419, by Will Ferguson

Purchased at Indigo.ca

If you have had an email account in the last decade, you know the “Nigerian scam” (now replaced by the “Egyptian scam”, but I digress). A message shows up in the inbox (or several in junk mail) from someone (cabinet minister, oil executive, innocent heiress) who needs First World help in getting money out of the country — and is willing to give you a significant share of the proceeds once that happens, which of course it never does.

In Nigeria, that business model is known as 419 — named after the section of the criminal code that makes the activity illegal. Actually, and this is key to author Will Ferguson’s premise, the “law” simply opens up another opportunity for bribe payments while at the same time ensuring the profitable continuance of an underground industry.

The device borders on cliche and author Ferguson, best known for his humor and travel writing, has taken some risk in making it the uniting theme of his first literary novel. So far, at least with this year’s Giller Prize jury, that gamble has worked, with not just a longlisting but a move onto the shortlist.

419 opens with a question-raising traffic accident in my hometown of Calgary, Alberta. Henry Curtis’ car has soared off an embankment in the city’s east end and he has died. There is more than one set of skid marks on the road where the “accident” occurred — Henry seems to have sped down the hill, braked, turned back and then taken another run before soaring off the cliff.

When the surviving members of the Curtis family meet with the Traffic Response Unit investigator the uncertainty expands:

“Can you fucking believe this?” It was Warren, turning to stare at his sister, eyes raw. “Dad drove off a cliff.”

“Warren,” said their mother. “Language, please.”

“Your father appears to have hit a patch of black ice,” the officer said. “It would be impossible to see. Missed the bridge onto Ogden Road, westbound off 50th. It’s an industrial area, and he was travelling at high speed. Very high.” As if he were fleeing something, Brisebois [the officer] wanted to say, but didn’t. Instead, he asked, “Where would he have been going that time of night?”

Ferguson has already given us a present-time teaser about a much bigger picture: a young woman has arrived at the airport in Lagos, Nigeria and is subjected to a predictable shakedown about what her two-day visit is supposed to involve.

And the author quickly introduces another complicating factor. Without anyone in the surviving family knowing it, the mortgage-free Curtis residence has been put up as collateral for a loan; it is now in default to the point that the bank is foreclosing. And Henry recently increased his life insurance coverage dramatically. When the police take his computer hard drive away, they discover an extended email exchange with Victor Okechukwu, Attorney at Law in Lagos, concerning the troubled circumstances of Sandra Atta, daughter of the late Director and Chairman of the Contract Award Committee for the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. Her father has died in a helicopter crash and her sizable fortune is now tied up by a criminal cabal of government officials — she needs help to access it.

The 2012 Giller Jury, in its shortlist citation for 419, salutes it as “something entirely new: the Global Novel”. I don’t think it is new at all and prefer a different term, the “widescreen novel”, coined a couple of years ago by my blogging friend John Self at the Asylum in his review of Rana Dasgupta’s Solo: “They are mostly by younger authors, and are ambitious works containing a large cast of characters, far-flung geographical settings, and modern history or political issues rendered in fiction.” (For my own discussion of the genre, check out my review of Kamilla Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows).

The internet scam gives us the modern political issue, we already have the traffic accident in Calgary, Canada to set up that stream and we know that a young North American woman has arrived in Lagos. Rather than trying to develop elements of the plot, let me offer thumbnail sketches of the key players in the cast of characters in 419:

– Laura Curtis is Henry’s daughter, the woman introduced at Lagos airport. While her brother Warren has gone ballistic over the money their father wasted, Laura has taken a different approach. She has headed to Nigeria with a semi-formed plan to get the money back, whatever amount of trickery that requires.

– Winston is the Nigerian cyberscammer who set all this in motion:

The young man in the silk shirt had found Laura’s father online through a forum used by retired schoolteachers, and had stalked him through cyberspace for weeks. And though the young man had other prospects he was now kneading like clay — a business owner from Tallahassee, a pastor from Country Wicklow — it was the retired schoolteacher, a plodding soul from the looks of it, posting comments on woodworking sites and online forums, and then commenting on the comments to his comments, posting his grandchildren’s photos and giving tips on awls and the best way to solder a seam, who the young man turned his gaze upon.

Winston’s problem is that he is an “independent” in the cyberscamming world and that world, too, has a hierarchy. He will fall into the clasp of that mafia-like order, which introduces some violence into the overall plot.

– For the global/widescreen novel to work, it requires an independent Nigerian stream. In 419 the key character of that one is Nnamdi, a child born to a fishing family in the oil-rich delta:

The boy’s father was speaking softly in river dialect, as he always did when speaking truths. “A father, a mother, must ask themselves this. If it gives the child a better life, would they? Would they die for their child?”

