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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Benji" by Chinelo Okparanta

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker...hey, it keeps me off the streets.
Issue: Nov. 11, 2013

Story: "Benji"


Plot: A middle-aged Nigerian woman, Alare, begins a protracted affair with her rich friend's homely, hidebound son, Benji, in order to slowly bilk him of money, under the pretense that she needs the money because her husband is dying. Benji's mother dies. Alare succeeds in taking so much money from Benji that she sets up a new and comfortable life for herself and her husband, who is actually the gardener at Benji's estate. Benji discovers this and feels nothing about it. 

Review: In my ongoing quest to read and review every short story that appears in The New Yorker, I've noticed that a lot of boring international fiction manages to sneak in. Here we have a prime example of this phenomenon.

This story gets away with being boring and lacking an emotional payoff, simply because it's set in Nigeria and we don't often get to read about life in Nigeria; of those "vacation" type of stories that leads you on simply because you're treading in unfamiliar territory. Other than that, frankly, it's a failure. I read to the end only because I make it a point to review the fiction each week and -- to that end -- I need to read to the end of every story.

This story commits all the cardinal sins of fiction:

1.) Have a likable protagonist

Benji is small, pale, and not very interesting. He also happens to be the focus of the story. Alare was a lot more more interesting, but she's just a cipher; a notion included included in the story to move the plot along.

2.) If the protagonist is not likable, at least give the protagonist a strong desire.

Benji has very little desire. He starts sleeping with Alare simply because she's there around his house a lot and it's almost unavoidable. All he seems to want to do is be completely boring and mediocre.

3.) Put the characters into conflict or crisis.

Plenty of chances for conflict in this story...and yet Okparanta is determined to steer clear of them all. Sorry, without character or conflict, you've just got a bunch of words on a page. 



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