Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Chinelo Okparanta’s “Benji” was originally published in the November 11, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
Update: When the following post was written, neither Chinelo Okparanta nor The New Yorker had acknowledged any relationship between “Benji” and Alice Munro’s “Corrie.” A week after publication, they updated the interview with Okparanta to explicitly acknowledge “Corrie.” That interview is here.
I almost didn’t read this story. It was a busy week, and then word started going around in the comments below that it’s basically a straight-up knock-off of Alice Munro’s “Corrie” (which we covered here). Finally, I thought I’d better see for myself. All I have to say is this: one cannot even read the first paragraph without thinking of the great opening of “Corrie.” It’s disappointing, to say the least.
“Benji,” by Nigerian born Chinelo Okparanta, is a gold-rush story. Set in Nigeria, the story observes the submissions and accommodations that we make in the service of wealth.
Wikipedia reports that Nigeria has the second largest economy in Africa, one that is “on track to becoming one of the 20 largest economies in the world by 2020” (here). Oil revenues are very important to Nigeria, but, as Wikipedia reports, “the World Bank has estimated that as a result of corruption 80% of the revenues benefit only 1% of the population.”
How does a nation live with such imbalances? That’s an interesting question, given that the United States itself is right now in the midst of a series of economic earthquakes and the re-gilding of the uppermost tier of our society. As for the accommodations we make when things seem either very opportune or very unfair, Okparanta’s story suggests that our moral standards can get very slushy when money is to be had for the picking.
Her dry, clever story has the ring of Ambrose Bierce, if you like that kind of thing, which I do. With a neat plot and a slow twist, it is basically the story of a long con, but just who is conning whom is an open question.
Benji is a short, slight, light, unmarried and extremely wealthy man of forty-two, and he still lives with his mother. They share a house like a show-room, complete with a magnificent garden, house girls and gardener. His mother is the madam of house. As for Benji, there are questions. Has wealth has ruined him? Is he kind or just foolish? What exactly does he do with his time? Alare, his mother’s new friend observes it all with a calculating cool.
Nigeria is interesting to me: it seems like the United States in some ways — the vast fossil-fuel wealth, the wild-west nature of its current oil-rush, and the inherent civil dangers posed by its tribal, ethnic, and religious divisions. The New York Times, for one, maintains a continuing feed on news from Nigeria: elections, Boko Haram, corruption, and oil thieves, but a good short story gives me an idea of how people there actually feel and think. I usually enjoy the trip abroad that a short story from another country affords, and Okparanta’s story is no exception. I find her clean style refreshing, and I’d like to take a look at her new book: Happiness, Like Water.