EXTRACT: Theo & Flora

An extract from Mark Winkler’s fourth novel.

Mark Winkler

A gust of summer-strength wind almost throws Silver to the Port Elizabeth pavement as he steps off the bus. He is feeling unwell after the train journey from Knysna and the ride from the station to Summerstrand, and in the buffeting he hears the tumult of Holst, all discord and cymbals, clamorous and atonal. He walks the short distance to the house he has rented for his family’s vacation. It is old and lacking in charm, cheaply built twenty or so years earlier, but only a block from the beach, and in the meagre garden the little tree that grows at a forty-five degree angle is relentlessly assaulted by the wind.

He finds Norman lying on a rug in the hallway, reading the comics page of The Herald. Norman pushes the paper away, rests his head on his arms, sniffs, rolls onto his back. When he sees Silver his ennui leaves him and he jumps up, moves towards his father, stops short of hugging him.

“Father!” he says.

Silver takes his son by the shoulders. The boy is tending towards fat, he thinks. Gezunt. What, and how much of it, has Sarah been feeding the child? He should raise this with her, but today is not the day. “How are you, son?”

“Very well, thank you, sir.” Norman says and sniffs again.

“I may be here for a few days.”

Norman’s face lights up. “Can we go fishing at the harbour? May we, please?”

Silver makes a show of looking through the window at the wind-whipped tree. “I think we’ll let the weather decide that, young man. Let us see what it does tomorrow.”

Their chatter has summoned Sarah, who appears in the doorway drying her hands on a tea-towel. She pulls herself erect when she sees her husband.

“Theodore.”Theo & Flora

“Hello, Sarah.”

“I didn’t expect you here.”

“Nor did I,” he says.

At the foot of a chair he places his valise, puts his folded jacket on top of it. “I shan’t be staying long, a night or two at most.”

Sarah offers to make tea.

Hoping it will help settle his stomach, Silver accepts, and she retreats into the kitchen.

“May I show you something, Father?” Norman says.

“Of course.”

Norman scampers off and Silver takes himself to the lounge. The upholstery has worn to a dark shine on seats and armrests, and a curtain is torn. On the walls, hung high against the cornices, are gloomy little prints cheaply framed, and in a corner a glass-fronted cabinet with a cracked pane stands empty. The place might do for a holiday, but nothing more. He sits on the edge of a chair and loosens his cravat.

“Look!” Norman says. The object he holds up takes his father a moment to identify. It is a kite, Silver realises, its lopsided diamond fashioned from wire coat-hangers covered in newspaper and held together with the liberal use of Sellotape. For the tail, Norman has used a nylon stocking. Silver is certain that it is Sarah’s, and his stomach turns at the sight of the intimate garment.

“That’s quite spectacular, son,” Silver says.

Norman beams, dangles the kite from a reel of fishing line, swings it from side to side. “I made it this morning, all by my own self,” he says. “Can we try it?”

“We’ll need to wait for the wind to drop a little. I’m afraid it will be torn to shreds on a day like today,” Silver says. The practicality of his suggestion does little to mitigate the boy’s disappointment, and Silver tries to think of some way to mollify him, but nothing comes. He is relieved when his sisters appear, led into the room by his wife who carries a tray, the teapot, cups and saucers rattling with each footstep.

Sarah pours. Silver asks Leah and Sally about their journey from Cape Town and they both reply at once, as if eager to break the silence. Norman sits in a chair making soft whooshing sounds as he waves the kite above his head in swooping parabolas. He stops, sneezes, continues. The adults discuss the wind, how the holidaymakers seem to be fewer in number than they were the previous year, how the austerity forced by War has made travel difficult, and why it is that groceries in Port Elizabeth are so much cheaper than in Cape Town.

The tea does little to settle Silver’s stomach, and as the pot runs dry, so does the conversation. He clears his throat and suggests to Leah and Sally that they take their nephew for a walk. Yes, it might be blustery out, but the fresh air will do Norman’s cold a world of good. The boy’s face falls, but he knows, as his mother and aunts do, that his father’s words are less a suggestion than a directive.

As the front door slams shut, Sarah starts and remarks, “Leah just can’t figure out how the wind works.” Then she turns to Silver, appraises him coolly. “I know exactly,” she says, “why you are here, Theodore.”

Theo & Flora is published by Umuzi. Read our interview with Winkler about his writing life here, and our reviews of Wasted and An Exceptionally Simple Theory (of Absolutely Everything), two of his previous novels.

Love and Crime: in conversation with Consuelo Roland

FIONA ZERBST chats with Consuelo Roland author of The Good Cemetery Guide, Lady Limbo and Wolf Trap about sex, death, detective fiction, love, magic realism and what it means to write novels in the 21st century.

