Chain-Gang All-Stars David O’Neill

In Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut novel, a dystopian universe of bloodthirsty entertainment and surveillance capitalism.

Chain-Gang All-Stars, by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah,
Pantheon, 363 pages, $27

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Every time I turn on the television, I wonder if George Saunders is orchestrating the programming from afar. But then I realize that even his zany stories couldn’t approximate the insouciant depravity of today’s TV producers. The reality show Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test puts weakly famous celebrities, well past their prime, through rigorous military challenges—“drown proofing,” enduring tear gas, hand-to-hand combat, and more. (I thought I’d see Anthony Scaramucci expire, and don’t get me started on what they subjected Scary Spice to.) What really caught my eye, though, was that contestants are forced to wear black hoods to their on-camera confessionals, a jarring and bizarre reminder of the War on Terror.

Violence and suffering as entertainment are at the heart of Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s new novel, Chain-Gang All-Stars, which immerses readers in the realm of “hard action-sports,” live competitions in which imprisoned people fight to the death for a chance to be released. While Saunders’s empathetic send-ups leave us feeling better about the lovable scrum of humanity, Adjei-Brenyah (who studied with him) offers a transformative, clear-eyed critique. Chain-Gang All-Stars is a feat of world-building and Juvenalian satire that is also an indictment: a TV-ready adventure story about reality television, America’s unquenchable thirst for violence, and the retributive means of torture and racial-class control cruelly euphemized as “the justice system.”

Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker, Loretta Thurwar, Melancholia Bishop, Sunset Harkless, and others battle for High Freedom (liberation) while trying to avoid Low Freedom (annihilation) in the CAPE (Criminal Action Penal Entertainment) league. The for-profit gladiatorial competition blends elements of The Hunger Games with The Real World. Between BattleGround bouts, the Links (team members) of a Chain (team) are followed by hovering HMCs (Holo Microphone Camera™ EyeBalls), which document the Links’ lives—their meals, squabbles, baths, love affairs, forced marches, and Melees (Chain vs. Chain brawls)—for a stream called LinkLyfe. In this world, as in our own, product placement underwrites the bloodshed: “WholeMarket™” logos depicting “a bountiful fruit basket” adorn the fighters’ gear, and “Wal-Stores, Sprivvy Wireless, and McFoods” sponsor the death matches. Adjei-Brenyah revels in this skewed vocabulary, which makes his outrageous universe feel credible. Describing Staxxx’s bloody uniform, he writes: “Her formerly white combat boots were splotched with browns and reds, a pale, grainy earth tone. Her thighs were compressed in elastic that stretched against her muscles, the tights also marked with the WholeMarket ™ fruit basket, emblazoned near her hip, conspicuously not centered on her genitalia, as many other major brands might have opted for. WholeMarket ™ was a family brand.”

CAPE’s comedically overdone commercialization is one way Adjei-Brenyah nods at the reader. Another is the book’s copious footnotes, a back-channel approach to conversation that, early on, clarifies minor plot points, like what an HMC is or what a character got arrested for. These notes tread into nonfictional territory as the story progresses. When Thurwar kills a young Link, the footnote describes the real-life case of George Stinney, Jr., a Black fourteen-year-old who was wrongfully executed at the South Carolina Penitentiary in 1944. A later footnote explains: “It is estimated that between 2.3 percent and 5 percent of incarcerated people in America are innocent. That number represents over 100,000 people. George Stinney, Jr., again and again.”

Adjei-Brenyah has much to say about lawbreaking, punishment, the psychology of inflicting pain, and the dirty bargains people make with themselves to survive an antagonistic system. You might fear that the characters would be paper cutouts in a morality play designed to make readers feel good about their politics. But Adjei-Brenyah is far subtler than that. Thurwar and Staxxx are in love, and it’s complicated, even setting aside the life-and-death stakes of CAPE. The author adeptly captures the psychology of their partnership. When they’re in a cot together, he writes, “Staxxx wanted to say, ‘Wait,’ call her back before Thurwar got up, but she knew that the other woman was already gone. Thurwar didn’t allow herself much joy. Staxxx took pleasure in being one of the great exceptions to this. She loved making people feel what they would otherwise not have access to.”

Alongside these small, well-observed moments, Adjei-Brenyah presents grand set pieces, like the BattleGround scenes, which are as exciting as a Marvel movie. He sometimes swoops into first-person narration, offering memorable shards of Saundersian language: “Here we walk in a line ’cause everybody might kill somebody all the time. When I have the space in me, I sorrow for them.” Above all, Adjei-Brenyah offers an account of the violence that shadows every social relation: how the murderous spectacle of CAPE can give a listless couple a sexual jolt, how one punch at a protest can ripple out into mayhem, how a corporation could steal a scientist’s life’s work and use it for pain and profit—and the lengths to which that scientist might go to stop it.

Reading this kinetic, ambitious novel, I kept seeing news stories that could have been a Chain-Gang All-Stars footnote, and that’s undoubtedly Adjei-Brenyah’s point. Critics deride prison abolition as an unreasonable fantasia, but the actual conditions of incarceration, which Adjei-Brenyah always keeps just outside the frame, are far more inconceivable. Sometimes, waiting for a hearing is a de facto death sentence. Take the case of Kalief Browder, a sixteen-year-old accused of stealing a backpack, who spent three years at Rikers without a trial, much of that time in solitary. Before he died by suicide in 2015, he told a reporter, “I feel like I was robbed of my happiness.” (In 2022, at least twenty people died at Rikers.)

It’s a bold artistic choice to keep pulling the reader out of the story via metacommentary—and it works. At the end of the text, Adjei-Brenyah acknowledges the radical foundation of his thinking, the work of Black scholars like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Angela Davis, and Mariame Kaba; activist groups like the Unity Collective, the Rockland Coalition to End the New Jim Crow, and the Prison Policy Initiative; and reporting by ProPublica, the New York Times, the Guardian, and others. Chain-Gang All-Stars is deeply moral and informed but not preachy. Its correspondences with the US system always serve the story and relentlessly heighten its stakes. He distills and dramatizes the genius of the abolition community and its decades of work into a new kind of allegorical fiction—one with a whole movement behind it.

David O’Neill is a writer, editor, and teacher based in Connecticut.

In Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut novel, a dystopian universe of bloodthirsty entertainment and surveillance capitalism.
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