Chris Abani

"The Virgin of Flames"

(Reviewed by Leland Cheuk JUN 13, 2007)

“Los Angeles for him wasn’t Beverly Hills, or the movies, or Rodeo Drive. It wasn’t the deception of movie studios that built sets with varying door sizes so that cowboys looked brawnier against the smaller doors and ladies daintier against the taller ones. It wasn’t the Mulhollands and their water, nor the people everywhere with too perfect hair and smiles as fake as the teeth they framed. Nor was it San Marino and its pretend class, or even the Hollywood sign. It was in the angle of light caught in the trickle of the Los Angeles River as it curved under one of the beautiful old crumbling bridges of East LA. The way the painting of an angel wearing sandals and jeans, its once-white wings stained by exhaust soot and tag signs, smoking a cigarette on a support of the 10 East Freeway on Hoover, curved into flight if you took the corner of the on-ramp at speed.”

At its broadest, The Virgin of Flames is a novel about the rainbow-colored underbelly of Los Angeles. Inside Chris Abani’s Los Angeles, you will not find Santa Monica, lattes, SUVs, celebrities, or aspiring actors. His Los Angeles is more Watts than Mann’s Chinese Theater, more patrol cars than paparazzi. And after tackling Lagos, Nigeria in his previous book, Graceland, Abani is well up to the challenge in his third novel, creating a East L.A. full of poetry and big-hearted characters.

The Virgin of Flames is also a coming-of-age novel. The protagonist is named Black, a poor mural artist struggling to find his sexual and artistic identity. In a novel much less surreal than this one, Black would be too old (he’s in his late 30s) to be coming of age. But for most of The Virgin of Flames, Black has the concerns of an eighteen year-old. The story setup is as follows: Black is obsessed with a local stripper named Sweet Girl. He is still trying to come to terms with the way his father left his family for Vietnam never to return. He has a spaceship in a tree in the backyard of his apartment complex. A vision of a fiery virgin comes to him in a dream and he decides to paint her on a wall. Characters talk a lot, go to their favorite haunts (like the strip club or the spaceship treehouse). Not much of consequence happens.

Somehow, Abani still makes this work, primarily through the power of his highly stylized writing.  Nary a page lacks an Abani original, turns of phrases or paragraphs that you might find in a stellar book of poetry rather than a novel. “This is the religion of cities,” the novel begins. “The sacraments: iridescent in its concrete sleeve, the Los Angeles River losing faith with every inch traveled…World-weary tenements and houses contemplating a more decadent past, looking undecided, as if they would up and leave for a better part of the city at any moment…And out of sight, yet present nonetheless, the tired bounce of heat-deflated basketballs against soft tar.” Abani’s writing challenges you to read on even when the plot does not.

The plot primarily consists of Black’s quests to woo Sweet Girl, a transsexual stripper, and fulfill his vision as a mural artist. And as the plotlines intersect, Black’s transsexual tendencies emerge, furthering his feelings of displacement in this surreal East Los Angeles. If he had chosen to develop Black’s character naturalistically, Abani would have had plenty of heart-rending events to choose from. Instead, the number of characters and mini-plots expand and after awhile, it seems the author cares more about the various climactic events than the reader does.

Still, The Virgin of Flames is an enjoyable and original read, with sentences and images that readers will savor.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews
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(Reviewed by Debbie Lee Wesselmann JUN 13, 2007)

This debut novel is a raw, unflinching look at an unconventional teenager and his native Nigeria. Elvis, who is named after Elvis Presley and who makes a meager living impersonating the dead rockabilly star, lives in Lagos following a series of tragedies, including the death of his mother. He lives with his alcoholic father and his selfish, manipulative stepmother and step-siblings in a house that is only a shadow of what he knew as a young child. Lagos is not kind to this family. It is a city teeming with poverty, political oppression, and predators, all of which seem to conspire against everyone Elvis knows. His best friend Redemption is constantly scrapping for extra money and does whatever it takes, even if it means not asking questions. The King of the Beggars is both a performer and a political dissident. Elvis experiences the brutality of the ubiquitous Colonel and his forces, the exploitation of orphaned girls, the slave trade, and much more in this gritty, hostile world. Abani punctuates the scenes with comfort food recipes (all containing yams in some form) and details of the kola nut ceremony.

For a portrait of a country that must escape itself for it to survive, Abani's novel succeeds; however, as a story, the narrative can be less than compelling. It is difficult to care about Elvis because he is so detached from what happens that the scenes have little significance for the protagonist. Abani's occasional polemic speeches about life and sometimes heavy-handed prose weigh down what could be an astonishing tale of corruption and redemption. Despite these flaws, Graceland is worth reading for what it shows and tries to tell about growing up in a violent landscape. Abani has marked himself as a novelist to watch.

I recommend this novel for readers of literary fiction and for those who are drawn to fiction about Africa.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 54 reviews

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About the Author:

Chris AbaniChris Abani was born in Nigeria in 1966 and published his first novel at sixteen. Two years later (1985) he was imprisoned on the grounds that this work had served as a blueprint for the failed coup of General Vatsa. In 1987, while at university, his activities as a member of a guerrilla theatre group which performed plays in front of government offices resulted in a further year’s imprisonment in the Kiri Kiri maximum security prison. A play, Song of a Broken Flute, which he wrote in 1990 for the convocation ceremony of his university, led to a third period of incarceration, under threat of death, for a further eighteen months. Many of his prison companions did not survive.

After fleeing Nigeria he continued to write poetry and fiction. He is the recipient of the PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, the Prince Claus Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a California Book Award, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award & the PEN Hemingway Book Prize.

He teaches at University of California, Riverside and Antioch University, Los Angeles. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014