We Are Infinite and Supreme
This is more than your standard book review. This is a twelve-page close reading.
You have been warned.
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s short story, “Through the Flash,” is set in a peri-apocalyptic world in which the residents of a small district relive the same day—the day the world ended—in perpetuity. The Groundhog Day-style nightmare is narrated by forever-fourteen-year-old Ama Knife Queen Adusei, who starts her day by checking the knife under her pillow, fetching tea for her elderly, flu-ridden neighbor, and mercifully allowing her father to murder her. This, for Ama, is not out of the ordinary. She wakes up the next morning and lives the day over again.
Ama and the rest of her neighborhood have lived this same day “forever.” Anyone who hasn’t killed himself or been killed by someone else by the end of the day is swallowed by the blinding flash of a nuclear explosion anyway. Then they all ways up the next morning and do it again. This creates a consequence-free realm in which all of the previous day’s sins have been erased by morning. Children behave and think like adults, no matter how young they were during the initial explosion. Anarchy and animosity abound. Ama, herself, has been a terror to her neighborhood. She has in one lifetime or another personally murdered everyone who lives their self-contained pocket universe.
In a Loop where everything stays constant, Ama is an anomaly. Every time the day resets, Ama accrues physical strength, endurance, and speed to a superhuman degree. Lately, however, her skill accumulation isn’t the only anomaly. The story surrounds the investigation of a dream Ama has between days. No one dreams between days, and this could be a harbinger of change. This could mean the beginning of the end.
“Through the Flash” begins with Ama Adusei waking up to a drone bird hovering near her window telling her that she is safe and protected. This opening is followed by two sentences which undercut the softness of the first one: “Since I’m the new me, I don’t even think about killing anybody. Still, I touch the knife under my pillow (Adjei-Brenyah, “Through the Flash,” pp. 165).” In analyzing these two sentences, we can gain several insights into Ama’s personality from the very start. In the narrative, Ama says she is the “new me,” which implies that she believes there is an “old” version of herself. This indicates that she has chosen to compartmentalize how she sees herself. She intentionally places distance between who she perceives herself to be now with who she was in the past. As we come to find out later, “old” Ama has committed a number of brutalities and caused great suffering for all of her neighbors. Creating this secondary personal is a mechanism of—at least psychologically—absolving herself of her sins.
Ama says that her “new” self doesn’t thinking about killing anybody. However, this statement seems paradoxical and points toward Ama’s unreliability as a narrator. The very act of saying that her “new” self doesn’t think about killing anyone today implies that that’s exactly what she’s thinking about. It’s one of the first things she thinks about, even before she gets out of bed or brushes her teeth.
What Ama doesn’t say—what she doesn’t need to say—is that her “old” self apparently did think about killing people. Despite choosing to be a “new” Ama, despite the drone bird telling her that she is safe and protected, she touches the knife under her pillow. Whether she wants to admit it to herself or not, she is eminently aware of the possibility that she’ll kill someone today.
Ama seeing herself as two different people—and old version and a new—is reinforced in her conversation with Mrs. Nagel, Ama’s next door neighbor. Mrs. Nagel had a terrible head cold when the world ended, and has lived every day since then with the illness. Ama makes hot tea for her in the morning and picks up the box of tissues that fell on the floor sometime before time began resetting itself.
On one of these trips to see Mrs. Nagel, Ama again contradicts her initial statement that the “new” Ama doesn’t even think about killing anyone. She even places her knife against the old woman’s neck and remembers how she had been the easiest one to kill out of all the neighbors. She doesn’t kill her this time, but instead squeezes a lemon into her tea (Adjei-Brenyah, “Through the Flash,” pp. 186).
When Mrs. Nagel asks Ama what’s wrong, Ama expresses a sense of nihilism. “I feel like maybe I liked the old me better,” Ama said. “The old Ama. It was easier. And maybe the new Ama isn’t doing anything… Like how I’m not killing everybody or torturing anyone or whatever. (Adjei-Brenyah, “Through the Flash,” pp. 187).”
When Mrs. Nagel asks Ama what the difference between her new and old selves are, she replies, “The old me did everything one way. And only thought about one person. Now I try to help everybody instead of killing them… I want everyone to feel happy and supreme and infinite. That’s the new me (Adjei-Brenyah, “Through the Flash,” pp. 187).”