Consuelo Roland

Consuelo, let’s talk about how the importance of crime in Lady Limbo and Wolf Trap, the first two novels in your Limbo Trilogy. Daniel in Lady Limbo writes crime fiction and the books feature private investigators, detectives and criminal syndicates.

I remember going to the circus as a seven-year-old in a red-tartan-checked cape my mother made me (like Sherlock Holmes). I realise now that feeling like a detective (and a writer) makes me a detached observer of the antics of others. A writer is partly a detective, one who unearths and casts light on the hidden or secret worlds of others. Also, a detective starts from ‘point zero’ and works obsessively to reach the truth.

I like the fact that writing detective fiction becomes a trope in the novel.

I read a lot of French at one stage and French crime fiction is very popular. I like to play with some of the clichés of detective fiction. I think I like writing about crime because it illustrates very clearly the contradictions that form the basis of human life. Everything we do is based on the existence of conflicting forces inside us. Criminals live in a very clear world. For most of us, an act of crime would be immensely fracturing and harrowing, but it would be normal for a criminal. There’s juxtaposition between the criminal world and another world, a very ambiguous one.

Let’s talk about Paola’s transition from tough, organised career woman to impetuous, grieving sleuth in Lady Limbo.

One of the things I wanted to explore in Lady Limbo was the whole gender equality issue. I was that career woman for a very long time. I had power over others and I used it. I wasn’t a very likeable person because one is just so stressed, twelve to fourteen hours a day. You try to be the perfect woman in all ways. I used that experience to write Paola’s character.

It seems to me that Paola exemplifies moral ambiguity – she has doubts, she questions herself.

Paola likes to think that her life is rational – most of the time we fool ourselves about how clear everything is in our lives when it’s really not. A random encounter or choice made and everything can change. It sits somewhere between our normal lives and a life of crime. We like to think it’s a clear line, but is it? Paola has to navigate this territory from the moment she chooses to investigate Daniel’s disappearance.

Once she begins investigating, we find ourselves in a very dark world, one of sexual commerce, sex trafficking and so on…

The two worlds interest me – how we live our daily public lives pretending there is no sex, but we have rich sexual lives in private and in our thoughts. When you’re a novelist, you’re constantly observing how people relate to other people, often in a very sexual way. I think it’s easier to stylise sex in literary fiction where your readers give you quite a bit of leeway − I’m thinking of Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Atonement − or within a specific genre where sex scenes are expected. It’s tricky writing about sex because there’s often a mix of readers across the spectrum. I’ve had readers ask me why I write about sex and comment on how sexual the characters are. I don’t find them that sexual at all, by the way! It’s part of the story. Someone said the other day that I write about good sex and bad sex. I thought that was an interesting comment.

Yes, you skirt the Mills & Boon clichés.

But our lives are very much clichés. Marriage is a cliché. Parenthood is a cliché. Being a modern career woman is a total cliché! I think I write about the hidden so much because we deny it a lot of the time. It’s not to say I’m not terrified of that – I am – but I do feel we’re constantly on that edge. I am very drawn to writers like Atwood, Murakami and Irving because they explore the sexual relations of human beings. I don’t know how it can be left out of books!

Daniel’s a mysterious guy – it’s difficult to figure out his motives or get inside his head. How do you write a character like him, knowing that you can’t give the reader too much?

Daniel first came to me as a voice and I tried to write the book in his voice. He came as the instigator of the story, so to speak. I thought, “If he’s the one who wants me to tell this story, why am I not telling it in his voice?” It seemed that he wanted me to tell the story from Paola’s perspective, however; he was an enigma and he remains one to me. I do think living a double life makes an enigma of people. Daniel may not be at the forefront of the story, but he has huge power within it.

One never gets a sense that the characters will be completely immersed in darkness – there’s always a sense that good will prevail and there will be redemption?

Well, we know that, in general, readers want a drop of hope. We’re brought up knowing that books without hope, entirely bleak, are a shock to the system. It would be an interesting experiment to try a hopeless version! But I do think you need playfulness to come out of that darkness and write the next book. You can get lost!

Let’s go back to your first novel, The Good Cemetery Guide. To my mind, there’s a strong element of magic realism in the novel, which makes for much levity in the fact of death and decay. Was that a conscious choice? There really was something of Love in the Time of Cholera about the novel…

There is a magical and mythical element to the novel – the semi-magical world of a fictional Kalk Bay where a lonely man had been born into a funeral parlour. Anthony the boy likes to fall asleep in coffins. I think in magic realism you have to be able to let yourself go, be ridiculous and just go for it; it’s an exaggerated, augmented reality but it’s all possible; it’s not a fairy tale. Rushdie speaks about magical realism as an enrichment of reality rather than an escape. Kalk Bay, this place in the fictional ether of The Good Cemetery Guide with a railway line going through it, is like García Márquez’s Macondo or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. The idea is to capture real people in a real place and evoke something of their distilled particularity.