The oil companies will destroy the fishing life of the delta, making that question more topical. But along the way, Nnamdi is employed by them for a while, gaining technical and mechanical skills that are important for the eventual resolution of a number of 419′s sub-plot threads.

– and finally there is a nameless, pregnant African Sahel woman with ritual scars (she is the image featured on the cover of the Canadian edition) whom we meet as she heads south out of her tribe’s territory towards Lagos — she will eventually hook up with Nnamdi to provide another story line.

The advantage of widescreen novels is that they allow for multiple story threads, each of which has its own set of characters. While the looming global context is always present, each set of these is experiencing the impact on a purely personal level. The disadvantage of the genre is that all those story lines require a lot of background and the foreground, frankly, is pretty well known to the reader — quite a bit of not-very-compelling plowing and tilling needs to be done to set up each thread.

And, of course, all of the threads need to be brought together as the novel closes. Inevitably, that means the novelist has to have established enough trust with the reader that licence is granted for some highly unlikely plot developments as the book comes to a conclusion.

I didn’t dislike 419 but I certainly don’t share the Real Giller Jury’s enthusiasm for it. For me, the cyberscam angle worked well, even if its resolution was perhaps a bit too tidy. I quite liked Winston’s story and the threats that he faced once the cyberboss found him. Nnamdi’s story fell flat with this reader.

Compared to the other four shortlisted books, 419 is definitely more ambitious — I’d say that two jurors, Gary Shteyngart and Roddy Doyle, have in their own way attempted comparable versions (with limited success for this reader) which perhaps explains its presence on the shortlist. I only wish that Ferguson had come closer to realizing some of the expanse of the ambition in his original premise.

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9 Responses to “419, by Will Ferguson”

  1. Lisa Hill Says:

    Hi Kevin,
    For a Nigerian take on thsi Nigerian scam, I Do Not Come to You By Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani http://wp.me/phTIP-ZS is a terrific read.
    Cheers
    Lisa

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: Thanks for that link. For what it is worth, I think Ferguson carries off that aspect of the novel better than he does some of the internal Nigerian ones. The oil development story line is over-simplified and its impact on his characters adds little to the overall book.

    • Lisa Hill Says:

      I do like the concept of what you call the widescreen novel. Yes, it runs the risk of ovesimplifying things and authors can too easily make mistakes when they’re writing about a culture not their own, but I like the wider vantage point that shows the reality of a global world.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: For me, widescreen novels work best when the author uses the various settings to develop a variety of characters (Cloud Atlas is an excellent example of one that worked for me). They tend to struggle when the various stories and the need to establish them overtakes the people inside them — the reader has to spend a lot of time getting backgrounded for something that just doesn’t happen and the book becomes more about the author’s ambition than his/her ability to realize it.

    • Lisa Hill Says:

      Yes, I agree, authors can’t make the assumption that people are informed about The Rest of the World, and so too wide a canvas can result in the problem you’re identifying. But (in general, not commenting on this book because I haven’t read it) I usually like the attempt. Right from when I was a little kid reading a children’s series about twins who lived in different parts of the world, I’ve liked learning about other places through fiction. Maybe this was because I was a bit of a world traveller myself as a kid, but I like to think that most people are interested in the world beyond their own backyard.
      But as you say, not at the expense of a well-constructed story.

  4. acommonreaderuk Says:

    Fascinating review even though the book does not appeal to me all that much (from what you write about it). I find its generally bad news when anything “cyber” comes into a book as very few writers know enough about the topic to write accurately about it. However this one seems to work from what you write. I’ll be interested to see what Kim says about it and will now go and have a look . . .

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Tom: The “cyber” part works just fine because the author does keep it “recipient-oriented” — I suspect a lot of us are intrigued by just what might lie behind those endless emails that fill the spam cue, whether or not the author has got it right. I had different issues when I approached the book — I confess to a bias (well, concern at least) on North American writers telling us about how things work in Africa, e.g. how oil companies are upsetting the traditional way of life, conflicts between tribes. That bias is probably reflected in the fact that it was those story lines that were least successful for me — the ones involving Laura and her family worked quite well.

      • BuriedInPrint Says:

        I share your concerns and, yet, I felt that the “Nigerian portion” of the story was more of a draw for me; I felt as though Laura’s narrative was a practical choice, allowing Western readers to be invited into a story that many might have let sit on the shelf if it had begun with Nnamdi or Winston. The more that I thought about it, the more that I felt there was a stronger unity of theme underscoring the novel, whereas initially it felt quite simply plot-heavy, so I enjoyed it more as time passed, after I’d read it. Funny how that happens with some books, isn’t it.

        • KevinfromCanada Says:

          BiP: I certainly agree with your last statement — I’m always intrigued by how my opinion of a novel changes in the weeks or months after I have read it. Sometimes it improves, sometimes gets worse — and there is no predictable pattern.

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