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Collection Puts A Playful, Pulpy Twist On Preposterous Stories About Obama

Oct 9, 2017
Originally published on October 10, 2017 6:49 pm

It's a commonplace these days to say that real life has become so unpredictable that it outstrips anything anyone could dream up in fiction. I think I'm guilty of having made that banal observation a few times.

But that was before I read The Obama Inheritance, a collection of 15 stories so sly, fresh and Bizarro World witty, they reaffirm the resiliency of the artistic imagination.

As editor Gary Phillips explains in his foreword, the idea for The Obama Inheritance was "a cumulative thing" born out of the fact there were so many conspiracy theories generated about President Obama. There were the "birther" stories, the suggestion that President Obama used secret weather machines to create Hurricane Sandy, and on and on.

Phillips says, "To many of us, the daily roll out of these preposterous notions about the nation's first black president was laughable." The "us" Phillips refers to are a diverse group of writers in terms of race and reputation; they're practitioners of a variety of genres: noir, sci-fi and fantasy.

Phillips, who has written some terrific hard-boiled mysteries himself, invited each of these contributors to chose one Obama conspiracy theory and "[r]iff on it, take it apart and turn it on its head, and give the reader a thrill ride of weirdo, noirish, pulpy goodness."

The overarching aim of all this outlandishness is to entertain, as well as to tuck some social criticism into the formulaic folds of these tales of spooks, spies, private eyes, clones, bots and alien invaders.

A truly fabulous story kicks off this collection. Remember all those loud whispers, sparked by a fist bump, that Michelle Obama was a covert black power separatist? In "Michelle in Hot Water," crime writer Kate Flora takes that conspiracy fantasy about the first lady and runs with it. Here's how the story opens:

The big man with the Russian accent wore an expression somewhere between a smirk and a smile. Not a pleasant smile, but the smile of someone who likes to inflict pain and was about to do just that . ... Michelle wasn't afraid of him; bullies had been common in the part of Chicago where she grew up. Her years in the White House had shown her plenty more, even if they did hide behind expensive suits and artificial courtesies. No. ... What scared her was the predicament she had gotten herself into and the trouble it was going to cause for her team: Faiza from State, Leela from the Surgeon General's office, Charisa from the Pentagon, Lourdes from the FDA, and Alice from Justice.

Michelle, dressed in full combat gear and a Mission Impossible-worthy disguise of fake skin, has gotten caught by that Russian enforcer in the middle of a vigilante mission. It seems as though she and her team of high-level government gal pals have banded together — under cover of being in a women's book group — to pressure pharmaceutical kingpins to lower the cost of cancer fighting drugs for kids.

When, as always, the drugmakers initially refuse, first lady Michelle and her sister Amazons devise ways to inject these fat cats with a drug that temporarily renders them impotent, incontinent and bald. Part of the fun of this story is the repartee that Flora conjures up between Michelle and Barack. Like FDR, Barack realizes that his wayward activist wife can't be reined in.

Another standout is mystery grand master Walter Mosley's complex tale called "A Different Frame of Reference," which takes so-called birtherism to its logical alien end point. Think of President Obama as the brother from another planet.

Phillips himself contributes a wild fantasy tale of racialized deep-state paranoia called "Thus Strikes The Black Pimpernel." It's a story packed with secret agents, genetically altered anacondas and elegant allusions to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.

In recent years, writers of color have taken up sci-fi and fantasy in particular as richly poetic vehicles to explore racism and imagine alternative worlds. The pulp stories in The Obama Inheritance — sci-fi, fantasy and noirare fun to read, and be forewarned: Many of them also pack a punch.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan recommends a new short story collection like no other. Here's her review of "The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories Of Conspiracy Noir."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: It's a commonplace these days to say that real life has become so unpredictable that it outstrips anything anyone could dream up in fiction. I think I'm guilty of having made that banal observation a few times. But that was before I read "The Obama Inheritance," a collection of 15 stories so sly, fresh and bizarro-world witty, they reaffirmed the resiliency of the artistic imagination.

As editor Gary Phillips explains in his foreword, the idea for "The Obama Inheritance" was a cumulative thing, born out of the fact that there were so many conspiracy theories generated about President Obama. There were the birther stories, the suggestion that President Obama used secret weather machines to cause Hurricane Sandy, and on and on.

Phillips says, to many of us, the daily rollout of these preposterous notions about the nation's first black president was laughable. The us Phillips refers to are a diverse group of writers in terms of race and reputation. They're practitioners of a variety of genres - noir, sci-fi and fantasy. Phillips, who's written some terrific, hard-boiled mysteries himself, invited each of these contributors to choose one Obama conspiracy theory and riff on it, take it apart, and turn it on its head and give the reader a thrill ride of weirdo, noir-ish, pulpy goodness. The overarching aim of all this outlandishness is to entertain as well as to tuck some social criticism into the formulaic folds of these tales of spooks, spies, private eyes, clones, bots and alien invaders.

A truly fabulous story kicks off this collection. Remember all those loud whispers sparked by a fist bump that Michelle Obama was a covert black power separatist? In "Michelle In Hot Water," crime writer Kate Flora takes that conspiracy fantasy about the first lady and runs with it. Here's how the story opens.

(Reading) The big man with the Russian accent wore an expression somewhere between a smirk and a smile - not a pleasant smile but the smile of someone who likes to inflict pain and was about to do just that. Michelle wasn't afraid of him. Bullies had been common in the part of Chicago where she grew up. Her years in the White House had shown her plenty more, even if they did hide behind expensive suits and artificial courtesies. No. What scared her was the predicament she had gotten herself into and the trouble it was going to cause for her team - Fisa (ph) from State, Leila (ph) from the Surgeon General's office, Carissa (ph) from the Pentagon, Lourdes (ph) from the FDA and Alice (ph) from Justice.

Michelle, dressed in full combat gear and a "Mission Impossible"-worthy disguise of fake skin, has just gotten caught by that Russian enforcer in the middle of a vigilante mission. It seems as though she and her team of high-level government gal pals have banded together under cover of being in a women's book group to pressure pharmaceutical kingpins to lower the cost of cancer-fighting drugs for kids. When, as always, the drugmakers initially refuse, first lady Michelle and her sister Amazons devise ways to inject these fat cats with a drug that temporarily renders them impotent, incontinent and bald. Part of the fun of this story is the repartee that Flora conjures up between Michelle and Barack. Like FDR, Barack realizes that his wayward activist wife can't be reined in.

Another standout is mystery grandmaster Walter Mosley's complex tale called "A Different Frame Of Reference," which takes birther-ism to its logical alien endpoint. Think of President Obama as the brother from another planet. Phillips himself contributes a wild fantasy tale of racialized deep-state paranoia called "Thus Strikes The Black Pimpernel." It's a story packed with secret agents, genetically altered anacondas and elegant allusions to Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man."

In recent years, writers of color have taken up sci-fi and fantasy in particular as richly poetic vehicles to explore racism and imagine alternate worlds. The pulp stories in "The Obama Inheritance" - sci-fi, fantasy and noir - are fun to read. And be forewarned, many of them also pack a punch.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories Of Conspiracy Noir," edited by Gary Phillips. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with Dexter Filkins about his article in The New Yorker, "Rex Tillerson At The Breaking Point." We'll discuss the tensions between the secretary of state and President Trump, the possibility of war with North Korea, the possibility of pulling out of the nuclear agreement with Iran and the consequences of a greatly understaffed State Department. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANO DOMINGUEZ'S "BEMSHA SWING")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANO DOMINGUEZ'S "BEMSHA SWING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.