I’d like to ask you about your writing process and where it starts. Where does a book begin for you?

It’s different every time. Ursula Le Guin said something about a story being like trying on a role… one puts on a whole play of possibilities, to see what characters will do. For me it’s very much like that; it’s mostly impromptu. Writing is never easy for me. It’s like pulling teeth. I have to rewrite and rewrite until the writing has its own sound like a poem. Every word has to be right and in the right place. It takes me forever. I can rewrite a chapter hundreds of times.

Can we call your Limbo Trilogy books postmodern? You play with the idea of writing about writing and the reader is very much conscious of your writing process and how you construct your characters.

It all depends how you define ‘postmodern’ but it’s true that if you look at Irving, Murakami and Atwood, my guiding lights as a writer, certain attributes stand out. The divide between the fantastic and the real is permeable in their writing, even if as Marukami claims, it is very natural in Japan. In the Limbo Trilogy, characters have to constantly figure out what’s real and what’s not real, because of the blurring of truth and lies. Other postmodern touchpoints are the stories within stories, the existential leanings as characters try and find meaning, and the absence of a clear resolution or consistent universe. Ultimately I’d hope that the Limbo Trilogy is a riveting saga that opens up its own space for the reader’s enjoyment and interpretation.

The final novel in the Limbo Trilogy will be published by Jacana Media in 2019.

REVIEW: New Times

New Times, Rehana Rossouw’s vivid new novel about the early days of the Rainbow Nation, traverses familiar territory for YAZEED KAMALDIEN.

New Times by Rehana Rossouw

Although circles around myself and author Rehana Rossouw have intertwined, we’ve never met. Those circles would be obvious since we are both journalists but then it’s ironic that we haven’t met because we operate in a small media world in the same country.

While we may not have met, I did pop in at one of her book talks, held at the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg with her relative – my dear friend – Nasia Seria. And I’ve worked for a few years with Chiara Carter, editor of Weekend Argus newspaper, who spoke at the Cape Town launch of this novel and who is a mutual friend. Then there’s author Barbara Boswell who is also mentioned, along with Carter, in the acknowledgements section of this book, whom we also share.

We are connected through the people we know, but not directly. Maybe I should just add her on Facebook, if she’s on there. Anyway, at least now I feel connected with her after having read New Times, which takes its name from the newspaper title where the novel’s lead character Ali Adams works as a journalist. The point of all of this mentioning of interconnectedness is to entrench a bit deeper the fact that Rossouw’s book is terribly familiar territory to me. That stretches from her depictions of Ali’s reflections on life in a busy newsroom to the Islamic traditions in Bo-Kaap she participates in. And then there are references to Cape Town’s left-leaning crowd who forms parts of characters in New Times. We still see them at Cuban government events and Palestinian support rallies in the Mother City.

When Carter saw New Times on my desk at the paper’s office where I’m still doing some freelance journalism, she stopped to talk about the left crowd referenced in the book, although not named of course. Carter joked about how they were having conversations about who was actually who in Rossouw’s novel.

New Timesthus appears as a deeply personal work for Rossouw. It feels as if she has literally taken her diary from reporting on South Africa’s social and political challenges – particular understanding its post-apartheid identity – and published it here as the story of Ali Adams. I’m not sure if she has mentioned this in any interview or whether any book reviewer elsewhere picked up on this. I’ve chosen to avoid reading anything about New Times in favour of forming my own reflection without influence.

Back to the main character: Ali is a journalist who has direct access to Nelson Mandela during his second year in office as the country’s first democratically elected president.

Fresh out of apartheid, she has black friends who served time on Robben Island and works closely with a white journalist who had links to the apartheid military. She sees the many faces of the country, as journalists often do, and shares it through her newspaper writing.

Reflecting on Ali’s close proximity to her sources, I’m always sceptical of journalists who get too close to political parties and politicians but, OK, one can understand the context of those back-in-the-day times. Back then the post-apartheid South Africa was all mixed up – well, it remains still mixed up.

It was common for anti-apartheid activists to turn up in newsrooms while their comrades would turn up in government, right next to Mandela.

Rossouw shows us the life of Ali, the young journalist, not yet 30, who navigates ins and outs of Rainbow Nation lives to tell stories, fight her demons, make peace with her household and find peace with herself.

As mentioned, the novel appears autobiographical, and it does not pretend to make grander statements than what it reflects: the new times of a new country. And what it all means for a young, female journalist.

