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REVIEW: THIS ONE TIME

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This One TimeThis One Time

Alex van Tonder

Macmillan

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

You keep thinking, as you read This One Time, that it will be revealed to you how the despicable protagonist became himself. There had to have been a terrible childhood, some awful trauma, early signs of mental disturbances – or perhaps evidence that it was the drugs that turned rendered him devoid of any humanity.

It’s not forthcoming.

Unless you want to head the route of social context and blame “The Internet” and “Social Media In General”, you can get no hook on how a mildly failing and flailing nobody can turn into such a crass, conscience-less, life-destroying maniac.

So you head the way of social context, following the author’s lead, and decide that there is indeed, something inescapably putrid, disruptive and corrupting in social media’s ability to merciless exploitation of even the mildest person’s narcissistic tendencies.

Jacob Lynch had dreams of becoming a writer – in the old-fashioned sense of the word – but when he gets to New York no one is interested in him. “Sonny, you’re not the only writer struggling. We’ll see what we can do, but the internet has changed everything for writers,” a recruiter tells him.

Over a game of chess and some beers with his best friend, Brodie Lomax the blogger is born. Brodie starts off as a parody of the kinds of men Jacob overhears talking about their sexual conquests, but turns into the King of Women Haters and the internet duly rewards him. He becomes the blogger shleb every brand wants to associate with so that he will Tweet and Instagram their products. Brodie knows creating outrage is the quickest link to click-success. He posts revenge porn and leaked sex tapes and his followers lap it up, liking and sharing and retweeting him to fame/infamy.

It gets dirtier and dirtier as Jacob-the-greedy gobbles up the attention, free gifts and endless sex that gets hurled Brodie’s way. And because being a blogger doesn’t necessarily mean a comfortable bank balance, Jacob/Brodie pitches the ultimate plan to the marketing people at a beer company: reality television that works on consumer-generated content. His followers get to Tweet what he should do as he cockroach-crawls his way around New York picking up women and taking them home without them knowing that they are appearing on television in real time.

Van Tonder’s handle on the PR, advertising, television and marketing scene is rock-steady and she is entirely inside the brain of decrepit berk that Jacob has become. When his thoughts lean towards self-insight, she rips him back on to his path of self-destruction before the reader starts nurturing delusions that there might be a scrap of compassion inside Jacob.

The novel shuttles between two locations: the glitz of the New York blogger high life and the isolation of a Gothic Alaskan hunting lodge – complete with stuffed dead animals – where Jacob has retreated to finally write the book his agent has already sold for millions. In the former he is a swaggering miscreant; in the second he is ineffectually pleading for his life while tied to a bed and wallowing, quite literally, in the pigsty he’s made of his life.

He’s being held there by a ghastly kook of a woman, yet you cannot help being just a little bit glad that someone is finally keeping the Brodie toxins off the interwebs. Comeuppenance for the creep doesn’t really play out the way you think it will though.

This thriller is Van Tonder’s first novel (she is, incidentally, a blogger herself) and her ear for external dialogue in the coruscating faux world of money-and-clicks is spot on. The internal dialogue is somewhat less convincing. Also, the New York parts of the book are more riveting than the horror scenes in Alaska, which are too drawn out in places.

This is The Truman Show meets Misery, updated to encompass the gory dog show that is our obsession with and addiction to entertainment and outrage – and all the channels through which those two reach us.

  • This review appeared in Business Day

TOP TEN SOUTH AFRICAN BOOKS 2013

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TOP TEN BOOKS 2013

By Karin Schimke

There are a great many contenders each year, but here’s my pick for The Star’s Top Ten Books of 2013. Sheesh, what challenge to narrow it down.

 

 

Categories of Persons: Rethinking Ourselves and Others

Edited by Megan Jones and Jacob Dlamini

Picador Africa

These nine engrossing essays grasp way beyond stereotype towards richer understandings of what it means to be South African. In lucid prose, each essay reveals the intimate politics of body, language or role. Outstanding writing and exciting slant-wise thought on the absurdity and inefficiency of simple identity markers.

Endings and Beginnings

Redi Tlhabi

Jacana

The rigorous and unflinching story Tlhabi’s childhood and of her friend Mabegzo – who started well but went down in flames – is driven by truth not ego. It’s savagely intense and moral without being preachy.

The Spiral House

Claire Robertson

Umuzi

Archaic language makes it difficult to get into this book with its two intertwined narratives in across two centuries, but the rewards are manifold. Complex and rich with experience and sensation.

Wolf Wolf

Eben Venter

Tafelberg

A harrowing book with a shocking sting in the tail, Wolf Wolf tells the story of a young gay man looking after his dying father. Masterful tale about people losing control.

From Quantum to Cosmos: The Universe Within

Neil Turok

Faber and Faber

This SA-trained scientist weaves personal experiences and thinking into a wide-ranging tour through science’s history and philosophy, presenting thrilling ideas plainly but lucidly.

Zebra Crossing

Meg Vandermerwe

Umuzi

An albino teenaged orphan and her brother flee Zimbabwe for Cape Town. There are no clichés in this kaledeiscopic debut about the life of immigrants on the fringes of society.

