By Simon Demetriou
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault argues that the modern penal system aims to make its objects into ‘docile bodies’ through the shift away from punishment as a public spectacle and towards a state of permanent institutional observation by an unequal gaze. Nana Kwame Adjei-Bernyah’s debut novel pushes this idea to its absurd logical extreme, and imagines a world in which prisoners’ bodies are so docile that they can be used for a public spectacle that turns murder not into punishment, but into entertainment.
Hard action-sports are all the rage in the America of Chain Gang All Stars. That the term ‘hard action-sports’ might easily be applied to things like MMA or boxing or even cliff-diving or moto-cross suggests the short step Adjei-Brenyah’s world is away from our own. In his America, hard action-sports is the term used for the sports entertainment franchise Chain Gang All Stars in which convicted criminals (or ‘Links’) ‘freely’ sign up to fight other convicts to the death in arenas called ‘Battlegrounds’ to the rapturous delight of fans. Behind it all lies the less rapturous but more lasting delight of the ‘GameMasters’ who rationalise the immense wealth they generate from the public slaughter of the incarcerated by claiming that they are ‘transforming this terrifying world into something beautiful’.
The irony here is that they are the real terror, these people who acknowledge calmly that the ‘nut to crack in any criminal-justice sport was to separate the criminal from the human’. And the further irony is that in depicting these terrors, Adjei-Brenyah creates something that is both beautiful and redeeming: the first, is the relationship between Loretta Thurwar – the longest-surviving Link and the franchise’s biggest star – and Hamara ‘Hurricane Staxxx’ Stacker, Loretta’s chain-mate and lover, and the second greatest living Link.
The second of Adjei-Brenyah’s beautiful and redeeming creations is the book itself. This is an important novel because it makes the reader complicit in horror as it makes him/her a believer in and yearning advocate for the triumph of love. In writing that is masterfully phrased and often bitingly funny, Adjei-Brenyah reminds us that we are all capable of the callous dehumanisation that reality TV profits from just as much as the US penal system in its ineffective, brutal enormity does. We all rationalise away the baseness we enjoy or exploit. Yet we are all capable of tenderness and understanding.
Chain Gang All Stars deserves to enter the public consciousness in the way that books like 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale have. It is a superb example of book that had to be written because it’s a book we should all wish could not have been.