A line in the book that appears as a tagline for the new times reflected in this book appears on page 20: “Sometimes it’s hard to understand the choices people make when they’re finally free.”

And so Ali asks tough questions about how the African National Congress – regarded as the liberation party that shook South Africa free from white apartheid rule – has turned its back on the people who ensured its victory. (The ANC is referred to in the book as The Movement, by the way.)

The writing pace moves at the pace of Ali’s busy life. When she’s not at work chasing deadlines and fighting monster managers she’s enjoying simple moments of shared meals that her grandmother makes in Bo-Kaap – a community whose residents and history Rossouw depicts with great affection. It is portrayed with all its Islamic gatherings, patriarchy and laikoms (we will get to that later).

I really liked how Rossouw’s brushes off the patriarchy without trying to sound too self-righteous. She doesn’t need to go on That Angry Feminist Rant to make her point.

I’m not meaning to take a dig at that kind of non-inclusive feminism that demands women should not wear burqas because white women don’t wear it so therefore no women should. I’m just saying that I like Rossouw’s way of showing that Ali’s feminism isn’t about burning a bra. It’s about claiming her space in the world on her terms.

And as someone who knows the hell of newsrooms – and its accompanying patriarchy, chauvinism, and the way critical thinking can easily be trumped by knee-jerk reactionary drivel – it’s great to see a story about a female journalist of colour who kicks butt at her job.

We all know and can see that race and representation in media is still not as diverse as it could be. And racism is still an issue in the media, whether in newsrooms or in the endless reports of pathetic racism that erupts across South Africa and beyond.

To state the obvious: Rossouw is a woman of colour who wrote her story. She placed a character into the archive of our collective library that tells our stories. She writes without much fuss or pretence about navigating the journalism, politics, her community and race. None of it is blatant or pedantic, thank goodness. There is no political correct bullshit either. Rossouw has a sense of humour too, which shows in New Times.

Her Muslim, woman, journalist character is very real: she smokes, she swears, she prays, she loves her family, she tells men where to get off and she even does a shadow boxing bout with Mandela in Parliament. It’s a story that I’m glad has been told.

And when I do eventually meet Rossouw, I’ll greet her: “Laikom, Rehana.”

That’s the Cape Town version of the longer Arabic greeting Asalamu alaykom wa rahmatulahi wa barakatu.

New Times is published by Jacana.

Yazeed Kamaldien is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town.

WORK/LIFE: Eben Venter

Eben Venter

Eben Venter grew up on a sheep farm in Eastern Cape, South Africa. After studying philosophy at university he migrated to Australia in 1986 when a State of Emergency was declared. His novels, which have appeared in both English and Afrikaans, include Santa Gamka (which won the W.A. Hofmeyr prize, the M-Net and the ATKV prize), Wolf, Wolf and Trencherman. His next English-language title, Green as the Sky is Blue will be published by Umuzi in August.

What does “writing” mean?

I have notes for a short story based on a Congolese refugee called Emmanuel (whom I’ve met in real life). Emmanuel has a problem with his eyes. They close involuntarily: he often can’t see what he’s supposed to. He is also shy, but an accomplished artist of line drawings.

Weeks before he has to see a specialist, he makes meticulous drawings of his eye condition. He’ll be too shy to explain what’s going on and his eyes might shut suddenly, so this is his solution. These are my notes so far. Sometimes during the night I wake up and continue the story. In fact, I’ve just about finished the story in my head. However, all of this, the notes and thoughts, do not add up to a written story.

Only once I’ve sat down and activate my imagination – the action of forming mental images, and writing them down – will the words follow on one another and guide my sentences from one to the next. Only in the actual process of writing will the building blocks of the story – those notes and thoughts – at last become story.

Which book changed your life?

This question does not apply to me. I can only say the following: during and after my brother’s death Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying gave me insight into the process of dying. I love Remedios the Beauty whose beauty was so powerful that one day, while hanging out the sheets in the wind, she ascended into heaven – from Gabriel Garcia Marques’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I like the Afrikaans writer Karel Schoeman’s meandering, dream-like sentences. J.M. Coetzee’s clear, precise use of the English language I admire, and how, in spite of the clarity, his stories always allude to something other than what’s on the page. I also love W.G. Sebald’s lateral jumps: from the eyes of owls in the Antwerp Zoo to the penetrating gaze of philosophers. That is the selection I’ll make for now.

Your favourite fictional character?

