REVIEW: The Wisdom of Adders

BY ALAN MULLER

Adders by Dan Wylie

Addo, Adder, Addis. To Shawn Xaba, the protagonist of Dan Wylie’s The Wisdom of Adders, these places may just as well be one and the same. In 2170 South Africa, places have been stripped of their historical weight by an ecological cataclysm, rendering most of the country’s landscape barren and largely unpopulated except for a few isolated communities and freeway bandits. Set in (what used to be) Grahamstown, and the Eastern Cape, the young Shawn, after abandoning her work post and missing curfew, is sentenced to collecting coal from the “Coastal Line” near Port Alfred some 60km away. In a world where motorised travel has become a thing of the past, this is, of course, easier said than done.

To add to the arduous journey, Shawn, accompanied by the mysterious Mali, must navigate the Atomscorch – a landscape ravaged by radioactive fallout from a malfunctioning nuclear reactor some 100 years prior. Additionally, after global capitalism and industry had ravaged the planet, there had been the “Millennial Mission of Twenty-One Hundred”; a failed mission to colonise Mars that resulted only in the eventual death of the cosmic colonisers on the planet. Between the reader’s present and 2017, there has also been a near total loss of historical context and knowledge as places and institutions take on new names that are mere homophones of the places they used to denote. Port Alfred is reduced to Palfred which has since been overcome by rising sea levels while national highways like the N2 and N10 have become the Entu and Enten and home to bandits and are traversed only by brave merchants who scour the Atomscorch for “trinkets and techno-baubles”.

Wylie’s post-apocalyptic novella is at once both an emptying out and filling up in terms of its ecocritical approach to such a disaster. While the landscape is initially all but emptied of its flora and fauna (humans included), nature proves resilient and increasingly intrude into the narrative as it progresses. The novel begins and ends with the elusive adder while a jackal proves omnipresent yet is only as visible as it chooses to be. More striking though, is the discovery that Shawn and Mali make in Adder (an area west of what was Grahamstown); a species long thought eradicated by humans and the Atomscorch. Nature, it seems, has a way of bouncing back from the most aggressive assaults.

Although nature and acological crises come to the fore in The Wisdom of Adders, the novella’s plot and setting are not entirely emptied of their political baggage. A centralised government may be something of the distant past and is not even mentioned but racial politics does rear its all-too-familiar head. While South Africa has become “a country of browns”, there are rare racial exceptions in the form of ‘Throwblacks’ like Mali and even rarer ‘Whitebacks’ like the Tharfields. While the backstory of why Mali’s lineage remained black is unclear, the Tharfields openly boast about their 1820 settler roots and how they remained ‘pure’ by resisting what they saw as shameless miscegenation as the population shrank.

The Wisdom of Adders is a stylistically slick novella that incorporates poetry into its already lyrical prose. Before embarking on her journey, Shawn is befriended by the mystical Stormchaser who gives her a collection of his poetry to take along. She and Mali read some of these to one another along their journey and the reader is able to glimpse a flash of Wylie as a poet also. Having published seven collections to date, his poetry is able to stand on its own but complement the novella well in their ecocritical themes. Wylie’s seventh collection, Slow Fires seems to function as a poetic genesis for this novella with its focus on the lives of animals and inevitability of the cycle of birth and death (read Finuala Dowling’s review of the collection here). The novella also mirrors a scene from a poem titled “Even a darkness which may be felt” as people run to scoop up locusts, making the best of an approaching swarm.

The Wisdom of Adders joins a growing body of outstanding ecocritical speculative fictions to emerge from South Africa in recent years such as Henrietta Rose-Innes’ novels Nineveh and Green Lion, Cain Prize-winning story “Poison”; and Nick Wood’s “Thirstlands” and “Of Hearts and Monkeys”.

The Wisdom of Adders can be purchased from Amazon.

WORK/LIFE: Paige Nick

Paige Nick

Paige Nick’s novels include Dutch Courage, This Way Up and A Million Miles from Normal (which is also the name of her popular Sunday Times column). A copywriter who has worked on brands such as Santam, BMW and Nashua, over more than two decades, she’s also is one third of the Helena S. Paige trio, whose first choose your own adventure erotic novel, A Girl Walks into a Bar, launched in 2013.

What does “writing” mean?

Sitting down and beating off every other distraction to get your words down for the day, every day. Whether they’re for a book, column, or an ad for coffee beans.

Which book changed your life?

