'419' Won the Giller Prize, but Why?

by Zachary Houle

13 March 2013

This is a dark literary thriller that offers harrowing insight into one of the Internet’s most notorious e-mail scams: the letter from a "Nigerian official" offering the recipient untold wealth, only for the eager recipient to be taken for a wash.
cover art


Will Ferguson

US: Mar 2013

When Calgary writer Will Ferguson took the stage to collect his 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize – one of Canada’s most prestigious literary awards, at $50,000 – he did so with remarkable aplomb. Dressed in a kilt, he made way to the stage and took the award. Then, in the middle of his acceptance speech, he reached into his sporran for a flask, and proceeded to offer a toast – to “the written word”. He took a sip from his flask, presumably filled with a potent potable, before adding, “And finally, to answer the question you’re all wondering – yes, I have something on underneath!”

So it was a pretty cool moment, a pretty cool thing to do, and a bit of humour from a guy who has won the Stephen Leacock Medal three times for his funny stuff. However, 419, the novel for which Ferguson took the Giller, is anything but funny. It’s a dark literary thriller that offers harrowing insight into one of the Internet’s most notorious e-mail scams: the letter from a “Nigerian official” offering the recipient untold wealth, only for the eager recipient to be taken for a wash. In case you were curious, the novel’s title is borrowed from the section of the Nigerian criminal code that deals specifically with fraud. 

419 is quite a bit of a departure in some respects for Ferguson for, as noted, he is best known in his native Canada for being a humour writer, as well as a travel scribe. There’s very little humour in this book, and it’s a stark drama about the heart of darkness, not only referring to the continent of Africa, but the evil that men do in their quest to get filthy rich off the backs of their unsuspecting marks. To be sure, this novel gets off to a rip-roaring start: an elderly man drives off a road into a deep ditch in an unnamed western Canadian city, and dies. However, there are two sets of tire tracks leading up to the accident scene. This leaves the police pondering: Was it an accident? Was it a suicide? Or was it something more devious?

It turns out that this man was a victim of a Nigerian e-mail scam that took untold sums of money from his name – so much so that the bank would have to foreclose his house to get back the large amount from the bad cheque that he’d cashed from his scammer. The answer to the question of this man’s death is solved pretty early in the novel (I won’t spoil it for you), but it turns out that he – unnamed throughout the narrative except in the e-mail correspondence printed here between himself and the guy taking him for a ride – is the doting father of a daughter who loved him very much. She loved him so much, that she seeks revenge on the person or persons who killed him.

What we have here is the makings of a gripping yarn, and one that offers a lot of meat for the reader. You’ll learn that the 419 scams (there are a variety of them, including people who will move in on your home while you’re on vacation and claim it, then resell it for profit) are so entrenched in Nigerian culture that there are actually popular songs in the country that offer warnings to those who might be tempted to move into the murky, but lucrative waters of ripping people off. As Ferguson notes in his text, “419 is a business. It brings in hundreds of millions of dollars a year. It’s bigger than Nigeria; it’s as old as sin.” And there’s a lot of shame in being taken for one of these swindles. Ferguson, as noted above, will actually avoid using proper names in his narrative when a character is on the brink of danger. It’s as though he’s saying that 419s are an anonymous crime – it robs one not only of money, but their very humanity, as well.

It’s easy to see why this novel took the Giller: it’s very well written, possibly to the point of being somewhat poetic, with its time-jumping narrative and its conventions deeply rooted in the thriller genre. It’s also impeccably researched, and you get the impression that Ferguson personally travelled around Nigeria just to get the details right. While Canada pretty much goes unnamed (presumably to make this a better sell in foreign markets), there are a bevy of Canadian references early on in the novel that may have made it a favourite: cops drink Tim Hortons coffee and the daughter has a thing for Laura Secord, a Canuck ice cream and chocolate vendor.