As a child I liked Noddy. But fascination with a fictional character changed as my reading matured. If I’m enveloped by the story and the way it’s told, the character at the time becomes my favourite. However, I am attracted to characters whose life and times seem absurd, as if they float one inch above the real world. Many Eastern European novelists created these sort of characters, maybe they would’ve headed for a gulag if they wrote otherwise. There is the young first person narrator in Bruno Schultz’s The Street of Crocodiles, and the wastepaper collector of Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude. There is Coetzee’s Michael K who silently subverts the system, and that obstreperous voice of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield I will not forget.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m writing a sixteen-part love story about a woman who migrates from Cape Town to Australia’s Gold Coast; it’s for a woman’s magazine called Vrouekeur. I am also making lots of notes on the different voices in, and doing research for, my new novel. More I cannot say otherwise my creative process becomes diluted. For sure it’ll only become a story once I start writing uninterruptedly.

Describe your workspace.

My study faces north-east with morning light pouring into the room. My desk is a broad top with six drawers, probably originating from an office in the old SAR [South African Republic]. The shelves in this room hold my collection of Afrikaans books, my dictionaries, philosophy texts and my own books: the eleven works of fiction I’ve produced, and the translations works. I keep these in sight to remind and encourage me of the task ahead: a story with a different approach, hopefully changing the form of the novel, and on a subject I haven’t tackled before. I am happy to have a working room like this.

Eben Venter's study.

The most important instrument you use?

My eleven-inch MacBook Pro, my current notebook with its HB Staedtler pencil, my set of two Shorter Oxfords, the HAT [verklarende handwoordeboek van die Afrikaanse taal], my Latin and Greek dictionaries, and the two thesauruses in English and Afrikaans.

What’s your most productive time of day?

The golden writing period is that three to four hours early in the morning. If I miss that time, I miss out on delivering my creative piece for the day. Very little alcohol, no dagga and early to bed are all pre-conditions of using the golden hours productively.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I don’t get stuck while I’m in the writing process. Even if I do write nonsense, it still exists as an amorphous creation from which I can make sense the following day. Stuck means not opening up where I had left my creative work the day before. Worse is not even making a single note in my current notebook.

How do you relax?

I take our whippet and kelpie to the nearest beach for a run and a swim. When the monkey mind takes over, the Buddhists’ term for the distracted, jumping all over the place mind state, I opt for compulsory relaxation. That consists of an hour work-out with my trainer at the gymnasium. As I cannot afford to pay in full, I barter by cooking him supper twice a week.

How has living outside of SA influenced the way you write about the country? 

In 2009 my novel Santa Gamka was published, later to become a successful stage play too. The story is about a young lad operating as a sex worker in a small Karoo town. All my notes, written and photographic ones, were made while I lived in Prince Albert in the Great Karoo. However the book I wrote here on the north eastern coast of New South Wales, Australia. The vast distance between myself and the location of the story made me into homo ludens, I could write playfully, say whatever I wished through the character of Lucky.  And I did. The distance also gives me that sudden, fresh appreciation of a word, an expression or the name of a small Karoo bossie – as if I’m registering the beauty and significance of these words for the first time.

Who and what has influenced your work?

Growing up on an Eastern Cape farm, privileged, the system semi-feudal (you have to insert these qualifiers now or you’re dead meat), influenced the story-lines of my earlier work (it boils down to what you do with your privilege, doesn’t it?). My Afrikaans teacher at Grey College was a worldly pedagogue, my philosophy lecturers, first at Potchefstroom, then at UJ, were all brilliant: What do you mean when you say that? And: You can’t just use that term without properly defining it. Other than that, I was an auto-didact: I shaped my use of language and my appreciation of literature by constantly reading.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

I once had an offer from the University of the North-West to take up a junior lectureship in philosophy. I turned it down. Never followed the straight and narrow which would’ve meant a steady salary and a pension. No-one told me I’d made a good choice. Quite the opposite.

I smoked hashish in an alley off the Ramblas and I looked at male models in Interview magazine and read Genet which kind of shocked me at the time. In 1986 when the State of Emergency was declared in South Africa I migrated. No one told me to do this. I just did it. And kept on writing.

Your favourite ritual?

Sometime ago I made ceviche for the first time – the Peruvian way of marinating raw white fish. It turned out beautifully. That is a ritual. There are other rituals described in my new novel, Green as the Sky is Blue, that I actively participated in and made notes of afterwards. Those rituals have enriched my life. There are simpler ones, like tickling a dog’s ear and drinking a lovely cup of tea. And reading.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Without any doubt it is persisting with the act of writing, as I’ve tried to explain above. Week after week, one month to the next, until you have completed your first draft. Then comes the meticulous revising. It could take up to two years.  If I remember correctly James Joyce sometimes spent two weeks on a single sentence, and fourteen years on Ulysses.

The most pleasurable part of the novel-writing process?

