MIDNIGHT ANGEL by Jesse Unoh (Author)
When I first came across the phrase Shy Novel as an appendage to the title of the book, Midnight Angel, it struck me as a rather quixotic expression. How in the world did a word like ‘shy’ begin to qualify a noun such as ‘novel’? What is shy about this novel? I wondered. After reading the collection of Short Stories, I find that there is a very practical and sensible explanation for the coinage.
Jesse Unoh, author of Midnight Angel and propounder of this very intriguing expression, offers a simple explanation in his introduction: ‘The Shy Novel is what you get when you take the first two letters of short and the last letter of story and use it to qualify novel . . . it is first a collection of short stories and then a novel.’
This definition is descriptive only, though. The functional definition of the Shy Novel is not as simple a matter. To understand it, we may do well to attempt a comparison of the two art forms being fused into one dynamic species: the Short Story and the Novel. The Short Story usually describes a work which often employs complex writing techniques to produce a single, focused effect, or provoke a specific emotional or intellectual response in the reader as opposed to the novel which may stimulate any range of responses through its many and often complex characters. Again, whereas a novel usually gives more scope for plot development, a short story tends to limit it. This is not without reason. Major characters, the kinds that novels create, require a lot of space to grow and develop and so economical handling is hardly possible. Moreover, the central character of the novel dominates the narrative space absolutely. Other characters, who may be quite well developed themselves, usually have one duty thrust upon them, that is, they serve one single purpose – that of helping the development of the central character around whom the plot revolves. On the other hand, a Short Story typically lacks that ingredient of a central omnipotent figure but instead concentrates more on expounding a central message.
In practice, however, the terms ‘novel’ and ‘short story’ are never truly absolute: They tend to straddle the definitional line, the unwitting result being the Shy Novel.
This, in my view, is what makes the Shy Novel a literary phenomenon. It makes a daring attempt to force the matter by taking as ample space as required for the chief character to grow. In an interesting twist, the other characters do not merely stand around as stimulus for the protagonist. They themselves are important participants and appear to be more responsible to the plot, which they help to unravel, rather than to the central character.
Of course, not many writers in the past have made the conscious effort to write their novels shy. Unoh, therefore, pushes the edge on the form.
The proliferation of the Shy Novel perhaps marks the emergence of a new sub-genre. The writer offers the following prescriptions for the Shy Novel: it should ideally have one storyline, one locality and same cast of characters.
In this regard the Shy Novel closely resembles a Short Story Cycle (in which a series of stories are often unified by the reappearance of a character in the same locale) as developed by the American writer Sherwood Anderson in his collection, Winesbury, Ohio.
However, this is where the resemblance between the two ends. Unlike in a Short Story Cycle where the unifying factor is not necessarily the plot, the Shy Novel needs that single thread to hold it together.
Further, the Shy Novel seems to envisage a work in which each story in the collection is complete in itself and capable of independent existence, but is nonetheless fitted together and sustained on a single lifeline, as an important part of a whole; not unlike looking at your face in a fractured mirror – you may pick a piece, any piece, and still see the whole picture.
The Shy Novel is, in essence, a practical piece of writing but without all the unnecessary baggage and circumlocution which sometimes plague the longer form, the novel. It is as such a novel in every sense, but a no-nonsense one!
Indeed, this twelve-story fiesta, Midnight Angel, is just shy of being a novel – a near miss too. It chronicles the journey of Usonne as he ventures out from his sedentary existence in his native Cross River State to faraway Ibadan in Oyo State for the one-year compulsory National Youth Service. The reader is invited to travel along with Usonne and make the acquaintance of the people with whom he shares this literary space: from the man on the streets, Dele, to the antics-full J.T. and even the intimate happy-hour friendship he cultivates with Rita.
On this journey the reader is taken without preamble to the heart of the matter, many of which will play out shortly. As a matter of fact, sooner rather than later, as Usonne is caught up in some of the ‘miseries of the road’ as he dubs them, though no serious drama ensues.
In a way, the first story presents us with all the elements of Midnight Angel in a nutshell. It identifies for us the issues as well as the dilemma that life’s little dramas frequently plunge us into, forcing us to make choices that cast us either as angels or devils. This can be gleaned from the way Usonne’s enthusiasm at being called up to serve his country wavers in the face of the apparent dangers and discouraging conditions of service. Usonne begins to wonder whether perhaps his patriotism is wasteful.
