With his 2018 debut story collection "Friday Black," Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah established himself as a formidable writer of literary speculative fiction, building fantastic premises out of hard looks at American reality cranked a degree more demented. With his first novel, "Chain-Gang All-Stars," Adjei-Brenyah has burnished this approach into a complex, brutal, beautiful, panoramic takedown of the prison-industrial complex, through the near-future story of a band of incarcerated neo-gladiators who entertain the nation with their televised, battle to-the-death arena matches in an elusive quest to gain their freedom.
The novel opens with a death match for "Chain-Gang All-Stars, the crown jewel in the Criminal Action Penal Entertainment program" (aka CAPE) that introduces one of the main characters, Loretta Thurwar, a new participant, as she improbably defeats a longtime champion. Convicted "wards of the state" facing execution or imprisonment of at least 25 years can instead opt to participate in CAPE, through which they can earn their freedom by surviving three years of battles, though only one person has managed that, and most believe that outcome was rigged.
Adjei-Brenyah develops the hyperviolent, endlessly commercialized and euphemized world of the novel through a variety of perspectives, such as those of Loretta's fellow gladiators, or "Links" as they are known, the corporate executives milking revenue out of every branding opportunity, "action sports" fans, the scientists who develop new punishment and restraint technology, and protesters involved in "The Coalition to End Neo-Slavery."
It reads like Adjei-Brenyah drew inspiration from an array of contemporary calamities — including reality TV competitions, NFL brutality, the private prison boom, Americans' obsession with violence and true crime entertainment, and the incessant video loop of law enforcement's extra-judicial execution of citizens — and blended it into a potent fictional world. In Adjei-Brenyah's unflinching vision, an "Influencer" is not a social media personality but instead the most painful nonlethal "control device" ever developed. Footnotes attest that some of the baroque law enforcement practices illustrated in the novel are not inventions.
One character named Emily initially cringes and covers her eyes as she accompanies her action-sports-obsessed husband to a BattleGround match, but eventually she is sucked in by the drama of the programs created from constant video monitoring of the Links. Readers might feel the same way, starting out gore-shocked and blood-splattered but then becoming increasingly compelled by the humanity of Adjei-Brenyah's characters as Loretta kills her way toward freedom.
"Chain-Gang All-Stars" is at once original, its own fresh creation, and clearly part of a lineage of American literature that links the opening "Battle Royal" chapter in Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" to "Native Son" by Richard Wright, "Soul on Ice" by Eldridge Cleaver and "Soledad Brother" by George Jackson. These classic books delve into the inhumanity of mass incarceration, the conversion of violence into entertainment and how the burden of these practices are disproportionately borne by Black Americans. Adjei-Brenyah's distinguished novel updates this tradition to encompass our dizzying, barbaric, performative and capitalistic digital age.
Jenny Shank's story collection, "Mixed Company," won the Colorado Book Award and the George Garrett Fiction Prize and her novel, "The Ringer," won the High Plains Book Award.
By: Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.
Publisher: Pantheon, 384 pages, $27.
Events: 1 p.m. May 9, Moon Palace Books, 3032 Minnehaha Av. S., Mpls.; 6 p.m. May 9 in conversation with Sequoia Nagamatsu, Next Chapter Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.