A single sentence, pared down, saying exactly what I had intended it too, can bring pleasure. When I reach the seventh draft of a novel I become happy too.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

The fourth of the seven deadly sins, sloth. On the other hand, I don’t want to apply such Calvinistic rigour to my life and work. That British nurse who recorded the top five dying wishes of people, noted that they regretted working so hard or not keeping in touch with their friends, or not simply hanging out.

What are you afraid of?

During the time of Cyclone Debbie our house, a Queenslander high on stilts, almost flooded. I had to take a Valium. Once the whippet did her business next to a baseball field and I refused to pick it up because the field manager told me to. He then started walking straight at me: the embodiment of the menacing male oppressor that has done so much damage through the ages – that scared me. And the dogs.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

You have to read widely in order to know what has been written and what’s happening on the writing scene now.

Secondly: you have to be prepared to write long hours on your own. Then be able to endure (constructive) criticism of your work.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

Recently I received an email form J.M. Coetzee after he had read my last novel, Groen soos die Hemel daarbo. I can’t say what was in it for privacy reasons, but his words will make me happy for years to come.

Author photograph by Stephen Fourie.

REVIEW: Free Association

GARETH LANGDON finds Steven Boykey Sidley’s Free Association uncomfortably enjoyable.Free Association

I am sometimes troubled by the books that I enjoy the most. Not because of any grotesque obsession with violence, or taste for obscure melodrama or science fiction – but because the books I like the most highlight my personal shortcomings.

Free Association is a fantastic novel – but I’m not entirely sure that the reason I feel that way is simply because it is my kind of novel. Steven Boykey Sidley’s fourth novel follows the mind and life of Max Lurie, a down-and-out white male, mostly unsuccessful once-off novelist, now host of popular podcast ‘Free Association’ in which he speaks freely about life, love, and personal distress. It screams white privilege, something which Sidley cleverly highlights by juxtaposing Lurie with his South African producer, Bongani. The novel is structured around extracts from the podcast itself, in-between which a third person narrative takes over to provide the context for Max’s freely associated, pre-recorded ramblings. This style provides a careful insight into the character’s mind, while not neglecting the circumstances which give rise to his thoughts.

Free Association made me feel uncomfortable in how much I enjoyed it. Max Lurie is undoubtedly the epitome of white privilege, living comfortably in Hollywood and free to choose podcasting as a sustainable source of income – an unrealistic choice for most ordinary humans. However overwrought the character of Bongani might be (black, gay, immigrant, foreigner all at once), placing him in opposition to Max allows the reader (especially this reader) to be both disgusted and challenged by Max’s behaviour.

Max’s treatment of women is no different. The podcast speaks often of Anne, his “girlfriend” who is herself a total fiction. As a projection of Max’s psyche, she demonstrates his obvious assumptions about Women as group – she is always somehow against him, he can never seem to please her, he is conflicted by what she thinks about him – all of these reflections solipsistic to the Nth degree and stark indictments of Max’s gender bias. Several other prominent female characters provide little departure from Anne. Roxanne (or Ava to the podcast listeners) is a nubile co-worker with radical political beliefs and a shaved head who somehow overlooks Max’s chauvinism long enough to have sex with him, date him, and fail to reform him as a man in any meaningful way – instead she seems to concede to him in the classic motherly, pitying sense. Pixel aka Bethany is Max’s high school ex, a paragon of corporate female success, writ as disinterested in men, obsessed with her career and money, and powerful enough that Max’s penetration of her deepest vulnerabilities leaves her the expected cliché of a woman – powerful, but still weaker than any one man. This is most evident when Max has to rescue her from a mugger, getting stabbed in the process. You can only imagine the self pitying that went on on the podcast after that.

What made me so uncomfortable about how much I liked this book, as I may have mentioned, is how much of Max Lurie I identified with – I was sucked into each and every one of his self-absorbed rants on the podcast, dying to hear more about what he thought about himself and his world. I felt myself internally nodding, and proclaiming “YES! Exactly!” as I read, chuckling to myself at Max’s darker moments as an act of solidarity. Max, when you think about it, is a vile character – self-obsessed and devoid of self-awareness, uncritical, chauvinistic and a little bit racist. But I loved him.

The novel’s climax is slowly introduced through another ostensibly middling character, initially hidden in Max’s periphery, but soon brought to the fore by a series of shocking events – Jake. Jake is a homeless man, evidently schizophrenic, dirty and alone. He lives in the alleyway near Max’s home and was happily minding his own business until Max felt the need to “help”. Max soon learns that Jake is a failed physicist who, once on the brink of tremendous scientific breakthrough, unfortunately succumbed to severe mental illness, his tragic downfall leading to a life on the street. Jake is probably the most intelligent and level-headed of all the characters in the noveln and thanks to that is keenly aware of the dynamics at play in Max’s life and the world at large.

