Americanah and Behold the Dreamers: What Will Become of Their Dreams?

After finishing Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers earlier this week, I did not immediately think back to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. I’ve read several books from African ex-pats over the last few years, so the connection didn’t spring immediately to mind. But as I reflected, the two books became more and more entwined in my thinking.

Some of the comparisons are obvious, if superficial. Both novels portray immigrants from African countries who work their way through similar layers of the American immigrant experience, including protagonists who find jobs in service that bring them into the orbits of privileged white Americans. Behold the Dreamers follows Jende and Neni, a Cameroonian couple trying to make their way in Harlem just before the 2008 financial crisis. Their lives change dramatically when Jende snags a job as a chauffeur to the wealthy Edwards family–whose patriarch is an executive at Lehman Brothers. Americanah’s chief protagonist is Ifemelu, a Nigerian student separated from her original love interest by post-9/11 visa restrictions. Though she also does a tour as a nanny for a white family, her real exposure to white privilege is through a romantic relationship that opens her up to travel, fine dining, and ultimately to being fundamentally misunderstood. The contrasts between the worlds of black immigrants being exposed to America’s endemic racism and the lives of the white people they interact with inform both authors’ visions of America and, to varying degrees, act as the engines driving their characters’ evolutions.

And much separates the two novels as well. Adichie’s Americanah is undeniably a more sophisticated work. One of the highlights is the way that the first half of the novel is structured around an extended flashback while Ifemelu has her hair braided (a conceit that, sadly, has no parallel in the second half of the novel) and Adichie’s prose is on the whole richer, more sophisticated. Mbue’s prose on the other hand is unadorned, even pedestrian, but it steers well clear of any pat moralizing or judgments—even when the characters or their backstories swing toward melodrama. (She also insulates her white characters from too harsh a lens: Clark Edwards tries to warn his colleagues that the ship is sinking, but is dismissed; his wife is spared from being portrayed as simply a pampered wife of privilege through a painful and tragic backstory that earns her more sympathy that most people would earn while fretting over the horrific prospect of having to give up a summer home because of the national economic meltdown.)

It would be easy to read either novel simply as an indictment of the American Dream, which fails to deliver its promise in both. But Mcue’s impartial, plain-voiced narration and  Adichie’s carefully interwoven storylines seem to fall short of offering an outright evisceration of that American Dream on the order of something like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle from past eras. Perhaps that’s because other great novels that have analyzed these themes were surgery, diagnostics–but both Americanah and Behold the Dreamers feel more like postmortems.

Both feature characters choosing to abandon the American Dream instead of being crushed by it. Through those perspectives of erstwhile American immigrants returning to their home countries and using the experience and resources gleamed from their temporary immigration to build better lives back home, I wonder if something fundamentally new isn’t being documented. Much has been written in the wake of the Trump era about the decline of American, its loss of prestige, the likely end of the “American Century” before it quite hit the 100 year mark. These novels reckon to some extent with the catastrophes of 9/11 and 2008, and looking back, I wonder if historians won’t look at these as a chain of routs like those that befell Rome before its collapse: barbarians at the gates and mad rulers fiddling while the city burned.

But if we are living through the death throes of the American Dream, Mbue and Adichie’s novels suggest something else may be happening alongside this contraction. I’m fond of telling my high school students that they need to know this sequence: Socrates taught Plato, Plato taught Aristotle, and Aristotle taught Alexander the Great, who conquered much of the known world–and that’s why Greek culture was so influential.

It’s an oversimplification, of course, but cultural myths always are. The American Dream is, or was. But as I think about the way that dream captivated characters like Mbue’s Neni and the way that American media has transmitted the underlying ethos of that dream throughout the world, I wonder if even when it is no longer a lure to others, it might mutate into something America exported, something unconscious the myth disseminated into the hearts and minds of millions of others around the world.

Perhaps that’s what novels like these, so clearly American in their structure and ambitions, offer us: a window into a post-America American Century.

The Expanse, S5E10: The Beginning of the End

Stage 1: No Spoilers

The finale of The Expanse’s pivotal fifth season has arrived.

