Endless, Nameless

Hangman by Maya Binyam. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 208 pages. $26.

The cover of Hangman

IN HANGMAN, MAYA BINYAM’S engrossing and shrewd debut novel, the author cultivates a world in which many languages are spoken but few are understood. After twenty-six years, an unnamed narrator finds himself on a flight traveling from what seems to be the United States back to his African homeland. He has just listened to the man sitting next to him tell a story about his life when a flight attendant asks if he would prefer tea or coffee. Though it is a routine question, she must switch languages for him to realize that he has a preference: coffee. With that settled, she asks, again in multiple languages, if he would like sugar: no, though she hears yes. Later in the flight, the flight attendant must switch languages yet again, after screaming, to update him on the status of his seatmate: he’s dead.

Given how much happens to this narrator without his knowledge, Hangman feels like a novel written with active verbs in the passive voice. The protagonist appears on a plane because his ticket has been purchased for him. He possesses luggage, but someone else has packed it for him. Things get even more mysterious from there. He knows that he is returning home, but the concept of home has grown quite fuzzy since he left; he has no real feelings about it. And, to top it all off, he arrives at his African destination with no itinerary and no knowledge of who will be picking him up. Over the course of a few fateful days, he encounters cousins who call him “brother,” emails from his brother who requests visa sponsorship and money for medication, and long-lost family members in whom he sees himself but cannot recognize. The protagonist’s estrangement in his country of birth goes well beyond the forgetfulness that settles in when one is away from a place for too long; rather, his long stint in the United States—a place he politely calls “the country where I had become a citizen”—has so thoroughly squelched his curiosity and capacity to relate that he can only act as a hapless tourist, a shadow of his former self.

The novel’s sub-Saharan location also remains unnamed throughout, but this is not because Binyam considers any one place as a synecdoche for a landmass populated by over one billion people. Instead, the placelessness is the point. The Western gaze reduces Africa to a continent that only matters in terms of the West’s self-interests, and it is as if the narrator’s perspective has been so warped by American empire that he cannot see the particularity of where he is. For those who migrate—to the United States, to Canada, to Europe—the vibrancy of the continent can diminish, leaving room for the racist narratives of Africa’s cultural remoteness and illegibility that have been used to justify conquest and economic imperialism.

As the narrator fatalistically bops around the strangely familiar lands of his birth, eventually learning that he is there to search for his brother, everyone he encounters wants to tell him the most random aspects of their personal stories, even as he often conceals his own. A wealthy man whose house and inheritance have been seized by the national government reveals that he now works at the zoo and the lions need more steak than his bosses will allow. A bank teller airs his grievances about the tediousness of his job and how much he hates the days of the week. And, most interestingly, an old man selling yogurt on the side of a road relays a conspiracy theory: free will does not exist because our choices are circumscribed by what is socially acceptable. He imagines an alternate universe—one tethered to ours much like the underground is tethered to the real in Jordan Peele’s recent horror film Us—in which we make the opposite decision to every decision we’ve made in this dimension. To see ourselves in that parallel universe would be to see a stranger because “it would be impossible to incorporate all the choices we could have made, but had not made, into a stable and singular ego.”

Jac Kritzinger, Boy A, 2012. Jac Kritzinger
Jac Kritzinger, Boy A, 2012. Jac Kritzinger

This theory of the converse-world double gains traction as more scenarios feel eerily similar to ones that the protagonist has already witnessed, and more people begin to resemble who the narrator used to be in previous lives. The familiarity, however, elicits greater bewilderment. When a taxi driver informs him of the collective effort a city undertakes to protest prohibitively expensive gas prices, which only succeeds after police accidentally kill the child of a striking cabbie in a shootout, the narrator does not know what to make of the story—was the collective success of a 1 percent reduction in fuel costs worth the individual pain the cabdriver feels over the loss of his child? In his confused response, in which readers suddenly learn that he too drives taxis, the narrator tells a patently American tale about drunk women trying to stiff him out of a fare and calling him the N-word in the process. That epithet baffles the narrator: “I looked around the parking lot, trying to find the person she was talking about.” In the first story, an African conception of collectivity emerges out of a shared sense of duty despite individual sacrifice. In the narrator’s, an American sense of collectivity is compulsory, forged fraudulently out of anti-Black racism despite individual identification or lack thereof.

