Chain-Gang All-Stars Is Gladiator Meets the American Prison System

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s new novel is set in a world where extreme brutality has become corporate entertainment.

A TV remote that has a button with a skull on it, representing on-demand death.
Ben Kothe / The Atlantic

Look for the videos, and you’ll find them everywhere: a stranger getting pummeled in public, the victim of a bloody brawl having a seizure on the ground while people snicker, someone in psychological distress lashing out while the person filming chuckles. In a world where the ability to capture such images and videos via smartphone technology is commonplace, it’s become disturbingly easy for that violence to stop registering with viewers as violence, per se. Instead, these clips are at best just more content in an endless stream and at worst, mere entertainment, with their creators standing to profit if they get enough views. In this way, violence becomes quotidian and commodified. It’s the banality of evil for a new era, as the political philosopher Hannah Arendt—who famously coined the phrase after observing just how unexpectedly “normal” the Nazi Adolf Eichmann appeared at trial—might have observed.

This idea is at the core of Chain-Gang All-Stars, a new novel by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. In a dystopian America, prisoners have the opportunity to sign up for the “CAPE” program, a gladiatorial system that pits them against one another in epic, anime-like, televised duels to the death, rendered by Adjei-Brenyah in intoxicating detail. Win enough bouts, and a participant may be “High Freed,” a euphemism for being released from prison. To be killed in battle is to be “Low Freed,” implying that death, too, is an escape. The novel suggests that the logical next step in a world that monetizes and cheers on violence is to turn the incarcerated—many of whom are already treated in America today like slaves—into multimedia entertainment for the masses. It is a testament to Adjei-Brenyah’s idiosyncratic talents as a satirist that this premise, which initially seems outlandish, feels disquietingly plausible by the novel’s end.

By Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

In general, the only way for competitors to win matches is to kill their opponent, which earns them currency that can be used to purchase weapons, special foods, and accommodations. The blood sport draws massive civilian crowds, and the battles—along with nearly all moments of the participating prisoners’ lives—are filmed, so that viewers can follow their favorite fighters in noncombat moments. The macabre brutality of the CAPE system rarely seems to dissuade the audience; instead, many treat the televised killings as one would a football match or video game. And it is the normality of it all that Adjei-Brenyah repeatedly, devastatingly drives home. “The men and women who had presumably paid hundreds of dollars to witness this circus of death firsthand were, more or less, regular people,” he writes. The juxtaposition in the novel’s title becomes darkly accurate: The prisoners are at once enslaved in the manner of a chain gang and cheered on by zealous fans as beloved celebrity athletes.

The games are also justified by fans—and by the tournaments’ creators, or “GameMasters”—as a way to keep dangerous people off the streets. The system, the GameMasters believe, is “transforming this terrifying world into something beautiful”—that is, into corporatized corporal theater. Here, the ironies accumulate: Fans love the fighters but also fear them, for they are people accused of heinous crimes. The violence of the fights, Adjei-Brenyah shows, has multiple uses for those in charge. It excites crowds on the one hand, and on the other, serves as a subconscious reminder that the combatants should be viewed as killing machines rather than as humans. “A knife is only ever so far from your neck. A man of ill intent is only ever so far from your children, your daughters, your sons,” one of the GameMasters says during a company speech, as the argument for both continuing to incarcerate people and subsequently transmogrifying them into gore-splattered legends.

Those all-stars are the novel’s focus. Adjei-Brenyah introduces a wide cast of incarcerated fighters, each of whom—like professional wrestlers—has a signature style, moniker, catchphrase, and weapon. Although many characters appear only briefly—usually because they’re killed shortly after being introduced—they tend to be memorable, and in their descriptions and voices, Adjei-Brenyah shows off his polyvocal skill. A man named Razor wields a sword with the swagger of an anime samurai; Randy Mac is known for the catchphrase “Suck my dick, America,” which his fans gleefully and ironically chant back at him. Then there’s the tragic figure of Simon J. Craft, who has been so severely tortured in prison that he has retreated into verbalizing random words starting with J and lashing out at whoever crosses his path with the double blades attached to his hands like some DIY Wolverine.

Chain-Gang All-Stars also occasionally diverts attention to the activists protesting the CAPE program, whose stance leaves them in the cultural minority. But even if challenges to the program are far rarer than the cheers of fans, the novel suggests that this activism is still essential; protesters have the daunting task of alerting the grinning viewers to what Adjei-Brenyah calls the “ever-present evil” of CAPE and the American prison system more broadly. Although these protests shape the story’s arc, the novel spends too few chapters fleshing out the activist characters, making the brief moments when they do reappear feel like interruptions of the more compelling main narrative.

