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.

EXTRACT: Outsiders

LYNDALL GORDON reflects on the five extraordinary women writers whose lives she explores in Outsiders.

Lyndall Godon

All five of my choices were motherless. With no female model at hand, they learnt from books; if lucky, from an enlightened man. Common to all five was the danger of staying at home, the risk of an unlived life. But if there was danger at home, there was often worse danger in leaving: the loss of protection; estrangement from family; exploitation; a wandering existence, shifting from place to place; and worst of all, exposure to the kind of predator who appeared to offer Olive Schreiner a life – marriage – when she went to work as a governess at the age of seventeen.

In a period when a woman’s reputation was her treasured security, each of these five lost it. Each endured the darkness of social exclusion. How far was it willed – how far, for instance, did Emily Brontë will her unpopularity at a Brussels school, or was it involuntary? Were the acts of divergence necessary if each woman was to follow the bent of her nature? Mary Ann Evans fled a provincial home where a brainy girl was regarded as odd. In London, she called herself an ‘outlaw’ before she became one by living with a partner outside the legality of marriage. Yet it was during her years outside society in the late 1850s that George Eliot came into being. Virginia Stephen (later Virginia Woolf) settled in Bloomsbury as part of a group. Her brothers, sister, and their mostly homosexual friends, E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey and Maynard Keynes, provided a shield. In such stimulating company, Virginia and her sister turned themselves into unchaperoned young women, flaunting words like ‘semen’ and ‘copulation’ in mixed company until all hours of the night. It was scandalous, but not dangerous. Danger, for Woolf, was the threat of insanity, bound up with what Henry James called ‘the madness of art’.
No one, of course, can explain genius. Women are especially hard to discern outside the performing spheres assigned to them in the past, the thin character of angels in the house. In contrast, Virginia Woolf explores the secret thing: women’s enduring creativity as it takes its way in shadow; in her generation and before, it did not proclaim itself.

What we now know is that after these writers’ lifetimes, families concocted myths, playing down the radical nature of these women. George Eliot’s widower presented a flawless angel; at the opposite extreme, Schreiner’s estranged widower branded her with his annoyance. The devoted son and daughter-in-law of Mary Shelley cast her in the Victorian mould of timid maiden and mourner. But voices sing out past the tombstones of reputation. The words of these five altered our world; certainly they changed the face of literature. We do more than read them; we listen and live with them.

To say I chose these writers was actually wrong; they chose themselves. For each had the compulsion Jane Eyre expressed when she said, ‘Speak I must’.

Outsiders is published by Virago. Read our review of the novel here.

BOOK CLUB: Outsiders

FINUALA DOWLING reviews Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World by Lyndall Gordon and wonders what has changed.

Outsiders by Lyndall Gordon

How does a woman writer become an outsider? Let me count the ways.

Her mental solitude begins in childhood, when she cannot even jump over a puddle without thinking: ‘How strange – what am I?’ In having a voice at all she ‘veers from the path laid out by custom’, and the very sound of that emergent voice may cause her mother to beat her with a switch made of twigs. Her arrival at maturity is a mystery; she is ‘like a thorn-tree, which grows up very quietly, without any one’s caring for it, and one day suddenly breaks out into yellow blossoms’.

She thinks differently from everyone else, perhaps especially other women who have been trained to ‘seem’ rather than to ‘be’.  Knowing that what she needs is to be found in books of great complexity, she grabs an education where she can –a lecture on electricity or private lessons in Greek.  She dares to know what men know. She devours her father’s library, even though it contains not a single book by a woman. Lost in the world of books and thought, she is absent-minded or careless of her own appearance. As a result of this radical combination of thought and thoughtlessness she looks odd: people mock her when she appears in public.

It is hard for her to find a sympathetic life partner, and sometimes she goes without. Or she takes a risk – loves a married man, perhaps – and is duly ostracised, especially by respectable women. She is called names: ‘slut’ and ‘stinkpot of humanity’. She is disowned or slighted by her father and her brother whose ideas of a woman’s limits cannot be stretched to include a daughter or sister who chooses writing over marriage, who openly follows her passions.

She puts into her fiction creatures like herself, shunned, unforgiven, unforgettable. Fearing that the book she has written will be turned down because she is a woman, she hides beneath a male pseudonym. When her book is published, reviewers find fault with it: ‘coarse in language and coarse in conception’. The passion in her writing is misread as the spinster’s hunger for a man; her public speaking, ‘a molten torrent of white rage’, is declared ‘unwomanly’.

Her happiest moments are spent in the company of the select few who recognise her genius, and in reading the books of her predecessors, fellow pioneers in the creation of a new model of womanhood. Like them, she is against arms, patriotism, violence.  ‘As a woman, I have no country,’ she announces.  Her opinions and actions infuriate powerful men.