Later, the narrator, who had also been a graduate student and a revolutionary in Africa, cannot help but feel hailed when he overhears two young scholars arguing in a café about history and the efficacy of violent insurgencies against governments. One of the men, nondescriptly described as “good-looking,” tells a story of his father, who chose dangerous political action, imprisonment, and exile over being present for his family. According to the son, his father “had derived so much fulfillment from the fantasy of communal life that it had warped his attachment to the private security of romantic love.” This betrayal of the son, which took place while he developed in the womb, profoundly affects his attachment to the time of revolution, which sacrifices living in the present for the unrealized promise of the future. The communal impulses that characterize the most satisfying parts of postcolonial life in the novel end up being thwarted by revolutionary processes that usher in global capital.

In moments like this or the narrator’s conversation with the taxi driver, readers might wonder if they have been thrust into a speculative world where both small talk and genuine introspection have been abolished. Revolution, one vexed topic among many that are adjudicated and theorized throughout Hangman, often gets rendered as collective struggle with individuals only mattering when they become a main character of the event. Binyam adroitly shows through both form and plot how self-determination at the national level requires so much personal loss that the personal can become lost as well. The narrator becomes so preoccupied with figuring out what is happening to him on his journey that basic attributes like profession, kinship, and personal history are divulged to readers haphazardly and diffusely.

By the end of the book, Binyam pushes into the surreal to reorient readers yet again around basic conceptions of home and family. In one characteristic moment, when the narrator contemplates the extent to which he is the driver of his own actions, a white woman “with a squished-up nose and no torso” appears, offering him salvation in a home that was the house he owned before he fled to the United States. While figuring out the situation—“I walked up the porch steps, which were my porch steps, onto the porch, which no longer belonged to me”—he implausibly runs into his son’s mother, who takes him on a journey in which he meets a dizzying number of family members with no names: “my cousin,” “my son’s mother’s brother,” “my mother’s son’s brother,” “my mother’s sister’s daughter,” “my mother’s sister’s son,” “my brother, my brother, my brother.” These relations lose much of their meaning, like how distant relatives can form a gestalt in the mind that is difficult to parse at a family reunion. The experience becomes so uncanny that even as readers finally figure out what is happening with the narrator and just as he finally arrives at what he assumes to be his brother’s funeral, he becomes more forthright about his willful lack of comprehension: “The house was just an empty space, inside of which were all the people, dressed in shadows, whom I did not want to hear, and in fact could not understand. I did understand, but I didn’t want to, so in my head I told myself I could not.”

The protagonist’s confusion is well documented, but we rarely see him deal directly with one key feature of diasporic subjectivity: loss. Though the narrator has ostensibly returned home to see his ailing brother, his sibling’s status is so constantly in flux that his very health defies the basic mechanics of temporality. At once, he may be suffering from a heart condition or dying from a heart condition or dead from a heart condition. Readers will speculate, but the clues we receive via emails—which the narrator reads in internet cafés or on random computers in office buildings that miraculously spring up—do not tell a coherent story. Filial love, if it exists here, is sublimated into the urgency of finding the lost brother and finally ending a chaotic journey; it is not explained in mere conventional expressions of joy or longing. Even food, which is often palatably described in novels of the diaspora, here takes on little more form than a protein or a carbohydrate in liquid: “some kind of chicken in a bright red sauce,” “some sort of green vegetable,” “bread soaked in yellow sauce.” These attachments to home efface any impression of diasporic belonging because they are so dislocated from any sense of real significance, let alone nostalgia. In these scenes of disjunction, Binyam combines the vertiginous effects of invasion and destruction with the rich cultures and philosophies forged in relation to and outside of the domineering logics of subjection. The resulting tempest, which rages with as much relentless restraint as her prose, leaves readers constantly feeling unbalanced, as if something is off—just beyond our reach.

Omari Weekes is an assistant professor of English at Queens College, CUNY.