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In ‘Chain-Gang All-Stars,’ prison fights have corporate sponsors

ByTeam BB

Apr 19, 2023

(Illustration by Deena So’Oteh for The Washington Post)

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s novel is a shocking dystopian satire that imagines inmates used for gladiator-style entertainment

Videos of police violence inflicted on African Americans still shock the conscience of the nation, but an even vaster horror plays out unseen every day in prisons across the country. Although our incarceration rate leads the world, we’re inured to the irony that the land of the free is also the empire of the jailed.

Make no mistake: Black lives matter to the prison industry.

Like updates on climate change or reports on plastic in the ocean, stories about how many people we’ve shunted behind bars can feel easier to ignore than respond to. Indeed, over the last half century, fueled by a conspiracy of fear and political cynicism, America’s prison complex has swelled to such grotesque dimensions that it defies comprehension.

But if we’re still capable of being roused from this ethical stupor, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is a writer with sufficient energy to do it. In 2018, his first book, “Friday Black,” offered an unnerving collection of dystopian stories that satirized the interplay of racism and consumerism. The title story imagined the worst possible Black Friday sale in a shopping mall. “Zimmer Land,” one of several unforgettable pieces, described an amusement park where White people can experience the thrill of shooting Black people they think are threatening them.

But despite how brilliant and gut-wrenching “Friday Black” is, I wondered at the time if those tales were essentially one-time-only specials. Could Adjei-Brenyah push a story past its weird “what if” premise to sustain such a singular blend of wit and fury in a longer format?

His new novel, “Chain-Gang All-Stars,” answers that question with a searing affirmation. It’s a devastating indictment of our penal system and our attendant enthusiasm for violence. Like Orwell’s “1984” and Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Adjei-Brenyah’s book presents a dystopian vision so upsetting and illuminating that it should permanently shift our understanding of who we are and what we’re capable of doing.

The story opens in a society just a few slippery steps down the moral scale from our own. We’re immediately thrown onto the BattleGround, “stroked with cocaine-white hash marks, like a divergent football field.” But this is no ordinary Super Bowl game. It’s “the most visceral viewing experience ever conceived”: a fight to the death conducted by convicted men and women. Reflecting the prison population, they’re largely African Americans, and they’ve all “freely” chosen to trade incarceration — or execution — for the chance to battle other prisoners. Winners earn Blood Points they can trade for armor, food and medical care. Victors might eventually even win release. The game’s hyped-up spokesman provides blow-by-blow commentary like a combination of Joe Buck and Ryan Seacrest.

You may think you’ll be able to look away, but you won’t. These fight scenes, soaked in sweat and tangled in entrails, are gripping, which make us complicit in the popularity of this barbarism. So raw and tragic and primal is “Chain-Gang All-Stars” that despite its futuristic elements, it has the patina of some timeworn epic.

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Adjei-Brenyah pushes the blade of his satire hard against the capitalist system that’s transformed 19th-century slavery into a modern-day profit center. But why, he asks bitterly, stop there? Why should the economic benefits of mass incarceration be limited just to small-town employment and the infernal network of commissary merchants that generates billions of dollars a year from locked-up Americans?

Adjei-Brenyah is a magician of corporate-speak, the sterile lingo that transforms torture into influence and pain into merchandise. On “Chain-Gang All-Stars BattleGrounds” — the lead show on Criminal Action Penal Entertainment (CAPE) — prisoners are exploited to their full commercial potential. Thousands of fans cheer on their favorite contestants, who are organized into competing “chains,” or teams, as they bludgeon, stab and crush each other amid an orgy of corporate logos. Sponsorships pour in from Wal-Stores, Sprivvy Wireless, McFoods and TotemWorks, “the best in corrections.” Replicas of the prisoners’ crude weapons — with nicknames like “LoveGuile” and “Lickem-Splitem” — are marketed to eager children.

A modest organization of abolitionists — the Coalition to End Neo-Slavery — pickets the games, but they’re barely noticed against the cheering crowds. They’re the same thoughtful voices we sometimes hear raising objections to the unnecessary cruelty and proven ineffectiveness of incarceration. How easily those protesters get outshouted by politicians proclaiming their “God-given responsibility to keep the public safe.”

The panopticon prison designed by Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century has reached its ultimate expression in the world imagined by Adjei-Brenyah. With a grimly funny take on reality TV, the prisoners who sign up for BattleGround are not just observed on the field; they’re monitored 24/7 by a swarm of tiny drones that broadcast their every moment in 3D video for a highly rated sister show called “LinkLyfe.”

The slick violence of “Chain-Gang All-Stars,” with its array of technological terrors, would be enough to sustain a clever work of science fiction. And a series of hit-and-run footnotes makes the contemporary allusions wincingly clear. But the real power of Adjei-Brenyah’s novel stems from its focus on a few prisoners caught up in this ghoulish entertainment. At the center of the story are the BattleGround stars Loretta Thurwar and her vivacious lover, Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker. Their affection is “a battle hug between two true warriors,” Adjei-Brenyah writes, “the kind the world hadn’t seen for centuries.” They’re athletes, they’re killers, they’re sex symbols: They’re the ultimate celebrities in a society that legitimizes the erotic thrill of violence with a veneer of fair competition. And don’t be surprised that the supreme fighter is a Black woman. With his typically chilling clarity, Adjei-Brenyah explains, “In the center of the complicated nexus of adored and hated, desired but also easy to watch destroyed, it had to be a Black Woman.”

Most contestants don’t survive on the BattleGround for more than three months. But Thurwar, marketed as “the deadliest woman on the planet,” has prevailed so long and killed so many opponents that she’s about to be rewarded with her freedom, “her crimes absolved in blood.” Before that happy day, though, she wants to establish a code of respect and solidarity preached by her chain’s recently murdered leader. “We’ve played the game like they want for a long time and now we’re gonna change it up,” Thurwar tells her teammates. “These marks don’t mean we aren’t people. These chains don’t mean we have to do it like they want.”

Such a gospel is not easy to articulate — or enforce — while slaughtering people to wild acclaim. After all, Thurwar, “The Blood Mother,” is caught in an enterprise dependent on her violent behavior, not her moral insight. Her fans need her to be a savage on the field. “Her success,” Adjei-Brenyah writes, “legitimized something in their minds. She killed, they loved her better, and she hated them more deeply.” That tension — a reflection on the plight of hundreds of thousands of imprisoned Americans — is explored in scenes that are shockingly intimate and moving.

If there’s a merciless quality to Adjei-Brenyah’s satire, it’s not a reflection of the author’s compassionate spirit. You can feel that spirit in his sympathy for Thurwar and Staxxx, in their struggle to affirm their humanity despite a contest designed to make them monsters. The most disturbing moments of “Chain-Gang All-Stars” don’t arise from its bizarre horrors but from those instances when the eerie light of this story illuminates our own brutal culture. As one prisoner says, “I thought of how the world can be anything and how sad it is that it’s this.”

Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.

By Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. Pantheon. 363 pp. $27

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