Max waxes lyrical about Jake on the podcast, but some of his creative licentiousness proves very upsetting to Jake, who snaps. Without giving the rest of the story away, the events which transpire lead Max to a kind of epiphany where, after long conversations with Bongani (remember him, the black friend?), he decides to change tack with the podcast. Now it will be called ‘Outsiders’ and will take a careful look, through interviews, at the lives of everyone on the “outside” – the old, the poor, the mentally ill, the immigrant.

But Max’s progression is undoubtedly set to reinforce the exact same tropes which were reserved, mercifully, for his own mind in Free Association. What Max and Bongani sadly don’t realise is that turning the attention of the podcast outside – hell, even the name ‘Outsiders’ – far from doing those on society’s periphery a service, does little more than solidify the existing prejudice which led to their exclusion in the first place. It will highlight their difference, making them even more weird and esoteric, and even more excluded.

Free Association was a challenging read because it made me mad at myself about how I view the world as a white man. I was mad at Max, but I could see myself in him, and that is the power of any good novel – through identification with character we are made to, more and more, question our own core beliefs. Sidley’s great achievement in his fourth novel is that, while catering to the rather narrow tastes of a self-absorbed white, male, millennial reader, has also brought into stark revelation the shortcomings of that reader’s worldview.

Free Association is published by Picador Africa.

REVIEW: The First Law of Sadness

BY GARETH LANGDONThe First Law of Sadness

The title of Nick Mulgrew’s latest short story collection, The First Law of Sadness, gives only scant insight into the depth which the young author has been able to plumb with his sophomore collection. Ambitious, insightful and relatable, each story in the collection speaks volumes about how Mulgrew has grown since his debut collection, Stations.

The trouble with analysis as almost any first-year English class will teach you is that it is simply too easy, and too novice, to associate narrator and character with author. But reading Stations and The First Law of Sadness side by side (as I have done by pure coincidence) does everything to invite such a comparison.

I remember when I read Mulgrew’s work the first time. Stations felt throughout to be deeply personal, a collection that seemed naturally auto-biographical in some sense, outlining carefully some of the author’s more formative childhood and adolescent moments. The First Law of Sadness is a departure from this personal space: an apparently deliberate pivot. Mulgrew is clearly forcing himself to be challenged and grow as a writer – to not be predictable or pigeonholed. As this fresh batch of stories shows, Mulgrew is growing into a writer who is able to inhabit the minds of new characters, many of whom are nothing like him, and unpack human experience in new and interesting ways.

Mulgrew takes many risks in this work, especially with the characters he chooses to write as and about. Inhabiting other selves is a dangerous pursuit, especially when these other selves are so far outside of your normal. Attempts at this — especially by young authors — can quite often lead to superficial, ignorant and even offensive results.

Happily, this is not the case in The First Law of Sadness. From middle-aged suburban housewives, to men of colour struggling with their homosexuality, to divorcees and drug addicts, Mulgrew’s analyses and depictions of character are, while not perfect, still brave, mature and more often than not, movingly insightful explorations of everyday experience in both the ugly and the beautiful. Drawing us closer to these unique experiences of the characters through well written narrative, Mulgrew has been able to foster empathy in the reader in ways that are usually reserved for seasoned authors.

Explorations of otherness are not always simple though, and the most difficult instance of this appears in “Bootlegger” in which Mulgrew inhabits the mind of a black student who has, accidently, killed a duiker, which he then decides to turn into biltong. The student is not a first language English speaker, and Mulgrew attempts to recreate his inner monologue verbatim:

A grand problem started then. There was one of your private securities. He walked to me as I attended the butchery bureau, and commenced to shout at me. He asked if I have paid for my produce. I say no. He says I am not authorised to eat this produce. I must pay first. I attempted to explain, no, you do not understand: this is my biltong. He interrupts. He calls me a thief. I say, no, again, you do not understand. I carry this biltong with me. I made it myself. He says this is impossible, that I’m a pirate of biltong, that I must pay. I am grabbed by him, and all of the people in the supermarket, they look at me in the way that your people do when a man like me is at the centre of a problem.

This passage felt uncomfortable. Mulgrew has used a language here that is deliberately stodgy, with almost no contraction or use of the active voice: “grabbed by him”; “do not understand”. This reads like the voice of someone who has a weak grasp of English, and the otherness is reinforced by the final “man like me” drawing attention to the character’s blackness amidst a group of (assumedly) white people at the supermarket.

