the people walking around him didn’t even know how fortunate they were.

    It’s not that stories need to contain surprises, but I do think that if they follow a path that the reader can see all the way to the end then their should be some extra insights along the way, and I just didn’t feel that here. I did like Obinze and felt Adichie rendered him well, but he was always only meant to gain our sympathies (I’m not entirely sure he earned them himself or if it was just the situations that Adichie put him in) and to lead us to that final line.

  10. Steve March 16, 2013 at 8:39 pm

    Like Betsy said, this is actually not a short story but an excerpt from a novel. I’m pretty sure it is bits and pieces from the novel selected for publication just like Ian McEwan’s “Hand on the shoulder.” I don’t see what makes the pile of shit overwhelming for the story; the bottle of Fanta was more of a fantasy fro one who has never left his country. I have read another excerpt from the novel called “Ceiling,” published in Granta. “Ceiling” worked better as a short story. Maybe, my appreciation for “Checking out” stems from already knowing many things about Obinze.

  11. Trevor March 16, 2013 at 11:03 pm

    Yes, I am usually grumpy about excerpts as is (probably causing annoyance to some) shown all over this blog. It’s fine that [i]The New Yorker[/i] publishes them; after all, they are not saying that they are publishing short stories but rather “fiction.” So if they want to promote and be promoted by a popular author’s upcoming work, that’s fine. I need to stop reading them as short stories.

  12. Betsy March 17, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    I recommend Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED speech: “The Danger of a Single Story”. She argues that many stories must be heard from any single country, lest we misunderstand the complexity of any people by latching onto a single explanatory story. It’s a beautiful speech.

  13. Tim March 26, 2013 at 10:11 am

    Hi All,

    Thanks for the discussion, I’ve been ignoring New Yorker stories for a while and it’s great to see you all continuing on. I was disappointed by this piece, partially because I felt like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie didn’t take many risks as a writer.

    Is the story sad? Yes.

    Does it offer social commentary? Yes.

    Is it memorable to me? No. It’s not. I’m sure as a novel there will be more development of Obinze, but as a stand alone piece it felt repetitive. It seemed like a story I’ve already read.

    Best,

    Tim

  14. Rosalind Kurzer March 26, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    This short story is a rip off. Nothing new, no surprises and no finesse. In real life, Obinze would have had an immigrant network to help him navigate the system. My experience working with immigrant and refugee communities taught me how others learn survival strategies.
    I agree with Trevor and Tim…

  15. Ken May 6, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    I weigh in late, still catching up, with a positive response. I see the point about the film’s social commentary being disproportionate to its quality but can’t agree. I do agree, though, about the excerpts from novels that the New Yorker publishes. And yet…they can be a nice way of discovering a writer one might want to read. As for the story, I was struck by the force of sentences and the rhythm of the writing which I thought was exemplary and far transcended any social message. The added wrinkle of (seemingly) real attraction between Obinzie and Cleo struck me as a nuance, a refinement, that raised this above mere reportage.

  16. vicky August 13, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    Chimamanda is my role model. when I read her short stories and novels I become so passionate about them. I love her stories and can’t loving them.

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