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.

BOOK CLUB: Stranger Than We Can Imagine

GARETH LANGDON is impressed by John Higgs’ riveting account of the 20th century.Stranger Than We Can Imagine - John Higgs

I first encountered the literature of the 20th century when I was in my third year of university, floundering through an English BA at the University of Cape Town. I remember cracking open The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that other book by James Joyce that isn’t the impenetrable Ulysses. I was immediately taken by the richness of the work but also by the strange disjointedness of the narrative – how the stream of consciousness technique he used at once made perfect sense and no sense at all. During a particularly messy time in my life, I found this kind of narrative almost soothing – a semantic echo of what was going on in my own jumbled head. I remained fascinated with work from this time throughout my undergraduate and graduate careers, and to this day anything 20th century gets my juices well and truly flowing. I find art and literature from this time comforting. It makes me feel less alone.

The 20th century is considered by many to be the most turbulent time in human history. It started with a world war, saw the rise of communism and fascism and then another world war, disillusionment with religion and some of the most significant advances in science, medicine and industry that changed the shape of our psyches forever – a veritable explosion of confusion, enlightenment, death and fear that ripples through our lives today.

In his clear-headed and thorough inquiry, Stranger Than We Can Imagine, John Higgs carefully unpacks the major events of the 20th century that shaped the art, literature and science we take as foundational to this day, and examines some of the psychological effects of things like Einstein’s relativity and Nietzsche’s dead God on our lives.

Central to Higgs’ unpacking is the idea of the omphalos, in his words a “universal symbol common to almost all cultures but with different locations.” In Higgs’ figuring, the chaos of the 20th century can be best understood in the context of the disruption of various omphali. Western culture was now faced with a loss – the loss of a single benevolent God, the loss of the sovereignty of kings and queens and the loss of a single art for explaining everything around them. Various attempts at explaining existence gave rise to new but fleeting omphali, perhaps most notably fascism, embodied in that haunting spectre of the 20th century: Nazism.

The question of “Why?” lived on everyone’s tongue throughout the 20th century. Why are we here? What does it all mean? Why is there so much killing?

While he speaks fondly of the various artistic movements and scientific advances that arose across the century, from chemistry to cubism, Higgs brings it back always to what birthed these new ideas. Humans no longer had a central location from which to tether their existence and give it meaning. There was no answer to the “Why?” anymore. We were now quite small, floating on a rock in the middle of an ever expanding universe. Time itself was not even beyond reproach and left us flailing, albeit with our paintbrushes sometimes striking the canvas in new ways, or our pens giving birth to the likes of Ulysses or To the Lighthouse and indeed, the Beatles and rock ‘n roll.

For experienced readers of the period, John Higgs’ work is 20th Century Lite – a brief romp through the major events that shaped us, and continue to shape us. It is academic yet accessible, and also strikingly clear, leading critics to describe it as “like being shot with a diamond.” While it is ambitious to try and capture everything that mattered during the last 100 years, Higgs drops in at key moments and elucidates them brilliantly enough that the reader closes the book feeling rather well educated.

If you want to understand how we got to where we are today as a species – philosophically, scientifically and artistically – then Stranger Than We Can Imagine is, without question, required reading. Drastically undersold by the Financial Times as “A brilliantly stimulating tale”, Higgs’ work is much more than that. It is a telescope into the past that, ironically, helps situate us exactly where we are in the present.

Stranger Than We Can Imagine is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Unfinished business


She is sitting on the edge of her father’s grave, in the sparse shade of the tree. She is sitting here in the hope of making contact with something inside herself.

If a good book is anything, it is the chance to contact something inside of yourself. The best books will find us where we have a need, will speak to us in a voice that is at once other and self and will speak to us our deepest fears and needs. A good book is a journey of communal introspection, at once personal and shared. The voice of the author, and the inner voice of the self.