No matter the story the writer employs, he masterly returns his focus to his message which is essentially urging that there is a need for a close examination of the fabric of our society, which scrutiny will expose the decay in its thread, stitches and dye. It highlights the collective culpability of both the government and the governed.
In this satirical work, Unoh is a crusader of a literary kind. He sets out to provoke a national self-examination and re-orientation; he is lending his pen to the call for the reclamation of our long-lost sanity as a nation. But, importantly, he draws our attention to the fact that any meaningful change can only begin with individuals.
The urgency of his message seemingly calls for the shocking bluntness with which he delivers it. For instance, one may be troubled by the frequent encounter of the exchange of bribes for official favour and speedy passes on the federal roads but, more so, at the apathy and resulting syncopation in values such as the observation that “Nobody grumbled at the show of shame” (p.18).
The situation is perhaps made worse when we consider closely the setting in which this work is based – the N.Y.S.C Scheme. Here we are confronted with our not-so-future leaders at the critical point of entry into the ‘real world’ already detachedly involved in the system of bribing themselves into or out of any State of deployment. And worse still, when we consider further our individual and collective guilt in the system as a whole; whether overtly or covertly, as when we silently endorse the taking of bribes by the policeman at the checkpoint, or even impatiently (perhaps silently) urging the ‘stubborn’ driver to part with the ‘meager’ sum demanded to allow the journey progress smoothly, or asking or receiving any other undue advantage. The sad truth, though, is that what is saved in time and convenience is lost in conscience.
The abortion theatre drama pulls no punches either in condemning moral decadence. It elaborates the role each of the characters plays in the baby-execution factory: Bayo finds the conscience-bereft Doctor who is assisted by compromising nurses, and girlfriend, Nkechi, submits herself to the cold and cruel instruments, while the rest of the street walks on by. (p.72-73). The story draws out the dangers and stark realities of the procedure in its very gripping and gory details so that it comes as quite a relief that it is only a dream; between Bayo and his pregnant girlfriend there is still a chance to make the right decision.
The work reaches a climax when the system of numerous illegal roadblocks and artificial administrative bottlenecks at emergency wards, bribery and corruption, strike actions in response to self-serving governments et al begins to backfire as Inspector Emenike attempts to get help for his bleeding fiancée. (P.103-104)
In attacking the ills of society in this outspoken and brazen manner, the writer manages to milk wry humour out of an otherwise depressing state of affairs.
It is also very interesting to note that Unoh’s Midnight Angel does not attempt to provide all the answers or nag out the effects of every course of action. Unoh simply leads his readers through a long corridor to an open door and leaves them to walk through it themselves. In this way he endorses nothing. In my view, this ‘open door’ style is very effective. Indeed, a moral lecture if delivered too directly can easily become a sentimental trap.
Ironically, though, Unoh himself inadvertently falls into this trap here and there. For instance, one may detect a subliminal willingness to blame the moral decay in the society on the government. The scale tips a little too much on the side of the so-called suffering masses. Take the writer’s voice speaking through Tunde (The Retentionist) that: ‘when as a leader you do very little to address the embarrassing level of unemployment in the country, it is almost immoral to expect people not to commit crime, most of which is what I call “subsistence crimes”’ (p.94). Elsewhere, it is contrived that a situation where policemen have no ‘roger’ translates to ‘a difficult life on the pittance they (policemen) collected each month from the government as salaries’ (p.101).
Another perspective opens up, of course, when you follow through with the sum of the arguments in Midnight Angel. The writer’s persuasion seems to be that the average Nigerian can hardly afford the moral choice, that doing the right thing comes at no mean price, but that even though there may be no immediately obvious pecuniary reward for doing good, virtue is its own reward. Usonne defends this position in the following words: ‘It has nothing to do with money.’(p.114)
The beautiful thing about Usonne’s conviction is the fact that it is so strong that he is willing to stand alone in his belief in the good and future of the country even when he cannot easily find encouragement in his fellow compatriots (P.113-115).
I am persuaded that there is thus as much justification for this position as for any other.
Although the narrative technique is a bit confusing, in that the author makes use of an omniscient narrator in one or two stories, and, the first-person narrator and central intelligence in others, such that it is difficult to follow the narrative point of view (since it’s all supposed to read as one novel), Midnight Angel succeeds on the whole as a profound social comment with a realistic depth, a truly Nigerian novel capable of arousing the sense of citizenship in the reader while still remaining high in entertainment quotient.