Ashes to Ashes

The Death of Vivek Oji BY Akwaeke Emezi. New York: Riverhead. 256 pages. $27.

The cover of The Death of Vivek Oji

BEFORE SHE ORDAINED HER BOYFRIEND the first “good cop,” Lana Del Rey was born to die. It was 2012. She was only five months away from twenty-seven, the age at which celebrity musicians are, anecdotally speaking, very likely to experience a turn of fate. (Amy Winehouse overdosed in her tenth month, Janis Joplin in her ninth.) The album she put out that year, Del Rey’s second, was considered a breakout hit. Born to Die, critics agreed, had changed the course of her life.

America has always been a death cult; the only variable has been its soundtrack. In the stereo age, boomers, armed with IRAs loaded with cash, offered consolations in the form of ballads. “Only the good die young,” crooned Billy Joel, coaxing the Catholic girl next door out of the house with a veiled threat. Millennials turned their haplessness into pop mantras for automatic playback. “Live fast die young,” rapped M.I.A., drag racing in the Moroccan desert. “Bad girls do it well.”

Everyone in the world who wants to leave the world early can be divided into one of two categories: famous or insane. Ada, the protagonist of Freshwater, thirty-three-year-old Nigerian author Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel, is suspected to belong to the latter grouping. In interviews, Emezi has referred to Freshwater as a work of “autobiographical fiction,” and to Ada as a relic of real life. Emezi, who is trans and nonbinary, has written about also coming to identify as an ogbanje, an Igbo spirit that leeches into the reproductive cycle, engendering children who are born to die. Like Emezi, Ada is an ogbanje, and she craves release. Although her condition is spiritual, her methods are direct. She cuts her forearms, fucks her friends, fucks them over, ODs. Like many wayward depressives, she winds up in New York City, where she narrowly evades her psychiatrist’s professional opinions. Invoking the dystopian conviction of the DSM-5, critics have tried to pick up the diagnostic slack, or have otherwise copped to a failure of imagination. Freshwater has been called “a poetic and disturbing depiction of mental illness,” an “exploration of dissociative identity disorder,” and an “indigenous fairy tale.” Were its author not an immigrant, and its protagonist a bit more agnostic, the book might also be considered a token of rock and roll.

Akwaeke Emezi. Photo: © Scottie O.
Akwaeke Emezi. Photo: © Scottie O.

The title character of Emezi’s new novel, The Death of Vivek Oji, shares Ada’s jinxed fate. From the moment of Vivek’s birth in Nigeria, his existence is “a mourning,” his entrance into the world thought to have occasioned his grandmother’s departure. As a child, Vivek feels light, but during his adolescence, his internal world becomes heavy, “like concrete.” He grows his hair into a mane to balance the weight, and finds escape in a series of blackout states. “Supernatural forces are feeding on him,” his aunt Mary insists to his mother, Kavita, who hopes it’s “a phase.” Even so, she prays for his recovery.

Vivek’s death is prophesied in the novel’s first sentence: “They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died.” The subsequent chronicle, relayed in large part by Kavita and Vivek’s cousin and lover, Osita, amounts to a retrospective search for redress. Consumed by grief, Kavita and Osita speak in the murky language of speculation: How did Vivek die, and what could they have done to thwart his fate? The cause of Vivek’s death is held hostage from the reader until the novel’s closing chapters, but there’s a suggestion that his prognosis has something to do with what he is: “marked,” “different,” “a stranger.” “I’m not what anyone thinks I am,” Vivek says, speaking from beyond the grave. “If nobody sees you, are you still there?”

Kavita begins assembling clues into a portrait. There’s Vivek’s hair, for one, and the solace he finds in communion with the neighborhood girls. They love him fiercely, and protect his secrets as if their lives depended on it. As witnesses, they’re tight-lipped. To the chagrin of Kavita, who visits their homes with the persistence of a pay-by-the-hour personal investigator, they divulge nothing. Eventually their parents shoo her away, and Kavita’s yearning grows fierce: “She was going to find the truth, even if she had to rip it out of his friends’ throats.”

Osita’s investigations are more discreet. From childhood, he watches his cousin with the observance of a disciple. It doesn’t take Vivek dying for him to attempt to see him for who he really is, and Vivek, recognizing himself in the gaze of his cousin, watches back. When Osita sleeps with his first serious lover, Elizabeth, Vivek is outside the room, peeping; and when he returns home from college with news of a girlfriend, nameless, Vivek spots the lie. By the time they finally kiss, it’s a revelation. “I kissed him like I wanted to seduce uncertainty away, slow and gentle,” says Osita. He cups Vivek’s head in both hands, holding him steady.

As Vivek’s loved ones begin to see him more clearly, recognizing in his mannerisms the habits of self-fashioning rather than the symptoms of disease, they fear his visibility will seal his fate. Mary, brandishing the Third World gag, insists he isn’t safe. “You don’t know Nigeria,” she tells foreign-born Kavita. “The boy is slim, he has long hair––all it takes is one idiot thinking he’s a woman from behind or something, then getting angry when he finds out he’s not.” Vivek’s friends, who lend him flowered dresses and plait his hair, instruct him not to wander too far—it’s 1998, the dictator Sani Abacha is dead, and the market is intermittently animated by riots. “Do you know what they’ll do to you?” asks Osita.

When the mounting speculation, anxiety, and murderous fantasy bear fruit, it’s hard not to feel a tad underwhelmed. Vivek’s death is stripped of glamour, and even of pathology. Only Osita knows what really happens; Vivek’s other family members continue to tend to their delusions. In the end, those who know Vivek the least are also his most reliable witnesses. “She walked like a model and looked like one,” observes Ebenezer, the market vulcanizer, before Vivek disappears in a flutter of fabric. The stranger’s momentary recognition approximates something like grace.

Maya Binyam is a writer and editor living in New York.