Let me begin like a diplomat, by speaking from both sides of my mouth.
I liked reading this book a whole lot but there was so much about the book that left me quite upset and I will come to all that in a few heart beats.
First, let me say that never has the title of a book been so apt in capturing the very essence of a collection the way Ifelanwa’s well-chosen title, On a Lot of Things (Whizzkidz Books, 2010)has because the 30 something pieces (and here lies my first problem with this book, there is no content page) that make up this collection are not easy to categorise thematically or otherwise.
In this book, you will find stories set in Europe and ancient Rome, in Nigeria in such urban locales as Lagos as well as the swampy creeks of the Niger Delta. There are also stories set in the never-never land of fables with characters that seem snapped out of some exotic children’s book, but there lies the difference, there is nothing childish about these stories.
Ifelanwa’s stories address serious issues from hatred to colonialism, colonial mentality to xenophobia; as well as desperation and hopelessness. These are stories brewed in the cauldron of a well read and educated mind with an eager and fertile imagination.
These stories are re-imaginations of what we know, hear and see every day. They are stories snatched from within the quotidian ordinariness of our lives and sprinkled with the ash of novelty. These are stories given life by that eternal question: what if?
Ifelanwa’s stories are distinguished by his ability to bring a fresh perspective to issues. In stories like “The L.A.N.D” which is his own unique take on the ongoing rehabilitation of MEND militants as well as “Omo Onile” we find him treating two very topical issues but the psychological exploration and depth he brings to the issues make them much more than just newspaper headlines.
What is my second problem with this collection? It is the fact that many of the stories are too short. The feeling one gets in reading them if you will permit the analogy, is one of premature ejaculation. We arrive at our destination long before the journey has really begun. The effect of this is that the characters are not fully developed, the conflict is not stretched out and there are, what one may call, easy resolutions. Our author seems to forget, especially in those extremely short stories, that what makes the journey memorable is not the departure point or terminus; it is the sights that we see and the experiences we have along the way.
But there may well be a reason for the very brief stories and this could be an attempt to make the stories stick like epigrams that one can easily commit to memory.
The point is often made that to write well, you must read well. Ifelanwa appears the kind of man who reads well but writing goes beyond reading well. You must possess that uncommon facility for digesting, analyzing and re-imagining the received knowledge. In this wise, we must applaud Mr. Osundolire.
In “Midnight at Noon,” which recalls David Njoku’s BBC award winning short story “Cowries of the Eclipse,” a solar eclipse becomes the foundation on which to lay bare the thoughts and impulses of people living in the town while in “The Crucifixion of Plumbtifest Rantimus: Priest of Proles;” Mr. Osundolire re-imagines a well-known story that played out over 2000 years ago and changed world history.
Mr. Osundolire is at his very best when he writes fables or allegorical stories from “The Ribbon of Light and the Great Crab Crossing” and “Wildlife” to the beautifully realized and wise “The Devil’s Deal” which would be a shame if it isn’t original to “Primal Fear.” These are hard to forget stories that tackle urgent existential questions in fresh and amazing ways.
He has a gift for puns and double entendres and this is showcased best in the story EEE 301: The National Greed where Mr. Osundolire goes to the very heart of our problems as a nation by using electric power as metaphor but by the end of the 2 page story, where you read “the transmission lines used in transmitting power in the National Greed are basically wire transfers” you will realize that the story was never about electric power at all.
The best realized stories in the collection, also happen to be the longest: Zone B and Once Upon a Well which must make the author see that we have been shortchanged.
“Zone B” (which may well be a pun on Zombie) is about class distinctions, about Xenophobia and herd mentality while Once Upon a Well sets out as a normal domestic narrative before going into some very dark and secret places. But at the very heart of both stories is a comment on human nature and the lengths to which we would go to keep things the way they are because the consequences are unimaginable.
On a Lot of Things is the kind of book you read and then you can’t stop telling people about the stories you have just read but it is also a book that has been poorly served editing wise. There are typos, omissions and an inability to decide when to use “will” and “would” but then that is the lot of books unmediated by a formal publishing structure.
Typos or not, I must however urge you to buy and read and share the wise, funny, painful and all too real stories that make up this collection. Books like this don’t come your way every day.