Writing this way raises questions: What does it mean for a privileged white author like Mulgrew to write in a voice like this? What does it mean for him to inhabit the mind of a black character and then assume the level of this character’s grasp of English? Where does the author’s license end? While he is drawing attention to the racist society this story is set in, in what way does he contribute to these assumptions about others through his choice of diction, his very way of writing? Most interestingly though, I found myself asking seriously why this made me uncomfortable, and was the discomfort as a result of my own ingrained prejudices and misunderstandings about an entire race and class of people, and indeed of the author himself. In any case, the fact that Mulgrew could, through a single story, cause me to begin to pick apart my personal assumptions about race, and how to write about it, is a sign of his growth and of his undeniably bright future as an author in South Africa today – a place that needs bold and brave narratives to help us understand each other.

Mulgrew is adept at dealing with the everyday too, and one of my favourite examples of this is “Jumper”, where the author takes the seemingly horrifying site of a man apparently about to kill himself during a victory parade (the particular South Africanness of the moment brought about by it being a parade for the Springboks) and turns it on its head. I can’t explain the joke without ruining the story, but my audible giggle while reading is testament to Mulgrew’s ability to play with different perspectives, circumstances and the sometimes banal sometimes confusing aspects of everyday experience in South Africa. In “Jumper”, assumptions are undercut in a way that mirrors what Mulgrew does throughout the book. You might think you know what life is like for others, but really, you have no idea.

Overall, The First Law of Sadness, is a wonderful, richly detailed work. With each of Mulgrew’s collections demonstrating an upward trajectory in authorial maturity and skill, I’m excited to see more from this promising South African talent.

The First Law of Sadness is published by David Philip Publishers.

REVIEW: Asylum

GARETH LANGDON reviews Marcus Low’s quietly devastating debut novel.

Asylum

Post apocalyptic motifs are overdone. Between The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games, contemporary media seems to scream the need for us all to be prepared for the worst – for the coming of the end. Whether or not this is a universal set of fears, or something unique to Hollywood is not much of a question. What matters is that it is a tired trope, and that anyone hoping to tackle the genre is going to have an uphill battle.

Marcus Low makes light work of this challenge in his debut novel, Asylum. The novel follows, through a series of eloquent and detailed journal entries, the plight of James Barry. Barry has been diagnosed with a fatal lung disease – likely tuberculosis – and finds himself incarcerated in a treatment facility or modern day sanitorium, in the middle of the Karoo. His days drag on at a snail’s pace as he gazes out of the window at the dry bones of the earth, watching nothing happen, and writing regularly in his notebooks. He has made some friends though, and as inmates are want to do, they begin planning their escape. The novel traces Barry’s internal struggles as well as the planning and execution of their proposed escape. Composed of notebook fragments and interjected with editor’s notes, written from what is ostensibly the point of view of whoever discovered the notebooks, the novel has an intensely personal feel.

Asylum is at once apocalyptic rendering, and psychological exploration. Barry is a sensitive character, with a painful yet mysteriously unsubstantiated past. His voice reads as hurt rather than angry, as resigned rather than determined. The notebooks function as both a solace for him, and as a way of leaving a legacy – one which is, at times, deliberately skewed. The choice of setting in the Karroo works well for this genre as the vast expanse of the landscape, as well as its dry, dusty harshness, create an atmosphere that lends itself to a story of loneliness, longing and resignation.

The plague in Asylum is more insidious however. Rather than go the obvious route of monsters or Orwellian dictatorship, the author has chosen a silent killer – a lung disease, airborne – that slowly causes deterioration in its hosts, presenting as coughing up of blood, tiredness, and the odd hallucination. Low seems far more interested in the interior conflict of Barry however, and the lung disease serves more as a measure of time, counting down the days to his death as it progresses, and as a parallel to his mental deterioration.

Like the disease that afflicts Barry, the sense of this novel overall is also insidious. The reader has the sense all along that something is very wrong, but that what’s wrong is less important than the characters’ experience of it. What matters to Low is what is going on in their heads – the humanness of it all – which explains the use of journals as the primary medium in the novel. Cleverly, by focusing on a single point of view, Low avoids many of the traps of modern end-of-the world fiction, the distractions of monsters and dictators. Instead, we are presented with a very human experience in an inhumane world, and are made to appreciate the moments of light that make our own experience bearable, even if for Barry as for some of is, these come in the form of dreams and hallucinations rather than genuine human experience.

Rather than offering escapism, Low is brave enough to dig deeper. He explores humanity without sacrificing the enticing nature of mystery that many apocalyptic-genre novels do well. The choice of the Karroo as a setting also eases the imaginative leap that a South African reader has to make, a feeling all too close to home running throughout the narrative.

As a debut, Asylum is cleverly crafted and engaging – an encouraging sign of things to come for an exciting South African talent.

Asylum is published by Picador Africa.