In It Might Get Loud, Ingrid Winterbach encapsulates the experience of reading as both personal exploration, and as a physical journey to find… something. The novel follows two distinct plots and two distinct characters, but their voices are closely interwoven, not divided by chapters but speaking to each other intermittently throughout. Maria is a middle-aged divorceé. Her sister, a disturbed but creatively gifted poet, killed herself some years ago. Her son, Benjy, is wayward and searching for purpose, often in serious trouble with serious types. Maria is searching for meaning in her sister’s death and her search takes her across the country from Durban to Cape Town and in between. Karl, on the other hand, is a self-confessed metal-head in search of his estranged brother, Iggy. After he receives a disturbing letter while on the road in search of Iggy, Karl’s quest takes on a new urgency. The letter details his brother’s struggle with the occult, with abuse and with a confused sexuality. Karl drives in fits and starts between the Western and Northern Cape in search of his brother and – it would seem – in search of himself.

In her earlier novel, The Road of Excess, Winterbach explored the human need to find a purpose in creativity and to find meaning in a world of chaos and the unexplained. It Might Get Loud takes a similar route narratively in that there are multiple plot lines with central characters, and in the way the focus is on internal monologue rather than conversation. Winterbach’s characters are introspective – they explore themselves more than they explore the world. But in It Might Get Loud, Karl and Maria are in search of more than simply meaning and a sense of self ­– their search is mirrored in an actual quest for a sibling (family being a common theme in the author’s work).

The novel never reaches any kind of conclusion, or any kind of resolve. There is no comfort of acceptance that perhaps there is no answer. We are simply walking towards nothing, and that is OK. It Might Get Loud leaves the reader frustrated and unfulfilled. Questions are raised and left unanswered. Characters with minor roles are introduced and forgotten, their voices too intermittent to matter, soon drowned out by the inner voice of the two leads, Karl and Maria. It Might Get Loud nods deliberately at unresolved existential crises – both in plot and in the thoughts of the characters – the two journeys documented find an end point, but the characters do not. They are left questioning.

But after all, this is not unlike life. It too ends, with little resolution or explanation. Art, they say, is meant to mirror life. Or is it life mirrors art? Either way, unresolved questions will remain, for Winterbach at least, unresolved. And perhaps, that’s just how she likes it.

It Might Get Loud is published Human & Rousseau.

From bathtub to ocean


People often say that there is nothing worse than losing your own child. Death comes to everyone eventually, but to lose someone you would never expect to must be one of the most painful experiences for any human being, no less a proud and loving mother. This, then, is a difficult subject to brace and one which Tiah Beautement explores in her second novel, This Day.

Ella is a grieving mother, not yet in middle age, living in the seaside town of Mossel Bay. Her son, Kai, died in the bath when her mother in law left him there to answer a phone call. Her husband — Kai’s father, Bart — is severely depressed, refuses to get out of bed most days and eats very little. She has to force him to live when it is quite clear that he is not interested in life. Ella however remains steadfast, and refuses to be defeated by the tides of her life, doing her best to swim against the rushing waters and find her way to the proverbial shore.

The novel spans the course of a single day, and the tides of the ocean provide the titles to sections, measuring time but also keeping the reader aware of the patterns that inform Ella’s life. We see her go about various activities: a maternity shoot with her best friend, Kamala; her gardening ritual and the hiring of a new gardener; and a scuba diving excursion. All of these things serve only as background noise to what Beautement is really trying to get at: Ella’s mind as it reels in the mundanity of the every day and tries to come to terms with Kai’s death.

The exploration is a revealing one. Beautement weaves a complex picture of the mind of a bereaved mother. However, the prose at times feels too thin to carry the weight of Ella’s thought – the words chosen are reaching for something that they cannot quite grasp – and this leaves the phrasing feeling trite, and sometimes clichéd. With the focus placed so heavily on Ella, most of the other characters are not adequately developed either, leaving blank spaces where there could be revealing dialogue. The story demands a richer, more mature prose.

The novel is redeemed by its honesty, though. It confronts a harsh tragedy unashamedly, with a sense of bold confidence. The closing provides an excellent climax to the struggles of Ella’s day and we for the first time see her true pain revealed. The potent use of water and the sea as a metaphor (in Ella’s fear of the sea, the seaside setting, the way Kai dies and the continuous brewing of tea) is tied together well in the closing pages, and the reader does feel as though there is resolution for Ella.

This Day is published by Modjaji Books.