If she is to get on in the world she must have a male champion or mentor.  In this she may choose well or ill.  Even if she finds a champion, she must guard her writing time jealously – turning away distressed relatives seeking succour – or pay the consequences.  Above all, she must avoid falling pregnant, or she will be slowed, even stopped, by the burden of repeated pregnancies and childcare.

Poverty consolidates her outsider status.  Rarely successful in her own lifetime, she scrapes by with bits and pieces of editing and translating or, worst of all,  the skivvy work of being a governess.

Abandoning and abandoned by the ordinary world, she spends more and more time alone, in self-imposed exile, thinking and writing.  She makes a virtue of necessity, proclaiming herself ‘an outlaw’, positioning herself ‘at the outposts of existence where the clamour will not reach’.  She writes: ‘it is a curious solitary life I live here, seldom speaking to or seeing a human being’.  Inevitably she suffers from an isolating depression, perhaps brought on by expecting something when the world has told her to expect nothing.

Long after she is dead, her life is celebrated. Long after she has any need for it, her books become bestsellers and money pours in.

The women writers whose lives underpin these paragraphs are Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf – the five subjects of biographer Lyndall Gordon’s latest book, Outsiders. The sting of being slighted; the pressure of unexpressed passion; enforced loneliness: Gordon lays bare the afflictions that have, ironically, produced some of the world’s most sublime writing.

It was a relief,  really exhilarating to read Outsiders.  Gordon’s composite biography brings to light the overlaps between the lives of five visionary women  who went willingly to the margins, risking the opprobrium of family and society, in their quest to give expression to truths that their original natures allowed them to perceive. Shunned, undervalued or misunderstood in their own time, they continue to speak to one another, and to us, long after their critics’ voices have died.

The lives of Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf  are not historical curiosities.  When I finished reading Outsiders, I picked up a wonderful ‘Diary’ piece by Anne Enright in the London Review of Books showing that the ‘outsider’ status of women writers persists to this day.

Enright begins with the story of a writer who two years ago submitted the opening pages of a new novel under both her real name, Catherine Nichols, and a psedonym, George Nichols, only to discover from the responses that George was ‘eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book.’ Next, Enright analyses possible gendered readings of the sentence, ‘The cat sat on the mat’.  If authored by a man, the sentence might be judged to be tough, precise, percussive, allusive, symbolic: ‘it somehow says it ALL.’  If authored by a woman, the sentence is judged domestic and banal, limited.

Enright’s statistics reveal the inequality of column inches devoted to reviews of books by men as opposed to books by women, the literary prize that is handed to one male writer after another over a decade-long period, and the paucity of reviews by men of books by women.  It was painful to read about the condescension or disregard with which a woman writer of Enright’s stature is treated. Yet there was a feeling of relief, too, that she had laid this down, had spoken up, had risked being dismissed as a bad sport for telling the truth.

Because the truth is that to be a woman writer is to live inside Emily Dickinson’s lines: ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?/ Are you – Nobody – too?’ I was once introduced at a literary festival by a staff member who declined to study my CV or read my books but said she’d get to know me over a cup of coffee and then extemporise.  Unfortunately, she spent our coffee date talking about herself.  Not to worry, what is there to know about a woman writer anyway?  ‘Finuala is a very quiet person who loves her daughter,’  she said when we came onto the stage for my reading. I set the record straight with my loudest, least maternal poem.

I have sat on my fair share of ‘women writer’ panels, so I feel entitled to wonder why an event consisting of four male writers around a table is billed not ‘Male writers in conversation’ but ‘South Africa’s literary lions’. Though the word ‘lion’ is a clue.  I suspect there is something sexually alluring about a male writer of literary fiction.  Do the male writer’s novels, with their combination of sensitive mind-reading and ‘the cat sat on the mat’ toughness, hold an erotic charm for his mostly straight and female audience?   After all, his book is capable of going to bed with a woman, staying the night beside her. I once heard a woman sigh orgasmically as she told me how much she was looking forward to the next novel by one of the lions. I admit that I experienced a bit of a twinge.

A day or two later I was standing in the queue at Woolworths and the young woman in front of me turned around and began to speak to me as if we were old friends, without preamble. She remembered something from my first novel; something she’d really liked.  We spoke directly, easily, as though we were continuing a conversation we’d started sometime earlier.  I am grateful that it did not cross her mind to shun me because I have occasionally been disgraceful, because I refer to sex, use unladylike language, say what I think or have dared to write at all, and under my own name.

I have had other encounters with readers, but in this case memory’s flashbulb went off. Even though we were women holding baskets, I was a writer, she was a reader. It was the kind of come-in-from-the-cold moment one would have wished for Mary Shelley; a moment that Emily Brontë, being exceptional, never wanted. George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf sometimes had it: not a magazine cover, prize, platform, or laudatory review, but one voice saying to another voice: ‘You’re not alone. Thank you for writing this’.

Outsiders is published by Virago. Read an extract from the book here. Dowling is AERODROME’s poetry editor; her most recently published novel is The Fetch (Kwela).