Apocalypse Now Now
REVIEW: Ruth Browne
Speculative fiction is taking off in South Africa, and Charlie Human’s debut is a shot of adrenaline for the genre. African cyberpunk in the pulp magazine Jungle Jim, Sarah Lotz’s visions of the undead, the volatile mix of urban fantasy, sci-fi and Safa-slang in Laurne Beukes’ Moxyland and Zoo City: all these gather under the umbrella of “speculative” fiction, and our young and agitated democracy is the perfect springboard for the imagination. Whilst being cheerfully eviscerated at his book launch by his ex-supervisor, Beukes, Human said he drew inspiration from the tabloid headlines trussed to streetlight poles across Cape Town. He wanted to tap into the creative spirit behind news stories about Tokoloshes stealing babies, and the result was the lurid Apocalypse Now Now.
My first impression of this novel was that Human had forced a bunch of battered genres into joyless orgy in a back room at the Kimberley Hotel. I’m not the first critic to make the connection between the book and the grungy atmosphere at “Kimbos”, a venue Capetonians love to hate. Apocalypse Now Now is a back-and-forth narrative that hops from Claremont and Rondebosch to Philippi, Epping, Parow and somewhere off the East Coast on a fishing trawler. The anti-hero, Baxter Zevcenko, is a sociopathic schoolyard delinquent who thinks of his classmates as NPCs (a nerd acronym for “non-playing characters”). He runs a neat little start-up business at his high school, selling niche porn to students. As a Westerford alumnus, I can assure all readers that “Westridge” high school is definitely not Westerford. Not at all. The school’s constantly poised to erupt into gang warfare, and guns and hard drugs are always close to hand. At the same time, the hateful yet introspective Zevcenko suffers Boer War-era dreams narrated in italics and gets warm and fuzzy about his girlfriend, Esme, until she’s abducted by the Mountain Killer (krimi angle). Jackson Ronin is Baxter’s foul-mouthed, gun-loving, enraged, irresponsible mentor, who introduces him to Cape Town’s supernatural population of elementals, sprites, zombies and weirder things. Ronin’s a neo-noir hippy samurai with a side-order of Mr Miyagi, tasked with helping Zevcenko find his kidnapped girlfriend.
The one writer this novel really brought to mind was Peter Merrington, author of The Zombie and the Moon, an excellent, kaleidoscopic tale spanning continents, immersed in South African mythologies. Human also incorporates juicy local myths and legends, from Van Hunks (the dude who dealt with the devil, not the hipster bar) to sorcery with chicken blood. The distinctly Human elements include a military installation on Devil’s Peak and zombie strip-clubs that deal in human flesh. However, at times the story takes on a real Artemis Fowl feel. Human was portrayed as dark and adult at his launch, but some grisly Mengelesque scenes of experimentation and the odd zombie orgy aren’t always enough to shake the young adult vibe.
All that taken into consideration, however, the harsh, jocular tone of narration is engagingly informal, and it’s obvious Human had a good time writing this (when Lauren Beukes wasn’t ripping him a new one). Riddled with pop culture, bursting with cynicism and maniacal energy, Apocalypse Now Now is something you should buy and read. Do it.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in Septemeber 2013