Chuma Nwokolo’s thrilling and poignant novel, The Extinction of Menai, centers on the Menai, a Nigerian tribe whose members have dwindled to only a few dozen after being subjected to a drug test by a pharmaceutical company. The book also weaves in the story of twins separated at birth, who discover they’ve been living double lives. The madcap twists and turns that ensue provide a joyful counterpoint to a Menai shaman’s somber odyssey. Nwokolo manages to brilliantly distill his branching plot into a singular portrayal of a threatened culture. Here, Nwokolo picks five of his favorite mind-bending novels.
The writer of a “mind-bending” novel takes a risk. On one hand, he could write safe literature that competes for attention in the center ground where most bestsellers are made. On the other hand, he could find an indulgent publisher for a book that risks the chasm in the leap from the ordinary, and gift us a book that splits the reading public–because the great thing about literature is how it divides opinion. Two reasonable readers could finish the same book, with sharply divided judgements. Here are a handful of my picks.
1. Search Sweet Country by Kojo Laing
You will need your wits about you when reading Kojo Laing (Woman of Aeroplanes, Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters). In his fiction, a sentence is a recreational universe with its own internal logic and world order, free to contort, invert, and luxuriate in a love of lexicon, free from any obligation to conform with the sentence before, or the sentence afterwards. This is the recipe, of course, for bedlam. But Kojo Laing is an innovative stylist whose fiction is saved from the madhouse by its sheer inventiveness, and by its wit. In Search Sweet Country, the characters are searching for Change, and the author serves up change in spades in a narration that bucks novelistic conventions.
2. The Palm Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola
Amos Tutuola lays out his plot simply in the first three pages: his hero’s palm wine tapper has fallen to his death. Finding no replacement to supply his beverage, our hero determines to pop over to the land of the dead to fetch his tapper back. It is a testimony to the art of the storyteller that the reader does not toss down the book at this point, for The Palm Wine Drinkard drips charm, even in its 66th year of publication. The narrator’s colorful voice lends felicity to the tale. The supernatural powers of the characters are deployed dreamily. The novelist strings a quilt of tall tales in an idiosyncratic language that serves its subject matter well, and the reader never gets enough.
3. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
Today’s reader is also a witness of current affairs. The brutality of our age has inured us to the “industrial” scale of suffering around us. So we can watch a news item on a developing genocide over lunch, at no cost to our appetite. Real life serial killings go on unremarked. What was shocking has ceased to shock. Enter Roberto Bolaño’s multi-part tome, 2666. This was his last work, and he will certainly be remembered for it. His writing has a straightforward, yet hypnotic quality that draws the reader in. But it is the fourth segment, “The Part About the Crimes,” that melds fact and fiction. His writing style is deceptively straightforward, and his set pieces not the most riveting, but as he narrates this sequence of more than a hundred serial murders, the shell-shocked mind of the reader is putty once again, in the hands of a writer at the height of his powers.
4. Tail of the Blue Bird by Nii Ayikwei Parkes
Parkes’s novel seduces the reader through the familiar portals of the police procedural, and then begins to subvert the form. The beginning of the book announces the ambition to do different things, yet, there is the horrific crime in the village of Sonokrom, the forensic pathologist Kayo in the city of Accra, and a police boss who demands a good police report “like in CSI.” What emerges is anything but, and the novel displaces its readers’ expectations from the logical, leading up to a dénouement that satisfactorily defies logic.
5. The Shock of the Fall by Nathan FIler
“I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother. His name’s Simon. I think you’re going to like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages he’ll be dead. And he was never the same after that.”
When an unreliable narrator is also engaging and complicit, the stage is set for empathetic mind games. In Filer’s book, the 19-year-old narrator (who started the narrative as a nine-year-old) is a mental patient and a skillful ventriloquist for schizophrenia. By providing the only window into the fiction, readers are constantly reevaluating their knowledge of, and perspective on, the world of a hero given to convenient memory lapses. The reveals line up one after the other, merging into a new appreciation of the cross of mental illness.