When I was 11, I took The Never Ending Story, by Michael Ende, out of my library. It was the first “proper” book I ever read, because it had so many pages. I was completely absorbed by it. That was when I first discovered that I had magical powers, and I could make the whole world disappear, and a new one form in front of my eyes. All I had to do was open a book.

Your favourite fictional character?

Ooh tough one, so many to choose from. It’s somewhere between Winnie-the-Pooh and Alice in Wonderland.

What are you working on at the moment?

I just finished my ninth novel, Unpresidented. It’s a political satire, set in the future. The president of South Africa, Jeremiah Gejeyishwebisa Muza, has just been released from prison early on medical parole for an ingrown toenail. Entirely fictional of course.

Describe your workspace.

Whereever I am at any given moment.

Paige Nick's Workspace

The most important instrument you use?

Easily my laptop, closely followed by my brain.

What’s your most productive time of day?

I think the best author preparation, has been spending the last twenty-three years with a full-time job as a copywriter in ad agencies. I’ve learnt mental toughness, a resilience to feedback and criticism, and most importantly, I’ve learnt how to be productive at any given moment, and how to squeeze in an hour of writing anywhere I get a gap in the day; whether it’s morning, noon, night, or later that same night.

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

A run almost ALWAYS helps me untangle a plot knot. I also rely heavily on a handful of really amazing (and patient) writing friends. We discuss mental traffic jams, which often unloops me too.

How do you relax?

I don’t think I’ve been properly relaxed since my first novel came out in 2010. But to partially unwind, I run, travel, hang out with friends, have sex, and watch the most disgustingly brain-dead TV series, which I’d be too embarrassed to name in public.

Who and what has influenced your work?

Sarah Lotz, international author, and powerhouse of inspiration constantly influences my work, because I’m constantly picking her brain. There are others to add to the list too; my amazing editor Helen Moffet, and other writer friends, Edyth Bulbring, Rahla Xenopoulos and Yewande Omotoso. But I know that’s not what you’re asking.

I read widely, or rather, as widely as possible, given the time-drought we find ourselves in. But I don’t know who influences my work. Of course Sex & the City influenced my early colums, but my novels seem to be coming from so many different places right now that it’s hard to pinpoint any specific influence.

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

“Nobody cares that you only had the weekend.”

It’s the headline from a print ad from the 70s or 80s for an advertising awards show, and I need to dig it out of my archives again. The copy went to talk about how excuses don’t matter. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the work and how good it is.

This was reitterated by writing coach Sarah Bullen who once told me that you can watch a TV series/go out/sleep/read OR you can have a novel. It’s your choice.

These thoughts play over and over in my mind while I’m mired in a draft of a new novel.

Your favourite ritual?

Probably making tea, sharpening pencils and checking social media and my email obsessively. I do that several times, then get down to work.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Other than the self-hatred and angst when you’re in the middle of it? It’s got to be the market. It’s so freaking flat, I can’t stand it. You work yourself to death to sell a couple thousand books. For what? I can’t stop doing it, but I know I probably should.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

God, how long do you have? We may need a longer page.

What are you afraid of?

Again, I think I need more ink on this one. I have a lot of fear and anxiety. Mostly to do with failure and death, in that order.

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

It’s the most boring advice in the world. Write.

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

Dutch Courage (Penguin SA, 2016) was the hardest book I’ve ever written, because it was so far out of my comfort zone and realm of reference. It took me four years and two overseas trips to research and write, while all my other books have come out of me in six months to a year. But more than that, I’m proud of where I am. I’ve worked really really hard for this life, and it’s one thousand per cent the one I want to live, and I think there is much merit and some luck in that.

WORK/LIFE: Nthikeng Mohlele

Nthikeng Mohlele

The Johannesburg-based Nthikeng Mohlele is the author of four novels including The Scent of Bliss and Small Things; his most recent, Pleasure, was published by Picador Africa late last year. Mohlele was listed by Bloomsbury Publishing, the Hay Festival and the Rainbow Book Club as one of the 39 most promising authors under the age of 40 from sub-Saharan Africa and the diaspora.

What does “writing” mean?

Writing means artistic engagement with the universe through literary means. It is, in many ways, also immersed reading and reflection on life in its generalities and peculiarities, its grand themes and its minuscule irritants. It is quite possible and plausible that writing and authorship are also pedestals of civilised arrogance – the urge to play God, to create.

Which book changed your life?

