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.

EXTRACT: There Should Have Been Five

An extract from the novel by MJ HONIKMAN.

“Panzers!”

He was yanked from his exhaustion just as it felt his eyes had closed.

In the silvery dawn light Sipho saw a Panzer tank silhouetted on the hill, pointing its long gun straight at them and within moments Panzers were streaming down the hills all around them, like hundreds of ants. Great billows of smoke swirled up from the town and the harbour. And there from the east, on the hill behind the tanks, came thousands of German soldiers.

“They’re everywhere,” he murmured.

“What a mess!” Job was saying. “Rommel sneaked back in the night. He’s bombed the concrete barriers on the south east and brought the Panzers straight in. They’ve come past the Indian and Scottish regiments, down to the harbour and now up here. We have no guns, and there are landmines behind us. We can’t retreat. We’re trapped!”

***

Columns of German soldiers moved briskly down the hill with more Panzer tanks crawling behind them. Italian soldiers trailed behind the tanks. The Germans opened fire. As bullets flew past them, Sipho and Job hunched, frozen for a few seconds, and then scrambled for cover. Allied soldiers returned fire but could not stop the mass of German soldiers as the tanks rolled closer.

A lieutenant ran by, shouting to a captain, “Phones have been bombed! General Klopper can’t give instructions. What should we do?”

“Lance Corporal Maseko!” the captain called to Job. “Get a message to the General. Most of the South African 2nd Division are trapped here!” He held out a note and Job darted off.

Just minutes later two British officers drove by holding a small white flag and shouting through a loud hailer, “Every man for himself! Escape if you can! We are surrendering! General Klopper’s instructions: Every man for himself!

A wind blew off the desert. Thick dust eddied around the armoured car.

Few German soldiers saw that little white flag and the shooting did not stop.

Shell fire screeched and thumped, machine guns rattled. Sipho could not see Andrew. Job was gone. Should he try to escape through the landmines? What would Job do? Two doctors and three hospital orderlies ran from the bombed hospital towards the anti-tank ditch.

“There are landmines out there!” Sipho called to them.

As they scrambled across the ditch and started running over the mine field, Sipho heard two explosions. Five men, two explosions: those were the odds.

A shell thumped close by, and he dropped at on the sand. He needed to get somewhere safe, and started running the other way, dodging low between wrecked vehicles and through bombed buildings, towards the army headquarters.

An officer called calmly through the chaos, “Where’s Lance Corporal Maseko? I need someone who can get things done! Or Private Mahudi! Where’s Andrew Mahudi? Or Private Smith! Johnson? Is there no one reliable here?”

Sipho stepped forward. “I’m here, sir! Ndebele.”

The officer looked at Sipho: just a kid, but a lance corporal, he noticed. And the German troops were closing in. “Ndebele! The Germans haven’t seen that idiotic little flag! We need a big white flag.” He pointed to the half-bombed army headquarters. “Tie it to the roof! We’re surrendering!” He jumped into an armoured car and sped off through the gun fire.

Sipho stared after him and then looked at the headquarters’ building. He’d be visible for miles around. A target.

He didn’t move until another rattle of gun fire shocked him into action.

Where would he find a big white flag?

Nearby were the ruins of the hospital. There were sheets in the hospital. Sipho bent low and ran between the ruins. He shoved the hospital’s broken door aside and looked into a ward. There, amongst the remains of beds, he found a dirty white sheet. He tied it to a broomstick.

Bending low, he sprinted to the headquarters, climbing up the rubble and out onto the shattered roof. A strong gust blew off the desert, buffeting him as he straightened up. He staggered and sat down hard astride the roof ridge. Bullets clattered against the roof tiles next to him. He tried to drive the broomstick in between the tiles, but could not get purchase. He would have to stand again.

He planted his feet on the tiles and was half standing, rocking in the wind, when he felt hands on his ribcage, stretching him upright.

“Kahle! Steady!” Andrew’s voice.

Sipho rammed the broomstick between two cracked tiles and it held fast. As he and Andrew slithered and scrambled to the ground, the wind lifted the dirty white sheet and Sipho heard it, flap, flap, flap.

The guns went silent. Flap. Flap.

There Should Have Been Five is published by Tafelberg. Read Bill Nasson’s review here.