After a season on the ropes and separated across the vastness of space, the Roci crew—and Drummer—are set for a collision around Naomi’s booby-trapped ship. Online I’ve seen complaints about the pacing of this season because apparently a ship-to-ship hard vacuum jump, multiple asteroid impacts on Earth, a 1917-style continuous take gun fight, and a death blossom PDC battle aren’t enough action for some people. Well, if you were one of those people—first of all, get a grip—then hold on, because this week’s episode title is “Nemesis Games” and if that doesn’t scream action, then you need to get a dictionary. Almost every story line from the whole season is about to collide, with almost every member of the Roci extended family prepared to sacrifice themselves to save the others…

Stage 2: Episode Spoilers

And one of them will do exactly that.

After a season of moving separately through the darkness, most of the principal cast meet up in this week’s episode, quite violently, and almost all of them make a bid to lay down their lives for their friends. 

After getting his big action scene on Earth last episode, Amos unfortunately has to sit this one out. But Holden and the Roci are between a rock and a hard place. Marco’s assembled assault fleet is bearing down on them and they don’t have enough fuel to burn hard enough to escape. So Holden being Holden comes up with the most Holden plan ever: Turn and face them. Charge into the Free Navy flotilla’s superior numbers full-bore and hope to survive long enough to make them turn around and destroy them—thus saving Naomi, Alex, and Bobbie. 

Knowing what Holden’s plan means, Alex sends off one last message to his captain, promising to bring Naomi in safe, a pledge he means to keep even after Naomi’s tinkering on the Cheztawhatever means that it’s in a dangerous spiral, which Bobbie notes makes it incredibly dangerous to link up with. She reminds him that the G’s involved in such a maneuver would risk stroking them out, but he is undeterred. 

Though she hasn’t stepped foot on the ship since its first long dry-dock at Tycho, Drummer is still intimately bound to the Rocinante’s crew through her kinship with Naomi. She also knows all too well that Holden and his crew have literally saved the human race in the past, so being asked to “eat shit” and do Marco’s dirty work by destroying the ship—and presumably killing Naomi shortly thereafter—has not been sitting well with her, to say the least. Cara Gee has absolutely been knocking it out of the park with her anguished performance as her inner and outer conflicts were brought to a boil throughout the season. In the end, though, she is resolute and almost seems at peace when she asserts that “there was no other way.” Not just, there was no other way to save the Rocinante, but there was no other choice for her to make. She’s made the calculated choice before. When voting not to space him in season four, she gambled that Marco Inaros could be contained while maintaining the truce between the various factions. She did the necessary, politically-minded, arguably “smart” thing, but not the right thing. She knew in her gut that Marco needed to be spaced back then, and she knows in her gut that she cannot become one of his assassins now. It is only when she pays the price, part of which she knew she would face and part of which she only hoped she wouldn’t, that we see that tortured expression return to Gee’s face. As a character previously defined principally by her anger, this season has opened up and broadened Drummer, creating one of the most satisfying improvements over the source material. 

The back and forth in the shoot out as the Free Navy eats itself is heart-pounding—even if we never believed for a second that the Roci was going to get blown to bits. In the end, Drummer has announced herself and Marco has lost two of his prized Martian warships, leaving Holden free to turn back and try to save Naomi.

But all does not go well with the Razorback’s (sorry, still not calling it Screaming Firehawk) rescue of Naomi. Last week, she noted on her ad-hoc heads-up display that the Razorback was still closing on her. To warn them off, she forces a valve open on a thruster and sends the ship into a spin, but not just any spin. She makes sure that the rotation will create a centripetal pull toward the airlock door. When the time comes and Alex is almost on top of her and the Chimichanga, she lets the drag pull her out the airlock and away from the ship, hoping against hope that they will see her. She knows she’s too close for rescue, but if they can just see her and she can just stay conscious with her limited air supply long enough to signal them away, then her sacrifice will be worth it.

