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New Yorker Fiction Review: "Apollo" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Issue: April 13, 2015

Story:  "Apollo" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Rating: $/Meh

Review: CNA was one of the first authors I ever reviewed as part of my on-going project to review every story in the NYer since I started back in early 2013. Her story "Checking Out," from the March 18, 2013 issue, underwhelmed me due to its somewhat thinly-drawn character. This story underwhelms me for a different, though I suppose somewhat related reason, but is not without some real value.

Set partly in modern-day Nigeria and partly in 1970s Nigeria, the story is told by a middle-aged man named Okenwa as he visits his elderly parents and examines his relationship with them through an incident that happened in his childhood. His parents, now as then, are bookish, cold, and completely devoted to one another, so that they form a completely singular unit. As an adult, he is wearied by their lack of understanding of him; they keep asking him if and when he's going to get married, have a child, etc. even though he's past 40 and -- as is hinted at later -- gay. The incident involves one of the family's "house boys" name Raphael to whom Okenwa formed an attachment (non sexual, per se) but who is abruptly cast out of the house because of a simple incident that Okenwa himself caused and blamed on Raphael.

Far from being regretful of the incident or of Raphaels ultimate plight (he eventually turned to crime), Okenwa seems to use the incident as a way to re-examine his parents and his mis-understood relationship with them. He sees that they were harsh, overly-strict and quick-to-judge, and especially back then during his childhood. Perhaps that's why he was forced to connect with the only person who showed him any real attention: Raphael.

"Apollo" works because it deals with memory and identity in the way that we as humans are forced to process it all: imperfectly and while we're hurtling forward in life with limited information and an ever-shifting perspective. We mis-remember bits and pieces of incidents. People mellow or wither in our mind's eyes. We get the dates wrong, the faces wrong. We tell ourselves it happened one way enough times until we actually believe it. All the while we're being influenced by other things that come our way in the meantime.

In the minus column, the "incident" at the end seemed a little to much like a stock short-story ending.
I feel like I've heard this story before, in fact, in a French movie whose title I forget. So what? There are only so many plots circulating around in this world. The so what is that CNA seemingly uses the incident as a flourish to end the story, and nothing more. There is, literally, nothing else after that. She does not allow Okenwa to reflect on the incident as a child or as a man, thus leaving us hanging in a peculiar and quite unsatisfying way.


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