The book’s cast is immense, but two stand out as the protagonists: Loretta Thurwar and Hurricane Staxxx, two Black women in love who have fought so many bouts that they’ve come shockingly close to freedom, growing into the most famous CAPE members in the process. The novel opens with Thurwar facing a battle-hardened opponent named Melancholia Bishop—“the winningest woman ever to step on the Battleground. The Mistress of the Murder Ballad,” according to the announcer’s characteristically flowery descriptions. Despite her opponent’s considerable experience, Thurwar quickly asserts herself as a sharp thinker, a strategic brawler, and a woman whose motivations go beyond just surviving each battle. Thurwar, we learn, is known as much for her fatal skill with her hammer, Hass Omaha, as for her brevity during post-fight interviews and her natural leadership. Thurwar often seems unflappable, yet her private moments with Staxxx reveal her vulnerability.

This is partly because Staxxx—famed for her catchphrase “I love you,” typically deployed before she extinguishes her opponent with a scythe called LoveGuile—shares a bed with Randy Mac when she’s not with Thurwar, an arrangement Thurwar accepts but that occasionally weighs on both women. And, of course, they must bear the heaviness of losing the few other people they both briefly form attachments with. Even as the action sequences are delivered with palpable intensity, the emotional depth of Thurwar and Staxxx’s connection holds the narrative together. Having a relationship in the CAPE program is difficult, to put it lightly: Not only is everyone constantly under the threat of death, but the ubiquitous floating cameras record the prisoners even during sex, meaning they have almost no privacy. Thurwar and Staxxx have learned not to be fazed by the omnipresent surveillance; Staxxx relishes it, posing for the cameras in intimate moments.

Perhaps most surprising is Thurwar’s and Staxxx’s kindness, which Adjei-Brenyah describes in many compelling scenes. Despite their need to kill, they manage to be generous to each other and to their fellow teammates. Staxxx’s claim to “love” her opponents is at some level true, refracted through the grim fact that being killed in the ring can be a kindness, a release from prison’s unceasing horrors. Rather than falling into despair or self-indulgence, Staxxx and Thurwar find time to help those around them and be there for each other.

As Adjei-Brenyah relates, many prisoners sign up for the horrific program because daily life in the prisons is so full of casual torture that CAPE seems better. In these cells, technology and torture are intimately linked. The prisoners are implanted with magnets that can force them into certain positions or shock them on command, and in many situations, speaking itself is forbidden, any vocalization punishable by sharp electric pain from sadistic guards. Then there are ghastly weapons such as “Influencers,” gunlike tools that fire rods into prisoners, which deliver indescribable jolts of agony into their bodies. Tellingly, some of the wardens use them to torment inmates just for fun, and the threat of the Influencer drives more than one character into the gladiatorial program.

If, as the book suggests, the American prison system is different from slavery only in name, why not take the chance to escape? But, as on historical slave plantations—Adjei-Brenyah explicitly links the two, referring at one point to the “plantation/prison” system—liberation is virtually impossible, and the prisoners know that CAPE, too, may be a death sentence. When a secondary character named Hendrix Young signs paperwork to join, he listens to an official read out the program's stipulations and thinks to himself “All he saying over and over is, You already dead.” Lest the sci-fi tech and over-the-top elements lull you into thinking that this is all just fiction, Adjei-Brenyah has included footnotes that relay grim statistics about the carceral system, weaving together reality and lurid fantasy. These footnotes sometimes feel disruptive, transforming the text into a kind of creative-nonfictional activist manifesto. But perhaps this is inevitable; to write a satire of the American prison system may well be inseparable from listing its facts.

Despite the book’s bleak vision, Adjei-Brenyah suggests that no matter how desensitized people become to violence, trying to change hearts and minds is still worthwhile. “The people were shocked. They were quiet,” he writes late in the book, when, after a dramatic set of reveals, the crowd comes to a brutal realization about the fights. “And in silence … maybe there is hope yet.” When the cheers stop, when people look away from the omnipresent screens, they can finally pause for a beat and take in reality rather than the entertainment that has numbed them for so long. To quiet the ovation is no easy feat—but there is indeed a brief hope in the notion that spectators so inured to suffering can wake, even for a moment, from this mass-media dream and see the phantasmagoric nightmare before them.

​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.