Where Life Is Precious, Life Is Precious. And Surely That’s Not Here: On Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s “Chain-Gang All-Stars”
By Salem James MartinezSeptember 29, 2023
Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
The chapter opens on Young as he enters the arena, seeking the ultimate prize of freedom: “It’s a joke. The killing kind,” he muses. “The kind where you ain’t laughing much but see something a little different after the punch has lined. Where life is precious, life is precious. And surely that’s not here.”
Young and Simon J. Craft, his teammate or “Link,” come face to face with the protagonists of the novel: Loretta Thurwar and Hurricane Staxxx. Soon, the scene’s captivating prose nearly distracts the reader from the deadly stakes of this gladiatorial duel: “The Grand Colossal has stumbled and I will have the lunge,” Young thinks.
She’s just getting back to her feet and I reach out with my gone arm, imagine it stretching out to aid Craft, who is swinging and dodging, the sound of metal singing as the scythe repels his claws. A special thing, a wild dance between two forms of death incarnate. Pain and love trying, trying to kill each other.
In the space of two pages, Adjei-Brenyah’s prose creates a whiplash effect that unsettles us while enticing us forward. We are indicted in the “wild dance” of the difficult social critique Adjei-Brenyah offers: what does it mean to hungrily consume a story that dramatizes and sensationalizes spectacular violence within the prison industrial complex, a multimillion-dollar industry that systematically renders Black and other marginalized communities helpless?
Adjei-Brenyah’s writing transports us to a crossroads of love and pain, life and death, oppressor and oppressed, real and speculative, to consider difficult questions such as these. For those familiar with his work, these contradictory but generative spaces are what best define his oeuvre. Friday Black, his 2018 debut short story collection, wrestles with questions surrounding racial violence and the insidious interplay between capitalism and consumer culture. In stories like “Zimmer Land” we follow the story of a Black man who, while working at an amusement park, is subjected to repeated simulations of death that patrons enact in a kind of George Zimmerman–esque justice. Adjei-Brenyah also maneuvers us to other familiar spaces like the shopping mall: “Friday Black,” the namesake story of the collection, features a dramatized Black Friday sale where mall-goers are transformed into ravenous zombies.
Chain-Gang All-Stars expands Adjei-Brenyah’s inquiry into anti-Black violence, the prison system, and racialized capitalism, all the while insistently reminding readers of the blood we have on our hands. Rather than portraying carceral punishment as a private, behind-closed-doors form of “justice,” Adjei-Brenyah sensationalizes prison, framing it as a venue for “hard action-sports.” Bloodthirsty fans gather in arenas ready to watch Links slaughter each other while wearing jerseys branded with sponsoring companies such as WholeMarket, Wal-Stores, Sprivvy Wireless, and McFoods.
More than just poking fun at familiar companies like Whole Foods, Walmart, Sprint, and McDonald’s, Adjei-Brenyah focuses our attention on the profits that many companies reap within the prison system, exploiting the almost entirely free labor of inmates. We learn that the more sponsorship deals Links have with big-name companies, the more access they have to better resources, greatly increasing their chances of survival. Of course, the benefits Links acquire as inmates pale in comparison to the money companies make by sponsoring them. This disparity highlights an enduring history of racial capitalism that has worked to keep Black communities disenfranchised even after freedom from slavery. Readers must consider their own interaction with companies as consumers, recognizing that commonly used brands and products are frequently produced and delivered to them through prison labor.
Adjei-Brenyah’s reversal of the private nature of prisons sharpens with the introduction of Simon J. Craft. After his conviction for rape and murder, we watch Craft’s torture in solitary confinement using Influencer Rods, a technology that isolates and intensifies the body’s pain receptors and the brain’s ability to receive such signals. Craft’s suffering is so intense that he loses most cognitive function, surviving the CAPE program solely through a reprogrammed instinct to kill.
The visceral power of these scenes reminds the reader of the great harm inmates in solitary confinement suffer; in legal footnotes, Adjei-Brenyah reminds us that various aspects of solitary confinement are in direct violation of the Geneva Conventions. Craft further serves to challenge the reader who, up until this point, has met characters that are easier to empathize with. We must reckon, in these moments, with our own notions of justice, with whom we believe does or does not deserve such torturous kinds of punishment, and we are forced to examine what restorative justice looks like.
Of course, it is not just the corporations behind Chain-Gang All-Stars that Adjei-Brenyah puts under a microscope. Early on, he introduces a couple who are entrenched in hard-sports entertainment. Wil is a die-hard fan who believes that “[t]he beauty of action-sports [is] that everybody ha[s] a fighting chance.” His wife, Emily, tries to pretend she is mortified by the violence, but she is secretly obsessed with LinkLyfe, the reality TV show that documents every waking moment of the Links when they are not fighting in the arena. We later read a letter penned by Wil to Loretta Thurwar, thanking her for her relationship with Hurricane Staxxx, which has opened Emily’s mind to “spic[ing] things up” as a couple.
Again, it might be easy for the reader to recognize the absurdity of the idea that Chain-Gang All-Stars is in any way fair—or to cringe at the audacity of a fan fetishizing the queer relationship of two Black women for the benefit of his own heterosexual relationship—but in this exaggerated portrayal of sports fan culture, Adjei-Brenyah asks us to interrogate harmful narratives we carry around carceral issues and to question how these narratives inform our impulses to police certain groups. How many of us, like Wil, believe the justice system to be inherently fair? How many of us, like Emily, pretend to be mortified by how prison systems treat inmates, but are captivated by shows like Cops or Beyond Scared Straight? Perhaps more egregiously, how many of us, not wanting to give up our guilty pleasures, revel in them instead of doing anything at all?
The complicated interplay between the fictional story on the page and the very real critique Adjei-Brenyah invokes produces a novel that resists a long history of American culture burdening Black literature with the mark of sentimentalism. The liberal logic that undergirds American cultural production from the 1960s to today overwhelmingly looks to Black literature to produce, within a mostly white audience, an empathetic understanding of racial inequality. This logic assumes that the knowledge subsumed from reading books written by Black people about Black people has the innate power to create lasting social change.
While it is true that art can inform a society’s values and ideas of common sense, we must be cautious about conflating this inherently individualistic sentiment with the attention we must pay to the larger systems at play around us. By offering a slew of complicated and inherently flawed characters in lieu of heroes, Adjei-Brenyah refuses to draw easy conclusions about how we might think, imagine, or hope our way out of a world bolstered by oppressive forces. Instead, he conjures a captivating world in Chain-Gang All-Stars that treads the line between the possible and impossible; as readers, we are arrested by the truths that feel uncomfortably easy to identify in our own world today.
I am reminded, and in some ways haunted, by the character Hendrix Young, quoted earlier saying, “Where life is precious, life is precious. And surely that’s not here.” The experience of reading Chain-Gang All-Stars is best represented by the question that lies at the heart of this statement: if life is not precious here, then where?
Chain-Gang All-Stars, in its refusal to provide an easy blueprint for eradicating egregious regimes like the prison industrial complex, makes the simple (but not easy) request that we linger with the ugly contradictions undercutting American society and the human condition. While we cannot wipe our hands clean, perhaps, in this reckoning, we might be able to glean something that looks like transformation. Perhaps, there, life can be precious once more.
Salem James Martinez is a PhD candidate in the English department at UCLA. They specialize in Black speculative fiction, Black death, and the aesthetic productions of violence.
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