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.