I have come to realise that books cannot, strictly speaking, change my or a life. I think of life trajectories as set, unknown and often oppressively rigid things at times. Not even atom bombs can impose a “change” in a life. They can manufacture fear, maybe, but that is not the same as changing what people believe in. A book can nudge a reader into new experiences and ways of thinking and perceiving – but I am not sure that is sufficient to “change a life.”

Your favourite fictional character?

Michael K in Life and Times of Michael K. 

What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on a novel.

Describe your workspace.

My workspace is my iPhone – 99.9% of the time. It’s a gadget designed by Apple in California and assembled in China. That implies that my writing spaces are many and varied, as long as I have a reasonably alert mind and my fingers are still attached to my hand.

The most important instrument you use?

An iPhone 5 and 6 S. Sometimes just my eyes and ears – if those qualify as instruments.

What’s your most productive time of day?

My writing is not governed by work schedules at all. My work impulse is like watching moving clouds. I have something to write when the clouds move – and nothing when they are still. By clouds I mean that much abused word: inspiration.

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

I wait for the clouds to start moving again. They seldom resist for long spaces of time.
How do you relax?

Music on headphones. Guitar lessons. Reading. Pockets of time with family. Cooking. Long chats with my son, who is eleven this year. Long scenic drives.

Who and what has influenced your work?

The urge to interpret life and the world in my own terms. I owe a debt of gratitudes to musicians, exploited human beings and poets.

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

That came from the national Poet Laureate: “Write in such a way that nobody can shift a word or punctuation without messing up your work.” That was and is very empowering.

Your favourite ritual?

I am not a ritualistic person. I participate in social rituals that I found in the world – some of which have been going on for centuries. A night at the theatre – maybe.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Everything about writing is extremely hard. Absolutely everything. Intellectually, emotionally, physiologically. It is a lonely and demanding art. But it can be done.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

Being a perfectionist. The world is not wired like that – necessarily.

What are you afraid of?

Ignorance.

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

None that is elaborate. Just work. Hard. And take advice and criticism.

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

There are many. Of taking care of my aging mother is one of them. September 7 also marked one year of me having stopped eating meat. Vegetarianism purifies the soul in unexpected ways. Mind, body and soul also connect better – having stopped feeding on dead animals. Well, to a point.

Finding and losing the self: an interview with Patrick Flanery

Patrick Flanery tells GARETH LANGDON about the themes of surveillance and identity that swirl around his thrilling new novel, I Am No One.

Flanery Patrick 2015 photo credit Andrew van der Vlies

Sit around any 21st century bar, in any boardroom or coffee house, and the issue of globalisation, our online lives, privacy and the fragmentation of consciousness and self is bound to come up in conversation. Open a newspaper, or online publication, and at least one article that day or week will lament the rise of the internet, the invasions of privacy committed daily by our governments, and the loss of individuality we suffer at the hands of social media. As marketers try and capitalise on a changing world, philosophers continue to fear it but, once in a while, a writer comes along who engages critically with it.

In I Am No One, Patrick Flanery writes of ageing history professor, Jeremy O’Keefe: an American who, after a difficult divorce, expatriated to England and taught in Oxford for some years – long enough to earn a dual citizenship, encounter some strange characters and engage in a romantic relationship. When we first meet him, he is back in the US, teaching and supervising students. The novel opens with a scene that suggests Jeremy is ageing faster than we expected. He has arrived for a meeting with a student, but when she doesn’t arrive, he goes back to check his email and discovers that he had cancelled the appointment a day prior. This complete blank in memory troubles him, and leads him to confide in his young daughter who suggests professional advice and an fMRI. Jeremy is hesitant. His paranoia then begins to grow as a series of mysterious packages arrive at his home. Dropped off anonymously by a bike messenger, each subsequent package reveals more about how much can be known of Jeremy’s private life – from full email records, to browsing history and telephone history. The question is clear – is Jeremy losing his mind, or is he the victim of some ghastly invasion of privacy? Jeremy grapples throughout I Am No One with the various possible explanations for the strange packages, as well as his own uncertainty of his own sanity, personal and national identity, and future as a father and husband or lover.

I had the privilege of exploring these and other themes of writing and the self with the novel’s author when he came to South Africa for the Franschhoek Literary Festival earlier this year.

What strikes the reader with I Am No One is the way in which it is able to fragment and cohere seamlessly, moving across time and in and out of Jeremy’s head smoothly. Flanery suggests this arose from the new approach he took for I Am No One in which he “consciously set out to write in a very different way than the first two (novels)”.

