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.
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.
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.