Of course, it turns out not to be her sacrifice. Because Bobbie is a badass with power armor (which we know has its own thrusters) she is able to save Naomi after spotting her hand signals. That’s a tremendous risk, though, as she must exit the Razorback after it’s been maneuvering at high-G to try to link up with the Chitty-chitty-bang-bang, but unbeknownst to everyone, the real risk and the real sacrifice comes from Alex. 

A lot of people will react to this major character death in light of the controversy surrounding the actor (more on that in a minute) but this death makes perfect narrative sense. The whole episode was structured around sacrifice: Drummer sacrificing her family, Holden being willing to sacrifice the ship to save the others, Alex and Bobbie risking themselves to save Naomi, Naomi flinging herself into space—again!—to try to save her friends. The whole theme of self-sacrifice becomes a Chekhov’s gun that must be fired by the end. 

Alex’s role in the Roci family was always as the glue. He was the first to argue that they had become a family. He was the one intent on holding them together. Really, from a narrative stance, he had served his purpose. By season four, the Roci crew was solid. No more revelations to shake their foundations. No more internal conflict. It’s notable that Alex had very little to do last season beyond inspire Lucia by musing about his own wrecked relationships. This season, we’ve hardly seen him out of that chair in the Razorback. Not only was he the most expendable of the core-four, but his departure opens up new possibilities. With Bull at the helm, for now, and Clarissa on board (and maybe Monica?), there are new dynamics and new possibilities for interpersonal interactions, none of which would be enhanced by Alex’s presence. 

By way of send off, we have a glum reunion between the remaining survivors of the Canterbury in the airlock of the Rocinante, right beside the plaque bearing their names…with one of them now missing. His loss serves as one more emotional weight for Naomi to bear since she blames herself, but the crew is back together and, for now, far from the danger at the edge of the solar system. We know they’ll be going back out there, but for now, they’ve earned a brief respite.

The episode and the season doesn’t end with the Roci gang, though. Instead, our gaze is pulled to the edge of the system, where Marco launches one more bold attack. In a dramatic battle against the ships guarding the ring gate, he disables the battleships from Earth and Mars with another barrage of, this time micro, asteroids coated in stealth composites and then, with help from his moles on Medina, blasts at the ships from all angles. There is one brilliant moment where we see the remaining Donnager-class battleship stripped of its armor but still valiantly firing its remaining weapons at the Free Navy fleet. 

But their cause is lost. 

Marco sails into the ring, seizing control of the ring space.

The very admiral from Mars who warned us that controlling the ring space was an asymmetrical chokepoint back in episode two finally reappears after his long trek across the solar system. And fans of the show finally know what the book folks have known all along, there was more to the Martian conspiracy than just selling out. Sauveterre and Babbage are heading to a ring-gate world, Laconia, to join one Admiral Duarte—the true mastermind behind the entire Inaros campaign and now sole-possessor of active protomolecule. We don’t get to meet Duarte yet, but we do get to see Cortazar’s excitement about whatever the protomolecule is doing to those giant structures in orbit of Laconia. Things are afoot and Marco’s whole war has been, for Duarte and his followers, a distraction to buy them space and time. 

But whatever that grand plan is, Sauveterre and Babbage will never get to see it come to fruition. As they transit the ring gate, the beings that Holden warned Fred about finally reveal themselves, gobbling up the ship as it disappears into oblivion. 

Stage 3: Season 6 and Beyond (Book Spoilers)

Despite the looming end of the series on Amazon next season, the show is unapologetically setting the foundations for the storylines of books seven through nine. It’s obvious that season six will end faithfully as well, meaning that while the solar system will settle into post-Free Navy peace with the Guild running interstellar transit through the rings (and presumably Drummer at its head), the Laconian Empire will be left to gestate behind that mine field of theirs. 

