There are ongoing and valid debates on 'whom novels are written for' and the editorial pressures on non-white and non-Western authors to 'explain' rather than tell their stories. While Blackass certainly displays the effect of such realities, Barrett craftily transforms these systemic pressures into art. Yes, he 'explains' what pidgin is, but he also describes it as 'the shortest distance between two thoughts' that caused 'mingled voices to beat the air like wings of released doves.'
The triumph of the book is its passionate and scrupulously detailed picture of Lagos—the roadside bukas that serve hot stew on steel plates, the arduous choreography of the traffic, and the glittering shopping malls to which Furo/Frank gravitates, because all races mix there in a neutral atmosphere of globalized wealth.
...Blackass, though very good in parts, doesn't really work as a novel. Barrett definitely has great ideas and original observations, but it seems like he's tried too hard to force them all into one book. The result is a novel that's not unenjoyable, but one that never really comes together.
By the time it comes to its unsettling conclusion, Blackass has itself metamorphosed into an imperfect yet affecting social novel, yes, but also set of fateful contradictions about a mad world forcefully and originally seen through to the end.
The incredible changes that transform Furo Wariboko’s body — and social standing — from black to white create numerous psychological shifts and dilemmas as well as opportunities...Meanwhile, there are other equally extreme transfigurations afoot in this sharp satire, including a character who becomes a voluptuous hermaphrodite. Barrett conjures a strange kind of Lagos, both fantastic and real — one that demands we think again about the ways in which appearance and identity intersect and conflict.
As with his complex deployment of the Things Fall Apart reference, Barrett shows a gift for stacking allusions with great irony, which is the true discomfiting power of weep-inward satire, as opposed to laugh-aloud comedy. To read this novel as a contemporary Nigerian take on Kafka is to do it a disservice. There is something more profound at work in the oscillation between the writing and the reading of Blackass.
Furo’s trek through Lagos is sometimes blurred by clumsy language...There’s also a metafictional plotline that follows Furo’s sister’s Twitter persona, a “rebirth” parallel that lacks the compelling strangeness of the sections devoted to Furo. These split attentions contribute to a feeling of torn loyalty — am I supposed to care about anyone here? — in an otherwise charming first novel.
Blackass, I’m happy to say, has a rare quality shared only by the best of novels. It teaches you how to read it, something I needed 30 or 40 pages to catch on to. Up till then, the story of an ambitious Nigerian waking up to discover that he has turned white seemed burdened by its all-too-obvious symbolism, its all-too-obvious indictment of colonialism, its all-too-obvious evocation of Kafka.
Barrett’s frenetic plot and pacing takes his characters to uncomfortable places that seem unbelievable and yet, in the moment of this novel, feel entirely plausible. When faced with the question of abandoning his personal history and family for his new life, Furo makes what seems like a shocking decision. For better or worse, his call speaks to the world we live in. Sometimes it’s only through the looking glass that we can honestly see the true extent of the damage inflicted by the world we live in.