Does anyone understand Elvis? In the first 10 chapters of “Graceland” by Chris Albani, we meet 16-year-old Elvis, living in a slum in Lagos after his mother dies and his father loses his job. Elvis is surrounded by people he can’t stand, from his apathetic, abusive father Sunday to his underfed, uninteresting step-siblings. He yearns to dance, but I don’t think a film adaptation of “Graceland” would have a happy, “Slumdog Millionaire”-style dance sequence at the end of it. Elvis’s story, while as full of hardship as those in Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning movie, seems more isolated and insular—mainly because of his inability to fully communicate with others.
Notice, for example, how Elvis speaks in comparison with those around him: Elvis speaks in clear, standard English we can understand. He addresses his father with “sir,” women with “madam,” and is polite and respectful, even as he teems with inner rage. This is in stark contrast with Sunday, Jagua Rigogo and his stepmother Comfort, all of whom Albani writes as speaking with “dis” instead of “this” and “de” instead of “the”; they also use poor syntax and sentence structure, like the drug vendor and preacher who board Elvis’s bus. And the Western—American? British?—tourists who Elvis approaches on the beach speak similarly poorly, using slang such as “d’ya,” “ain’t” and “vamoose.” It seems like no one but Elvis can string a proper sentence together.
Why, exactly? If it is Albani’s intention to place us on Elvis’s side, displaying how he simply doesn’t fit in with the world around him, he succeeds. (He does this, however, by demonstrating Elvis’s grasp of Western language and etiquette, an element that surely works for us as Western readers.) Anyway, even as a child, when Sunday and Uncle Joseph are forcing Elvis into a cultural ritual he doesn’t understand, the youth’s English is better than anyone else—an indication of how, even from the beginning, there was a schism between him and his family, his friends, his entire community. While it seems a bit improbable that Elvis is so thoroughly articulate, Albani is building a case for his protagonist: He can easily communicate, but no one around is willing to answer. He is open about his inability to grasp the significance of his father’s forced cultural rituals, telling Innocent he doesn’t understand what he’s just been made to do, but other characters refuse to exhibit the same kind of honesty. Through language alone, Albani is able to demonstrate to us Elvis’s strengths, not only in marked juxtaposition with those around him but also on his own. How Elvis further develops as a character, and whether Albani will continue this language split, is something I’m looking forward to reading in the rest of “GraceLand.”