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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Foreign Gods, Inc.

Okey Ndibe

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To purchase Foreign Gods, Inc.

Title: Foreign Gods, Inc.
Author: Okey Ndibe
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014
Length: 332 pages
Availability: Foreign Gods, Inc. - US
Foreign Gods, Inc. - UK
Foreign Gods, Inc. - Canada
Foreign Gods, Inc. - India

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Our Assessment:

B- : sometimes vivid portrayal of the clash of traditional Nigeria and modernity, but falls short too often

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 14/2/2014 Ellah Allfrey
The LA Times . 16/1/2014 Hector Tobar
The NY Times A 30/12/2013 Janet Maslin
Publishers Weekly . 21/10/2013 .
TLS C 28/3/2014 Samuel Ashworth
The Washington Post . 21/2/2014 Steve Donoghue

  From the Reviews:
  • "Foreign Gods, Inc is a morality tale for our time. The planned theft makes perfect sense on a continent where diamonds, coltan and oil are routinely extracted and shipped away, with no real concern for the local custodians of the land. (...) There should be no redemption for this man. Yet, with subtle hints at moral turmoil, a gift for dark humour, and characterisation that is perceptive and neatly observed, Ndibe manages to persuade the reader to root for Ike, even as his haphazard plans begin to unravel." - Ellah Allfrey, The Guardian

  • "Foreign Gods Inc. is a magnificent fable of a novel, and one that very quickly overcomes a hobbling start. (...) Ndibe's portrait of New York immigrant life is mostly flat and unconvincing. But Foreign Gods Inc. springs to life the moment the cab driver Ike lands in Africa. (...) Ndibe seems to have a boundless ear for the lyrical turns of phrase of the working people of rural Nigeria." - Hector Tobar, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Foreign Gods, Inc., which arrives early in January, will still have the impact of an astute and gripping new novelistís powerful debut. (...) Ikeís journey through his past is so richly evocative that he and the reader may almost forget what he went home to do. But by the time he turns his attention to Ngene, whose high priest is Ikeís uncle, itís clear that Ngene is more than just a wooden artifact." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "Neither fable nor melodrama, nor what's crudely niched as "world literature," the novel traces the story of a painstakingly-crafted protagonist and his community caught up in the inescapable allure of success defined in Western terms. Neither fable nor melodrama, nor what's crudely niched as "world literature," the novel traces the story of a painstakingly-crafted protagonist and his community caught up in the inescapable allure of success defined in Western terms." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Ndibe writes as if his purpose is higher than the creation of healthy, living fiction; the matters of accurate language, tight structure, realistic characters and local detail are beneath his gaze. Motives are unexplained, words are recycled (...), and suspense is rare. Ndibe seems to be striving for a great, dark satire on the winners and losers in Nigeriaís developing economy. Yet his reliance on stereotypes, and the fact that his main character is a passive lens for the authorís anthropological vignettes, sap the novel of its power and dull its humour." - Samuel Ashworth, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Despite Ndibeís occasional overwriting (the tendency to pun leads him into temptation), he invests his novel with a satiric tone thatís all the more caustic for being so matter-of-fact. The commercialism of the West is mocked in equal measure with the cupidity of Nigeria." - Steve Donoghue, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Foreign Gods, Inc. centers on Ikechukwu -- better known as Ike (pronounced Ee-kay) -- Uzondu, a Nigerian who has now lived in the US for almost two decades. He graduated from Amherst with an economics degree, but for thirteen years has been a cab driver -- most recently in New York. Unable to get a job in the financial services industry -- first, for wont of a green card (American permanent residency, entitling him to work in the country), then because of his Nigerian accent ("Your credentials are excellent, but the accent is crappy" one potential employer explains) -- he's been earning his living as a taxi driver. [The idea that someone with an economics degree from Amherst couldn't get a job in the financial services industry in the US in the late 1990s for either of these two reasons -- and would have not looked for opportunities elsewhere if that were really the case -- is just one of the rather many not quite realistic elements of the novel.] He was married, but that was a bust (though it did get him a green card) and between the divorce and his occasional gambling problem he's pretty down and out, financially and otherwise. But Ike has a plan.
       In 2005 a friend gave him a copy of an issue of New York magazine with a profile of a gallery owner in it. The gallery is called 'Foreign Gods, Inc.', and it specializes in selling "so-called foreign gods and sacred objects" -- "deities torn away from their shrines in remote corners of the world" -- for obscene amounts of money. Ike is outraged by the thought -- but the dollar signs are a hell of a temptation, and so he comes up with his big plan: he's going to go back home, steal: "his people's ancient deity, Ngene" and cash it in.
       The novel begins with Ike's almost entirely pointless visit to the gallery he expects to sell the artefact to. Without even a picture of the statue, or even a good description of it, all he basically does is tell the gallery owner that he'll be bringing it back soon. He barely even tries to learn what he might get for it, and while the gallery owner mentions that he takes documentation of provenance seriously ("We have a process of authentication, and it's fairly rigorous", he claims) neither Ike nor ultimately he put any effort into establishing a document trail. (Ike pretty much admits it's going to be a stolen good -- not a great negotiating tactic in dealing with a dealer who surely knows Ike won't be able to unload the artefact by any above-board means: those lessons from the economics classes at Amherst sure didn't stick.)
       Ndibe offers some decent local color in describing Ike's post-college life and travails in the US, but it's Ike's trip back to the homeland that really sets things in motion.
       Encounters with customs officials and old friends -- some of whom have struck it very rich, and don't mind spreading some of the wealth around --, like the ones with friends and taxi-customers back in the States, make for sometimes amusing and revealing episodes.
       Family is more complicated: Ike feels guilty for neglecting his mother and older sister -- but there are additional strained relations back home. Mom is a devout follower in the local church, devoted to the slimy Pastor Uka, while his uncle is the keeper of Ngene and the cult around her -- a heathen Ike's mom wants nothing to do with (and wants to protect her son from -- especially since there's talk of Ike being made: "the next chief priest of Ngene").
       Ike makes his rounds and we get a lay of the land, a Nigeria of extremes, tradition and modernity, obscene wealth and great poverty, all not just side by side but overlapping. Ike abandoned this decades earlier, but he's clearly not managed to quite find his place in the US either. Will the bringing of the traditional idol from its sacred place to his new home change everything -- or anything?
       In trying to justify his crime Ike isn't quite convinced by the gallery-owner's philosophy, but tells himself there may be something to it:

