The Powerful Pessimism of What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky

Lesley Nneka Arimah’s debut story collection takes a dystopic look at human life, but pulls back from the brink of total bleakness.

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In a recent interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition, Scott Simon spoke to Lesley Nneka Arimah days before the publication of her highly anticipated debut story collection. Why, he asked, did she think post-apocalyptic worlds hold so much interest for today’s readers? The answer she gave suggests her own fascination has as much to do with temperament as with our particular times. “At some point, we all know deep down that we’re doomed. And so I think we’re just sort of imagining the futures that are coming,” Arimah said, calling herself  “a pessimist. I do think that human nature has sort of proven time and time again that we will indulge our baser impulses.”

In What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, her new book, dark turns come in many forms, from the fantastic to the grimly realistic. Arimah sets her fiction in Nigeria (where she spent part of her childhood) and in the U.S. (one of the many places in the world where she has lived)—in the present and in the imagined future. In “What Is A Volcano?,” she evokes a mythic domain of feuding gods. She delivers affecting accounts of parent-child struggles, and sketches surrealist scenarios in which dolls come to life and the dead haunt the living. An undertow of grief pulls hard on all of the book’s tales, most of which feature characters who are in some way bereft—usually missing one parent. The family members who stick around are quite often cruel to one another. At the very least, they are afraid to show anything like kindness. Heartbreak and vulnerability are the common threads.

Arimah is particularly interested in generational rifts. Warnings go unheeded by young and old, and the best laid plans are defied; adolescent rebellion yields harsh punishment. A mother slaps her daughter, insisting she avoid a man from a bad family; the daughter disobeys, and ends up enduring abuse at his hands. When she returns home, “the reunion isn’t tender,” Arimah writes. “Bibi’s right eye is almost swollen shut and her mother’s mouth is pressed shut and they neither look at nor speak to each other.” An enraged uncle insists that his young niece’s favorite chicken be killed to spite her. When a girl complains of being sexually harassed by a youth minister, he calls her a liar, and her mother blames the end of her marriage on “the stink that was raised.” True to her word, Arimah sees baser impulses at work everywhere.

When Arimah leaves domestic reality behind, she pushes her pessimism further, dramatizing futile human efforts to believe that some transcendence is possible. She is drawn to magical realism, but not because it invites imaginative escape. On the contrary, it allows a writer, she has said, to “take a very human desire, insert it into a supernatural world, and watch humanity become grotesque.”

The title story does just that. “What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky” takes place in a world ravaged by climate change and geopolitical conflict. As its inhabitants lament the plight (or the intrusion) of the refugees who’ve been displaced in the turmoil, many also take solace in a discovery that purports to ease all human woes. The “Formula,” as it is called, is an infinite string of numbers that appears to explain everything in the universe. Mathematicians like the story’s protagonist, Nneoma, specialize in manipulating it to “fix the equation of a person”—they can “calculate” things like pain and “negative emotions” and then, through an obscure mental process, undo them. A few attempt to use it to achieve the ultimate release from the bonds of the earth: “The bravest” mathematicians, Nneoma says, “have tried their head at using the Formula to make the human body defy gravity, for physical endeavors like flight.”

That’s how the eponymous man wound up in the sky, and his fall gives rise to fears that the Formula contains fundamental flaws—perhaps, rather than giving order to life, it leads to death. As Nneoma reckons with her own misplaced faith in the Formula and its awesome powers, Arimah explores the dystopian consequences of the human yearning for the illusory quick-fix. (The story is explicit about the parallels to religion: “For many the Formula was God, misunderstood for so long.”) If it all sounds a bit contrived, the moral heavy-handed, that’s because it is. True redemption isn’t really an option, and the myth magnifies the message.

But the best stories in the book plumb the depths of human desire and delusions without magic. In “Windfalls,” a mother-daughter pair stumbles their way—literally—through a hostile world. They make intentional slips and falls look like someone else’s fault, and then survive on the profits of personal injury suits and the sympathy of strangers (sometimes induced by “the embarrassing last resort of offering a blow job”). The story’s first lines are disquieting in their tender revelation of a child exposed to routine violence: “The first time you fell, you were six. Before then, you were too young to fall and had to be dropped, pushed, made to slip for the sake of authenticity. … You have been living off these falls for years.” The very plausibility of that twisted proposition gives “Windfalls” its surreal force. The story sustains a provocative tension between the cynical abuse and the parental urge to provide for a child. “Baby,” the mother says to her ever-loyal daughter after one of her falls, “I’m so proud of you.”

A spirit of willful perseverance suffuses Arimah’s collection, too, and pulls it back from the brink of total bleakness. Above all, her writing conveys respect for the people who claw their way through relentlessly difficult lives. “When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world,” the story “Light” opens, “he did not know what the world did to daughters.” His story and others reveal that it doesn’t take an apocalypse—even if readers these days apparently expect one—to make us face up to darkness within and without. These tales don’t celebrate virtue, but they pay tribute to tenacity.