Chuma Nwokolo, Jr. - Quarterback & Co.
George Franz is having a bad day. He earns £145,900 per year (oh yes, there's a lot of money in this story), and only takes a lunch break when he can charge it to a client or justify it as a business expense. He works, and works, and works, but all he wants is the chance, just a chance, for an hour-long snooze during work hours so he can catch up on his sleep. His tiredness comes, improbably, from a shaman in Vietnam, who concocted a potion to help battle a pressing legal issue. The result of the potion was that Franz compulsively slips into a dreamless stupor, but unfortunately he was supposed to take two doses, and had only had one, when the shaman died. Naturally. So, now, instead of being in complete control of his faculties, he instead craves sleep, while all the while holding down a high-flying London job as an “analysis manager” at a fictional tech company called KwoiTech, which demands a lot of its employees, including regular 3am entry of brainwaves into his notebook. And then,
about ten minutes ago an insect probably settled on my temple, extended its proboscis, and sucked approximately a quarter of my brains out.
And the insect, which turns out to be a bee of sorts, is in fact rather helpful when it comes to reading the telepathic thoughts of competitors, and results in a significant promotion for Franz.
Welcome to the very strange world of Chuma Nwokolo, Jr.
Quarterback & Co. is a story which never really bothers getting around to explain its own strange brand of wackiness, instead indulging in an increasingly bizarre set of circumstances which culminates, or doesn't (ending with an odd and satisfying whimper), in the rise and fall of Franz, who is able to utilise his oddly psychic bee. Nwokolo piles on the strangeness, ranging from country to concept to character, and along the way he takes the time to eviscerate the money-obsessed culture of the upper management of large companies. He's clearly having a good time, and so do we. The propulsion of his story is such that his oddities never outstay their welcome – we learn about the Vietnamese shaman, for example, for just long enough to shake our head and laugh, but not so long that we think to ourselves, “hang on a second...” - Nwokolo's story never fails to shift to a new, weirder, idea before the previous becomes stale.
To backtrack a little, George Franz just wants to sleep. But his schedule is so heavily crammed with meetings and chargeable work, and the expectations of his company is high (his secretary taps impatiently as she waits for monitor to display the characters she has typed, and everyone is expected to memorise their calendars down to the instant), that he can't, not ever, get a break. His hours are obscene, but they are what is expected, so that's what he does. The mere thought of taking a nap leads to:
The dimensions of the transgression were so colossal that it did not fully form in my mind immediately. This could lead to the sort of termination that would continue to reverberate at annual Christmas parties years down the line.
But he does nap, and while dozing that nasty insect comes along and suck out a quarter of his brain. Why a quarter and how does he know? Nwokolo doesn't tell us and neither does Franz, but we're willing to go along with them. The insect remains in his office after sucking his brains, and indeed, seemed to be reading his emails, buzzing horizontally back and forth across the sentences on his computer. Naturally, this leads Franz to mention the following:
I suppose some of my readers are well acquainted with the academic bees of Southern Antigua, which have been observed in the wild performing similar acts on discarded newspapers caught in thorn bushes...
It soon seems as though the bee is “an extension of my mental faculties”. It travels with him everywhere, relaying information. Quarterback, as he is named (well, he has a quarter of Franz's brain, supposedly), is quite helpful when it comes to acquiring the necessary information to seal a business deal, and soon Franz's career enters the stratosphere. But then a rather ridiculous calamity befalls the bee, and Franz crashes, becoming a three-quarter brained fool, incapable of performing his role. And then -
It hardly needs to be explained by now, but Nwokolo's story is rather ridiculous. It's all a lot of fun. The satire is sharp, but there's not enough of it (thankfully) to overshadow the sheer weirdness of the story. It's a bit of a fun game, while reading the story, to guess where it will go, and then to find out how wrong you are. Nwokolo's writing appears rushed and dashed off by Franz in the seconds of spare time he has available to him, which of course means it has been laboured over for some time. The sentences are rough-hewn and abruptly chopped, echoing the frenetic exuberance of his narrator. George Franz never really allows himself a time to slow down and breathe while relaying his story, and neither does Nwokolo. On and on the story hurtles, and the end, when it comes, surprises with its circular nature and return to the initial theme of money and corporate life.
In short, this is a great, fun, story. It also comes at an interesting point in the African Roar collection. It's a little over halfway, and to be honest, none of the other stories prior really possessed all that much humour. They are all good – and sometimes great – but there haven't been a lot of laughs. Quarterback & Co. is, then, something of a tonic to these serious stories, but that shouldn't be taken as an indication that it isn't worth critical attention. Nwokolo has a number of insightful points to make concerning corporate life, but he is never heavy-handed about it and, if you wish, you can simply enjoy the zany wackiness of the story. Look for depth and it's there, but you don't need to, to have a good time. Just sit back and laugh, and perhaps watch out for those bees from Southern Antigua. Who knows what they'll read next?
Quarterback & Co. by Chuma Nwokolo, Jr. is a short story from StoryTime's publication, African Roar (edited by Emmanuel Sigauke and Ivor W. Hartmann). This review is part of a series intending to examine each story from the collection, in an effort to broaden awareness of both the project itself, and the excellent array of authors contained within.
Reviews of other short stories from the African Roar Series