Still, for all of this, plus the thrills offered by the revenge narrative, 419 actually is a very mediocre book, and leaves this writer puzzled as to how this was the very best thing in Canadian literature in the year 2012. What kills this novel is the fact that about a quarter of the way through the novel, the main narrative about 419 scams stops dead cold for an intertwined story about a young pregnant woman crossing Nigeria with only a jerry can of water to her name, and a young boy who would be a fisherman who grows up to work for the oil companies – and later steal from them. With a concept so exciting as watching someone potentially being brought down over their wrongdoings, the story largely abandons that thread and turns into something rather ... boring.

I was so put off by the shift in tone and story, and move to these lacklustre subplots, I wound up closing this book for a two week period. I simply didn’t want to come back to it. While Ferguson pulls these disparate elements together in the final throes of the novel, the momentum and thrust comes to a stand-still in the middle of the book. Ultimately, 419 is two or three books in one, and could have used a judicious pruning by an editor.

What’s more, it’s very hard to care for these characters. In the case of the deceased father, it’s hard to really buy into the fact that he was so gullible to be taken in by one of the oldest stings out there on the Internet – hasn’t everyone heard of Snopes.com by now? In the case of the avenging daughter, it’s also hard to really get behind her quest for justice when she actually manages to find the person responsible for her father’s death, and then flies out to Nigeria to confront this individual – despite warnings from the police that people who do exactly that are more likely to find themselves killed and floating in a lagoon off the Nigerian coast, or, in a slightly less worse case scenario, kidnapped for ransom money, another 419-type scam. Saying anything else would spoil this book for those who might be willing to read it, but overall, it’s really hard to buy into character motivation.

What’s more, while the novel finally does ratchet up the tension in the last 100 pages or so, the ending is a bit on the contrived side, and everything wraps up a little too quickly. It’s as though Ferguson was sent a memo from his publisher to not go over 400 pages, and he eagerly complied. If only he had cut the fat from the middle of the book, and worked a little harder on his denouement, he’d have a book truly worthy of the winning of a prize.

The other thing that nags me about 419 is that it seems a little late. I personally can’t remember the last time I got an e-mail from someone claiming that I could reap untold millions if I only wire them a bit of money for some paperwork and such – though I expect I should probably brace for it now that my name and 419 will show up in a search engine once this review is posted. Still, 419 feels as though it is ten or 15 years after the fact, even though the book suggests that scammers are turning to chat rooms and mining the Internet for personal information in going after someone who would be a good mark. Still, I just don’t see how Internet rip-offs are as big of a deal as they once were, thanks to better policing and improvements in e-mail spam filtering technology. 

All of this leads me to, again, ask a really crucial question: is this really the best Canadian literature had to offer last year? I’ve reviewed for PopMatters now the previous three winners of the Giller, and I have to admit that I was underwhelmed by all three choices, 419 included. Maybe it comes down to subjective taste, as someone I work with suggested after I complained to her about my take on the winners of recent Gillers. I think it might be something more: since Canada is considered to be a multicultural and inclusive society, books that are set in Africa (in the case of 419) or are about people of African descent as written by an African-Canadian (as in the case of 2011’s winner, Half-Blood Blues) or touch on the intricacies of past American foreign policy (as 2010’s winner, The Sentamentalists, sort of did) are lapped up by juries who can then claim that they’re respectful of different cultures and backgrounds. You know, I’m not against that in principle, so long as the book that’s winning is actually ... good.

Personally, I think it’s almost about time that someone like William Gibson won a Giller, though his last book was underwhelming, just to shake things up a bit. Canada is now more and more an urban society, but it seems as though those kinds of books, the ones primarily set in Canadian cities (and let’s overlook the fact that 419 is partially set in what appears to be Calgary), just don’t command the kind of respect that they should with the Giller. And so we’re left with these winners that seem to be more of a speaking point for the kind of Canada that the country would like to be, rather than celebrating something of actual quality. So while I commend Ferguson’s victory speech and his toast to literature, and it seems as though the award went to a nice enough guy (and a western Canadian, to boot), 419 only really proves that the Gillers have their work cut out for them this year if they want to keep a reader like me from completely tuning out and feeling as though the richest prize in Canadian letters doesn’t speak to the average Canadian reader who is simply looking for something dazzling to read in a novel.



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