“What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky” by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Hey there, Story366! So far so good on me posting every day during Short Story Month. Yesterday got me over a bit of a blogging block, and today? I was eager to jump into a new book, read some new stories, and write (semi-) critically again. It’s an absolutely beautiful day in the Ozarks, too, and as soon as I’m done with this post, I’m headed out with the family for a nice hike, something to get some vitamin A into our blood (if that’s how sunlight works—I have no idea).

Backtracking a bit, not only did I not write a post for two months, but I even divorced myself from looking at the blog, especially the Stats page. Last year, I religiously checked the numbers, wanting to know how many hits I was getting, at what time, trying to figure the best time to post, what my audience was. Two months removed from any new material, I was understandably worried that the blog had gone by the wayside, nobody visiting, that the stats would be way down. Some days, I was sure, would see zero hits. Not the case, I found yesterday, not at all. In fact, the month of March, in which I posted exactly once, on the first day, saw more hits than five months from 2016, months that I was posting every day; April, which had just ended, saw more hits than two of those months, all without a single post, let alone visits from its maker. So, even though I’ve neglected my baby, people are still visiting Story366, in some ways more than ever. In my mind, this has marked this project as an official success: The blog is working as a living archive, which is what I had always envisioned, what I have always wanted. So, thank you, all of you, for visiting, for reading, and for endorsing. Even when I wasn’t.

Today, I dove into a book I bought over the weekend at the Springfield B&N, What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah, out from Riverhead Books. This is Arimah’s debut effort, and despite one of the stories appearing in The New Yorker and another in my beloved Mid-American Review (after my time there), I hadn’t read her work before. So, in other words, I ran into her book just in time.

I started with the two lead stories, “The Future Looks Good” and “War Stories,” both of which I liked a lot. The former has a really interesting approach to structure and timeframes, unlike anything I’ve read before, while “War Stories” (the one from MAR) features a little girl who takes her father’s tutelage a little too seriously. I then skipped ahead to the title story, as I often do, and found my favorite of the three.

“What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky” is set in 2030, after a Chilean mathematician named Francisco Furcal discovers an infinite equation (as in, the equation never ends, like the decimal places of pi) that unlocks the secrets of life. Literally, mathematicians in 2030 can use Furcal’s Formula (what the kids call it) to solve all kinds of human problems. Some mathematicians use it to take away people’s pain. Some use it to teach human flight. Some, including our protagonist, Nneoma, use it to take away people’s sadness. In most cases, Furcal’s Formula and its applications seem to work; like with any medical breakthrough, however, there are side effects, and Furcal’s Formula is no exception.

The story starts, actually, with one of these alleged side effects, as a man, taught to fly using the formula, falls to his death from above the clouds (hence our title). Nneoma knows what this means, that use of the formula will garner a ton of negative press in the media, perhaps affecting her job, her ability to help people. Nneoma is one of the sadness mathematicians, and in a way we don’t really understand (of course we don’t, as it’s not real), she uses this math equation, or a part of it, to assume people’s tragedies upon herself. In this way, Nneoma is kind of a sin eater, only in her case, a bluesy-blues eater. It doesn’t sound like the happiest career, math + depression, but hey, she’s making a difference, and there are people all over the world who have her skill—in fact, another cool thing about this story is that Arimah makes using Furcal’s Formula akin to being able to use the Force: Either you understand and can manipulate the formula or you can’t. One of Nneoma’s side jobs is to search Africa for more people who share her gift (though Arimah is wise enough to avoid midichlorians). Once the guy falls from the sky, the story is basically Nneoma reacting to that, doing her job, hoping she can continue her work.

All of this is set against the backdrop of Nigeria, but actually Biafra, as it’s the future and there’s been another civil war, splitting the countries (Biafra defecting was the cause of the Nigerian Civil War, 1967-1970) officially. Arimah was born in Britain and lives in the U.S., but was raised in Nigeria, so this is her territory, the place and themes that inhabit all the stories I’ve read so far. For me, this is another bonus of What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, exposure to this culture, to this history, something I had almost zero knowledge of this morning.

In the end, Nneoma faces problems more immediate to her than some man falling from the sky on the other side of the world. Assuming all of that grief, over decades, is taking its toll, we find out, and might be connected to one colleague’s suicide and another’s disappearance. All in all, there’s a lot going on in “What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky,” impossible, seemingly, for one short story, and I loved reading every word of it. I admire the collection, too, full of challenging language and structures and extremely inventive stories. What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky is a tremendous debut, a collection I know I’ll go back to, over and over.