Mrs. Nagel agrees that Ama is different than she was, but dismisses the idea that there are two Amas. “…I think there’s only one Ama. And I think I’m talking to her (Adjei-Brenyah, “Through the Flash,” pp. 168). Mrs. Nagel in this moment is arguably the voice of the story’s theme. Ama has regrets. She’s become aware that her past actions were heinous. She has tried to put distance between herself and the crimes of her past by dissociating from them. Those terrible things do not define me, she must tell herself. In fact, it wasn’t even me who did them. That was the old me, and I am someone new, someone better. This segregation of what Ama perceives as the two halves of her own psyche is the only way she can reconcile her bad behavior with her new outlook. It can also be inferred from the narrative that there is no one who can make Ama answer for her actions. She’s too strong—too powerful—to be reprimanded in any meaningful way. That fact is made clear by the lack of opposition when she terrorized the neighborhood in the first place. Even if there were someone strong enough, they would have to punish her every day for eternity.
Of course, by this point in the story, we have been introduced to someone who is strong enough to punish Ama and does so whenever he can. Carl was fourteen when the “Flash” that started the Loop happened, the same age as Ama. It would be too simplistic to call Carl the villain of the story. He is a nightmare like Ama used to be, but the way Ama introduces him into the narrative is casual, sometimes bordering on blasé.
Carl is a monster and takes pleasure in the murder and violation of his neighbors. He has fashioned himself into a warlord over his half of their shared neighborhood. “When we finally get to Kennedy,” Ama says, “the heads of two women… are stuck onto the street sign… Two houses are on fire. There are dark spots that show where Carl’s victims bled out on the streets (Adjei-Brenyah, “Through the Flash,” pp. 178-9).”
If Carl is a villain, however, he is a villain of Ama’s design. She admits to having hunted down and tortured him regularly; cutting, cooking, and eating strips of Carl; and even making his mother choose whether she preferred her Carl medium-rare or well-done. Ama recalls all this with a relaxed tone, with neither judgment against Carl nor remorse for her own actions. These are simply truths (Adjei-Brenyah, “Through the Flash,” pp. 180).
It's interesting to examine the story from Carl’s perspective rather than Ama’s. The story is told from Ama’s point of view, in first person, and because of this there is an established connection between Ama and the reader. By framing it this way, Adjei-Brenyah gives the reader an opportunity to feel what Ama has felt, but he also gives us permission to be as nonchalant about the terror she has wreaked on her neighbors as Ama herself is. Aside from having been a jerk and a racist (by way of systematic racism passed down to him by his neo-nazi father), Carl isn’t any worse post-Flash than Ama is. If the story had been told from his point of view instead of hers, it might not be all that difficult to see their roles of protagonist and antagonist reversed.
On page 179, Ama says, “It’s supereasy to think [Carl] is the Devil himself because of all the things he does and because sometimes he screams, ‘In this hell, the Devil, the Lord, and everything in between is named Carl,’ but I’ve been there. Being strong can make you like that. Carl is my protégé.” This further emphasizes her dedication to detaching herself from her behavior. It isn’t clear, though, whether she does this because she is actually ashamed of what she’s done or because she truly believes it doesn’t matter. Given the circumstances—that any atrocities are erased by morning—it could be either. Or both (Adjei-Brenyah, “Through the Flash”).
A hint to that answer and another element of the theme may be found in a phrase that is repeated by numerous characters throughout the story. Ama says it to her reflection in a mirror on the first page. “You are supreme and infinite (Adjei-Brenyah, “Through the Flash,” pp. 165).” This statement is seen in various arrangements and iterations in both prose and dialogue. It is woven into the story without origin or explanation. Adjei-Brenyah indicates no source, but simply repeats it. It becomes a mantra, a cadence, sustaining the narrative.
Ama tells her father she feels “infinite and excited.” She tells her neighbor, “We’re all supreme and infinite.” Ama recalls Carl’s mother telling it to her son while Ama tortured them. Ama tells Carl he is supreme before he kills her. In the same conversation where Mrs. Nagel conveys dismissal at the idea that Ama is a new person, Ama insists that the “new” her wants everyone to be “happy, and supreme, and infinite.” Even at the end of the story, as Ama is stepping outside to watch the nuclear Flash with her family, she says that even with her broken ribs she still feels infinite and supreme, that she knows even in the face of the Flash that “we are infinite (Adjei-Brenyah, “Through the Flash,” pp. 165-92).”
But what does it mean, to be supreme and infinite? It could be a cynical callback to the empty encouragement of the hover drone scattered around the neighborhood. “You are protected. You are safe,” the drones remind the residents (Adjei-Brenyah, “Through the Flash,” pp. 165). Nevermind that the presence of surveillance drone undermines the message they deliver. Nevermind that there are no men between the ages of twenty and forty-five in their neighborhood because they had all been called away to fight. (Fight in what is a question on which the narrator doesn’t elaborate, but Ama does equate the scene on Kennedy street to World War VI, so an easy inference can be made.) The supreme-and-infinite philosophy may be what has replaced the protected-and-safe lie.