False River

Dominique Botha

Umuzi

This story of lefty Afrikaans farm kids making their troubled way into adulthood is lyrical and memorable. Poignant, funny and richly poetic, it’s not just another South African farm story.

My children have faces

Carol Campbell

Umuzi

The Karoo gypsies – known as karretjiemense – are given faces in this debut novel full of intrigue and drama. Fast-paced and filled with romance, tenderness, jealousy and revenge.

The Imagined Child

Jo-Anne Richards

Picador Africa

A jaded city woman seeks a fresh start in a small town in this gently humorous story, which explores parenthood, secrets, guilt and fear. Increasing suspense makes it absorbing.

Penumbra

Songeziwe Mahlangu

Kwela

This astonishing debut explores modern urban life and its attendant dangers for a young graduate with a cushy first job. It calls to mind the work of K. Sello Duiker and Phaswane Mpe.

LAST YEAR: 1.The Big Stick 2. The Garden of Evening Mists 3. My Father, My Monster 4. The Hungry Season 5. The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods 6. The Long Way Home 7. This Book Betrays My Father 8. Eloquent Body 9. Biko 10. Absent Tongues

 

REVIEW: False River

9781415203811

9781415203811

False River

Dominique Botha

Umuzi

REVIEW: Ruth Browne

Dominique Botha’s dense, gorgeous novel-memoir, dedicated to her parents, tells of the growth and dissolution of her brother, Paul.

Raised together on Rietpan, the Free State farm owned and inhabited by the Botha family for generations, Dominique and Paul explore childhood and adolescence together on wide-open farmland in a country of closed minds. The oldest of five children, these two carry the family legacy and the expectations of their parents most heavily. For Paul, the road out of Rietpan led to a deep existential despair.

False River reads in part as a mapping of that trajectory, but it is also a portrait of the relationship between a sister and her older brother, complete with petty cruelties, love and infinite longing.

Botha portrays herself as a soft-hearted child, barefoot and sunburnt and easily swayed. Paul marches ahead of her, winning prizes for his poetry at the local school, reading everything that comes to hand, learning independence the hard way.

Soon Paul is sent off to a private English school in Natal, and Pa’s greatest concern is that his son will forget his Afrikaner heritage. When Dominique follows her brother to attend a nearby girls’ school, her loyalty to her ancestry is also tested, and the tension between English- and Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans is subtly disclosed through the snide comments of classmates.

But Rietpan is always on the horizon for Dominique and Paul both, as though each has an anchor sunk in the muddy pan that dries to a husk in summer, its floor covered in flopping fish. For Paul the farm has an earthy resonance that is at once of and beyond words: the ploughing of soil, the hard work of operating a tractor and caring for cattle. In some sense he is planted in Rietpan – it is the only solid ground he knows.

For Dominique, who exists in a state of constant, submerged anxiety, Rietpan is merely home. She writes the details of preserving fruit and meat, of cleaning and maintaining and preparing, with a thoughtless familiarity that shows just how deep her roots go. Ouma’s pantry shelves are “lined with aniseed rusks and preserved watermelon”, and at home, guinea fowl fillets are “cut with a thick seam of fat and laid head to toe in vats and layered in salt” for biltong. Even more telling is her encyclopaedic knowledge of the plants and animals that share her world, from English oaks, white stinkwoods and pepper trees to waterbuck hiding in the wag-‘n-bietjies, and doves “swirl[ing] above the chimneys before oncoming storms”. The barbels and leguaans in the water inspire chilling mythologies for the children, and the smells, sights and tastes of rural life are evoked with great care and poetry. History lies thick on Rietpan, and Botha knows exactly how to sample that rich atmosphere and display it in all its poignant delicacy.

Botha blurs the line between biography and fiction with refreshing honesty, rather than claiming total recall of long-gone thoughts and conversations. At the same time, she draws out the history of the Viljoenskroon district and its place in the national context, referencing her parents’ activism and the segregated categories of black and white still very much in force during her childhood. Young Dominique echoes her father’s educated turns of phrase and political sentiment, and also takes correction from his belt. Pa is a hard man struggling to be fair in a nation wracked with inequality, and his efforts to remain strong, honest and decent have mixed effects on his children. His wife is sharp-minded with a head for business, but leaves much of the angst and discipline to her husband.

As Dominique grows, her voice matures, and she retreats further and further into herself. She reads as a profoundly lonely narrator, following her brother’s wild spoor scattered across the wilderness and then the world, as he grows up and leaves the farm. Botha assaults the fraught ideals of rigid masculinity, but they nevertheless possess the power to hurt her brother and everyone around him.

Paul Botha is a poet, and in writing him his sister has revealed herself as a poet too. This is not a hagiography. In some ways Paul comes across as a character in a Julian Barnes novel, like Adrian Finn in The Sense of an Ending: at first a precocious schoolboy intellectual, then increasingly worldly and mournful.

But Botha has drawn him with scars and flaws intact, powerfully human. In that telling, she also embodies herself in fiction, telling the story again so that nothing may be forgotten.

Finally, with her eye for context, history and human interaction and emotion, she writes us too, as a nation, holding up all of our wounds and contradictions for everyone to see.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in 2013