in a postmodern world, even gods and sacred objects must travel or lose their vitality; any deity that remained stuck in its place and time would soon become moribund.
       It can seem that Ike's life has been determined by powers far out of his control, from his failure to get an appropriate job to the old connection to the Ngene-cult -- but there's certainly considerable contributory negligence on his part. Certainly his ill-conceived and -- right through the end -- barely thought-through plan make it seem like he's willing to leave himself at the mercy of the gods (making it rather hard to sympathize with him).
       There's a possibly decent sort of lesson about tradition and modernity buried somewhere in this novel, but Ndibe's presentation -- with a protagonist who too often fades into drunken or other hazy dazes (a writing fallback that almost always -- and certainly here -- reeks of desperation) -- doesn't let it shine through very well.
       A near chapter-length aside, describing an early missionary's activity when he came to Ike's homeland under British rule, is one of several solid bits showing the effect outside forces and ideas (including that religion the reverend brings to town) had on the locals. Overall, however, the narrative is too inconsistent to really convince as a profounder tale of the mixing and clashing of tradition and modernity, too many of the episodes feeling workshopped, and too few of the characters really presented as fully-realized (first and foremost among them Ike, about whose college years (and the incredible upheaval that must have been in his life) we learn practically nothing).
       The basic idea to Foreign Gods, Inc. -- and the gallery that provides the name -- is clever and promising, but too little of the book delivers. Too much of Ndibe's writing is unconvincing -- the gallery-scenes are particularly awkward -- and he doesn't seem to commit himself fully enough to making Ike a whole character. There's a lot here that is done well and certainly much is intriguing, but the flaws in the writing and presentation grate at the story, even at its best.
       Note: Reviewing from an ARC -- 'Advanced Uncopyedited Edition' printed in big letters across it -- I hesitate to be too pedantic, but I hope the copyeditors did catch a few of the slips -- notably Ike buying his booze at a 'package store' (that's what they're called in New England -- well, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island (Ndibe's turf) -- but no such thing exists in New York), and that oft-mentioned issue of New York magazine being dated 1 May, 2005 (that was a Sunday; New York issues are dated Monday (e.g. the closest is the May 2, 2005 Issue). Beyond that, from the opening pages -- Ike visits the Foreign Gods, Inc. gallery before 10 AM, a time when practically no art gallery of any sort in New York city is open -- to near the end, when Ike sits in the dark because he failed to pay the "light company" but appears to have no problems with the rest of the electric power-requiring devices in his apartment, too many small and large details simply don't ring true.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 December 2013

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Foreign Gods, Inc.: Reviews: Okey Ndibe: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and about Africa

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About the Author:

       Nigerian-born Okey Ndibe teaches in the US. He was born in 1960

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© 2013-2014 the complete review

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