Still, neither the author nor the narrator makes any effort to explain why the phrase is so well-known even amongst enemies and acquaintances. Taken literally, “infinite” could simply be a reference to the fact that they are stuck in a never-ending Loop, but that doesn’t explain “supreme.” There may be a hint in Adjei-Brenyah’s frequent use of the first-person plural “we” when the statement is made. In the narrowest view, “we” could refer to the characters contained within Ama’s neighborhood, or it could be expanded to the collective We, the human race. We, the people.
This short story isn’t the only time Adjei-Brenyah creates a narrator who has superpowers, however. In the short story that shares its name with the collection title, “Friday Black,” Adjei-Brenyah’s establishes a world which equates the American capitalist practice of Black Friday shopping to a zombie apocalypse. Shoppers are made into zombies while sales associates are their wranglers, attempting to get customers what they want without being trampled or bitten (Adjei-Brenyah, “Friday Black”).
During his first Black Friday, however, the narrator of “Friday Black” was bitten by one of the rabid shoppers. He subsequently developed the ability to translate the mangled language spoken by the shopper-zombies into plain English. Compared with Ama’s long list of superpowers, this doesn’t seem as impressive, but within the context of this dark world, it keeps him alive and helps him outsell his associates. Even if the usefulness of their respective abilities seems unequal, however, they server a similar purpose to the narrative (Adjei-Brenyah, “Friday Black,” pp. 104-6).
In an interview for Vox, Adjei-Brenyah addressed the question of his use of a super powers in “Friday Black,” and his answer can be applied to both protagonists. When asked what he found appealing about using the superhero trope, Adjei-Brenyah said “I like the idea of what makes you different, other, and how often your superpower might be very closely tied to your weakness… Often, with people’s powers, there’s a tension between them being themselves, being the person who does the heroic thing, and their ability to do that thing and be a person at all (Grady).”
Placed into simpler terms, Adjei-Brenyah uses superpowers in his stories to highlight the weaknesses of his characters and to highlight how having those powers affects their humanity. In “Friday Black,” this balance is struck between the narrator’s gift for sales, his preternatural ability to communicate with the shopper-zombies, and the gradual degradation of his faith in people in the context of ‘shop fast or be killed.’ Ultimately, he shows his weakness, which is how his own actions are as much influenced by material things as the zombies’ are.
In “Through the Flash,” Ama’s superpowers cause a literal divide—at least in her perception—between her inhumane self and her “infinite” self. Her weakness here is mirrored by Carl. Carl was an instigator in their life before the Flash; he was a bully and a racist. However, when Ama discovered she had these new abilities, she used them to retaliate against Carl in the most horrifying ways. For an unmeasurable length of time, she used her superpowers to wreak her vengeance, but did so in such a way that “overkill” doesn’t come close to being an adequate description. Her weakness is her similarity to Carl. Given a world free of consequences in which she had power and control, she surpassed the bully and became something even worse herself. She threw away her humanity. Her actions—initially retaliatory and targeted, if vastly disproportionate—spilled over to the entire neighborhood and to people who had never harmed her. Violence begets violence begets senseless violence, and that is the theme that is at the heart of many of Adjei-Brenyah’s stories.
Adjei Brenyah intentionally writes about violence, not in an attempt to seem “timely,” as he mentioned in an interview with The Guardian. He doesn’t feel that writing about violence against people of color is timely, only that these topics are just now starting to reach the mainstream. “I think the scary thing is that [these problems have] been there for so long … there is a certain way of black people being murdered that has become palatable. I want it to be less so (Iqbal).”
When asked about his depictions of violence, Adjei-Brenyah refers to a talk given by poet Roger Reeves in which he says it’s possible to recreate the violence you intend to dismantle depending on how it’s presented. Adjei-Brenyah says he writes about violence while taking this thought into account. In “Friday Black,” he does this by implicating the narrator, placing a part of the guilt on him. “Through the Flash,” however, he says that he embellishes the violence rather than shy away from it because he wants the reader to understand exactly how terrible the characters who perpetrate it are. “If I just tell you that [this person is really the worst], you won’t agree—until I show you (Ashun).”
Another way he drives his themes home is by tapping into modern tropes that appeal to readers of popular fiction. The stories in “Friday Black” and “Through the Flash” include many speculative genre tropes such as zombies, time loops, and angels and demons. In another story, “Zimmer Land,” he explores the idea of a theme park where white people can shoot people of color (with mostly effective safety measures in place) in a misguided attempt to curb violence out in the “real” world, reminiscent of popular dystopian stories such as Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games or HBO’s television series, Westworld. When Lightspeed Magazine asked if he finds it helpful to write about human cruelty and injustice through the lens of these tropes, Adjei-Brenyah replied:
Yeah, I think these frames help me on multiple levels. On one level, they let me explore violence and the way it reoccurs. They allow me a kind of distance from the actual world, and that helps me get closer to the heart of my understanding of the cruelty I might be engaging with. These tropes are different ways I can say, “Look at this horror,” and also, “Isn’t this basically what we are doing (Coleman)?”