“I decided because I was going to have this single narrator and single point of view that I wanted to do what I could to guard against it becoming too claustrophobic,” he says. “So I decided to borrow the process of an Argentinian writer who I admire whose name is Cesar Aira… he has an idea for a book which he holds in his head and each day he writes forward and he doesn’t go back and re-work until he comes to the end of the composition, and if the story changes over the course of that composition then it changes and he ends up with what he has.”I Am No One

This allows for what Flanery calls a kind of “free association” as he sits down to write, and this lends itself to the kind of novel that I Am No One is – the central character constantly exploring his own consciousness and self as he faces these confusing invasions of his privacy and what appear to be lapses in memory. This technique also drives the plot, allowing for “forward momentum”.

For Flanery though, the real trouble in I Am No One is not the loss of the mind and the free flow of consciousness but rather the loss of the self and the fragmentation of identity in light of our ever dwindling privacy. He relates to me the anecdote that sparked the novel:

“[We] were staying with a friend who was living [in New York] and as we got back to her building, I could see her in the window of her bedroom and I waved from the street but she didn’t see us, and when we went upstairs I said to her ‘You know, I could see you from the street’ and it was the first time she had realised that she was visible in that way. And I began thinking about the way in which New Yorkers are so often kind of living these half public lives but they have to kind of shut off that awareness of the ways in which they are observable in order to maintain a sense of sanity.”

Not long before Flanery began writing the novel, the Snowden revelations had become big news and they remained in the back of his mind throughout the writing. The interplay of his personal experience with global events got him questioning the nature of privacy, and how our being watched affects our identity. With lives lived online in this way – and furthermore in a world that is increasingly globalised – where do we place ourselves; where do we find ourselves? Can we find ourselves at all, or will we live in purgatory as Jeremy feels he has to?

The technology we can now use to increase our reach and social circles seems to excite and terrify us. As our world grows more connected and our reach extends, our localities seem to shrink simultaneously. Flanery notes the “excitement amongst some people about the ways in which technology can be mobilised not just by government but by ordinary citizens to create this world of certain transparency”. However, as we know all too well from recent phone-hacking scandals, and acts of terror, these same technologies can be used to hurt others or protect perpetrators. The trouble is, Flanery notes, that the technologies have become so ubiquitous, that we can’t help but be seduced by them – they are designed to seem as though they should be there and we should not question them – they are extensions of our selves.

Many in the world have responded with a kind of “hyper-nationalism”, which we often read about motivating many acts of terror. Human beings are searching for ways to assert themselves in a world that is fragmented and pays them no heed. There is simultaneously a drive for individuality stoked by social media, and a constant reminder of the insignificance of the single self (or even single nation) in an enormous and globalised world.

Flanery is able to weave all of these themes and debates through the consciousness of Jeremy as he fights to find his own place in his country, his family and even in his own head. This is not a totally foreign struggle to Flanery, noting his own experience living both in Britain and America, and how he is often mistaken for British when he is at home in the U.S. However, he is careful to skirt around the issue of auto-biography, noting instead that he sees “every novel engag(ing) with the process of self-examination”.

The novels are not autobiographical at all, but are rather “always responding in some way to the things that I am thinking,” he says. “Because my thinking is kind of inherently political because of the way I grew up, you know. I see political relationships and the politics of relationships in everyday life, and the kinds of things that can contaminate those.”

I Am No One could be seen – as I think all novels can be – as brief intrusions into the minds of the author. In this way, writers tend to feel the urge to censor themselves at the fear of being exposed or misunderstood. The fear from the first novel, Flanery notes “is a fear with every book you publish… you’re in constant fear of how the people closest to you will respond to it” but that is something that must necessarily be overcome. In this way, we may go so far as to draw a parallel between authorship and our online existence, where censorship is necessary for fear of being “found out”. Jeremy fights this, Flanery is aware of this, and each of us feels this every day as we live out our lives online.

At the end of our conversation, my mind is racing with more and more questions and I want to continue to dig deeper into Flanery’s mind  – but like his privacy, his time is precious and we bid each other a polite farewell.

I am left wondering how I should engage with the conversation on paper, and how it will come to be read. Then I think of how I will be perceived in this feature, and where it could lead – and as these wonders of the internet and writing and my personal investment in any piece of writing (and the inevitable feedback) start to overtake my thinking, I stand up and decide it’s time for some fresh air. Outside, no one will be able to interrupt me. Hopefully.

I Am No One is published by Atlantic Books. The photograph at the top was taken by Andrew van der Vlies.