What does that mean for us, devoted fans? Yes, season six is, as the authors have pointed out, a “natural pause.” If The Expanse ends there and we never see anything else, it will still likely be one of the greatest (well, the greatest in my book) science fiction series of all time, but dare I hope that there is more already planned? The writers have seemed so coy about the decision to end the show after season six. We’ve heard from Shankar that “there is definitely more story to tell” and Frank himself used the “pause” word. I wouldn’t be surprised (and would be utterly delighted) if after season six finally airs sometime in 2022, a trilogy of films is immediately announced to conclude the story. I only hope that Alcon is that committed to the project. I can personally promise to buy the living hell out of Blu-Rays and 4K versions (I don’t even have a 4K player or TV) the same way all the Browncoats have bought multiple releases of Serenity (I own two DVD versions and the Blu-Ray…and the iTunes download). 

Stage 4: Elephant in the Room Commentary (Full Spoilers)

Obviously, Alex’s sudden and unexpected death is a huge moment for the show. It marks a tremendous departure from the source material as in the books Alex survives all the way until at least book eight, so the knee-jerk assumption is that this was written into the show to dispense with actor Cas Anvar whose deplorable conduct off screen surfaced this summer and led to his termination. But, admittedly without having crunched all the numbers, I don’t know if the math on that adds up. Principle photography for the show was concluded months before the allegations surfaced and production company Alcon’s subsequent investigation. It would be easy to simply plug in Alex’s death scene from a manipulated still frame, but several scenes afterward would have had to be reshot, especially Naomi and Holden’s interactions in sick bay. Now, it looks like Avasarala’s “sorry for your loss” could have been added with ADR after the shoot, but if Alex was meant to be in the finale, wouldn’t he have been all over the lounge scene on Luna? What makes me wonder if this wasn’t always meant to be a twist is the fact that, as with so many moments in the show before, this was actually heavily foreshadowed. Way back in season three, in this very same ship, Bobbie worried about killing Avasarala with a high-G burn. Then, in this episode, Bobbie warns Alex about stroking out in the maneuver to rescue Naomi—which, if a reshoot, would have actually required Anvar’s participation (actually, looking again, that could’ve been ADR also, but when Alex comes out of the hard burn, he definitely makes a point of shaking his head out like something’s wrong). What’s more, a death like this was originally in the cards for Fred Johnson. Could it be that in pulling Fred’s death forward, the show runners planned to use his fate, repurposed for Alex, as a dramatic conclusion to the season? I’m sure more information about why and how this played out will sneak out in the days to come, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was all part of the plan. 

Assorted Musings (Full Spoilers)

-I missed the line about Hutch the first time through. I’d wondered because she was inert in the airlock with Amos, but I thought she’d passed out from the G’s like Clarissa. Amos was tending to her wounds as if she was still alive, but some folks I know suggested he was just sealing her up so she didn’t bleed all over the airlock in zero G. Glad that bad-ass Aliens-style reverse retreat thing wasn’t in vain. 

-Okay, so (curse my terrible memory) I finally looked up the name of Naomi’s ship: Chetzemoka. Like so many of the ship names in the series, it is fraught with meaning. The ship itself is similarly heavy as a symbol for Naomi. From peace offering to the site of her exile and ordeal—blasting it must have felt like sealing the door to her past and Filip for the last time. 

-Filip is hard to read in his scenes here. He seems detached from what’s happening around him, going through the routines of his life on the ship. But what’s he thinking? Our only real clue is a little hint of…something as the crew chants Marco’s name. Is it all starting to ring a little hollow now?

-Amos called her “boss!” The healing is complete!

-There are not decibels enough to measure how hard I laughed as Amos was working Holden through the logic of accepting Clarissa without actually telling him that was what he was talking about, culminating in, “Thank you for being cool about this,” and then Nadine Nicole’s priceless, “Hi.” I never warmed to Peaches in the books, but dammit, she feels outright indispensable to me now.

-Please leave Monica on the Roci, too. I love her curiosity—she just keeps picking at that scab. Plus we know there’s one more big mystery for her to investigate next season. Also, gotta love her first scene with Frankie. Bobbie is supposed to be physically intimidating and the way it looks like Frankie Adams could pick up Anna Hopkins and put her in her pocket really sells that.

-I love that Drummer uses Ashford’s ship to take out some of Marco’s ships. The Ghost Knife’s revenge!

-Guys, like seriously, I thought I was going to stroke out during that opening battle.