However, despite having so many elements of violence and cruelty dappled into the fabric of “Through the Flash,” it’s also perhaps one of the more uplifting stories in the entire collection. In showing the reader the worst side of Ama and—through Carl—the worst side of this cross-section of humanity, he is able to contrast her current behavior to that of Knife Queen Ama. Without the stark portrayal of just how deeply the mindset of a warlord infected her, her decision to pursue enlightenment over brutality loses its weight. It’s in this realization that the reader can find hope for humanity.
In the final scene of “Through the Flash,” the reader finally gets a description of what living through the Flash is like. Up until this point, Ama has died every day before the Flash occurs. She and her father and brother go outside to watch it together. They line up along the wall of their house, facing the direction from which the Flash will approach, and the pose in different, funny positions with the intention of leaving behind hilarious scorch marks for whoever ends up discovering their remains (if anyone ever does). Then, the Flash comes, and it’s an enormous, deafening blast of energy that wipes everything out. Ama cries as the story finishes (Adjei-Brenyah, “Through the Flash,” pp. 191-2).
It may be difficult at first to see the positive connotation in such a destructive, seemingly bleak ending, but the message lies in Ama’s final observations just before she is incinerated. In the last paragraph, Adjei-Brenyah switches to the second person, and Ama turns her attention directly onto the reader. She tells you what it’s like for you to experience the Flash. She tells you it’s the sort of thing you should only ever get to see once. She cries every time she sees it, though, because it’s her confirmation that “we are infinite.” Here, the switch to first person plural is a beautiful nod to inclusion and unity (Adjei-Brenyah, “Through the Flash,” pp. 192).
… all the falls and leaps and sweet and death that’s ever been will be trumped by the wall of nuclear flying at you … Then, before you’re gone, you know that all that’s ever been will still be, even if there are no more tomorrows. Even the apocalypse isn’t the end. That, you could only know when you’re standing before a light so bright it obliterates you. And if you are alone, posed like a dancer, when it comes, you feel silly and scared. And if you are with your family, or anyone at all, when it comes, you feel silly and scared, but at least not alone (Adjei-Brenyah, “Through the Flash,” pp. 192).
Violence is a major theme in “Through the Flash,” but in these final lines, the reader can look back on the pages that came before and realize that Adjei-Brenyah has been weaving a second theme throughout the narrative so subtly it sneaks up and takes the reader by surprise. The end is not the end. Cycles that seem perpetual can be broken. Change comes from within and redemption is possible for those who reach for it.
“Through the Flash” is the final story in Friday Black, and it’s easy to believe this was a deliberate choice. Each of the stories that come before it take place inside a dark—but excruciatingly possible—near-future in which the volume on racism and bigoted aggression has been dialed up to eleven. Adjei-Brenyah describes it as “a world a little bit worse than ours so maybe, collectively we could imagine a world that was much better (Iqbal).” In its first few pages, “Through the Flash” certainly follows that trend, but by the end a light can been seen (and not the kind that’s threatening to obliterate anyone). Through Ama, the author leaves the reader with a glimmer of optimism. It’s all right to have moments where you feel weak. It’s all right to be angry. It’s all right to have a history of ignorance. Nothing is irredeemable if we choose to believe that we are infinite and supreme and we reach for the future together.
Adjei-Brenyah, Nana Kwame. “Black Friday.” Friday Black, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018, pp. 104-14.
Adjei-Brenyah, Nana Kwame. “Through the Flash.” Friday Black, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018, pp. 165-92.
Ashun, Kukuwa. “Interview with Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.” Washington Square Review, 2019, https://www.washingtonsquarereview.com/new-page-48.
Coleman, Christian A. “Interview: Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.” Lightspeed Magazine, Oct. 2018, http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/nonfiction/interview-nana-kwame-adjei-brenyah/.
Grady, Constance. “The Author of Friday Black Explains Why He Reimagined Black Friday as a Zombie Plague.” Vox, 23 Nov. 2018, https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/11/23/18105092/nana-kwame-adjei-brenyah-friday-black-interview.
Iqbal, Nosheen. “Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: ‘Black People Being Murdered Has Become Palatable. I Want It to Be Less so'.” The Guardian, 2 Aug. 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/aug/02/nana-kwame-adjei-brenyah-black-friday.