REVIEW: Sunderland


Michael Cope & Ken Barris


REVIEW: Kayang Gagiano

The premise: A distinguished South African author drafts the fictional skeleton of his magnum opus while a brain tumour plunders his faculties, systematically causing cognitive chaos. All that remains are tantalising fragments of what would have been eminent wordsmith Charles De Villiers’s tenth novel, Sunderland, ostensibly a partially allegorical novel about an elite gated community built on the slopes of Table Mountain. A few months after his death, would-be writer and middling academic Art Berger, having recently received a 27th rejection slip for his own novel (working title: Summer Sonata), is approached by the deceased author’s family, and commissioned with ‘reconstructing’ said fragments into a publishable novel. The bait proves irresistible despite the enormity of the task. Art is hooked, lined and sinkered into agreeing. He must somehow transform ‘a series of pastiches’ and a ‘harlequinade’ comprising a cast of almost one hundred characters (both human and non human), into a work worthy of De Villiers’s substantial oeuvre. Game on.

Cope is, according to interviews,  responsible for the De Villiers section of the book. Seldom has the saying ‘all style and no substance’ been as artfully deconstructed as it is in his rendering of Charles’s artistic vision. His Sunderland, we learn, is (or was to be) a text grandly ambitious in its scope, with sweeping ecological and political themes, concerned with South Africa’s still tenuous social geography. Its author, we discover, was a methodical and systematic researcher, obsessed with minutiae. The novel, it is hinted at, was to have a grand, climactic finale. But these are presented merely as intriguing glimpses and alluring character studies, leaving the bulk of the imagining to each of us to make of it what we will. (“A story,” Art muses at one point, ‘becomes itself by what the writer leaves out.”)

Involving an intriguing narrative patchwork, Cope and Barris’s Sunderland is in its turn comprised of Art’s pitiful (unsent) letters to his remote and judgemental spouse, Taryn, his project journal (supposedly documenting the process of re creating the De Villiers text, but more often digressing into personal reflections about the fragile state of his disintegrating marriage, and a growing fascination with Charles’s alluring daughter, Lynda), a brilliantly conceived obituary, the deceased author’s notes and research (including a few Wikipedia articles), diagrams and visuals, emails from Charles to his editor sister, Anna, and of course, excerpts from his draft(s) of Sunderland.

Where the De Villiers sections teases the reader (not least because we are introduced to compelling characters we long to know more about, such as artist Anice, jeweller Karl Heinz, and savant computer programmer, William), Barris’s simpatico protagonist, Art, provides the novel with more emotional substance. Melodramatic, continuously self-reflexive and prone to drafting passages drenched in hyperbole and cringe-worthy metaphors (sauce on a mushroom burger, he relates during a bitter fight with cold fish Taryn, ‘tasted of ennui’, the patty itself of ‘ground up human tongue, bloodied and still sensate,’) Art is a selfish, flawed buffoon. Despite his pomposity, one cannot help becoming invested in his personal and professional dilemmas and sympathising with him to some degree. While his over the top writing style and habit of analysing his own life as though it were a literary text (he is a navel gazer par excellence) grows tiresome in patches, Barris tempers his character’s more self indulgent ramblings with some very entertaining social satire, similar to that found in Kingsley Amis’s cult classic, Lucky Jim, or David Lodge’s campus trilogy.

Certain plot devices are more successful than others. Art’s journal, for example is implausibly detailed with regard to interchanges he has with other characters, including Taryn, Lynda and his intellectual nemesis, Vernon Freshwater. But for the most part, in terms of plot, themes and character, the novel is surprisingly cohesive. It is a narrative patchwork quilt that has been deftly sewn together.

Stylistically adroit, conceptually playful and saturated with irony, Sunderland, succeeds as collaboration precisely because it sets out to create disparate voices; to comprehensively distinguish and delineate between Charles’s fictional universe and Art’s piecemeal conception thereof. And as readers, our ‘literary detective work’ (to quote the book blurb) naturally echoes Art’s own, as we explore the divergent strands of this cunningly constructed tale, imagining our own version(s) of De Villiers’s novel as we go along.

Those who prefer more straightforward, linear narratives might find this book a little too contrived and ‘clever-clever’, the authors making too much of a meal out of meta-narrative. However, those who relish intellectual and conceptual playfulness and enjoy ‘texts within texts’ stories such as A.S. Byatt’s Possession, or Ian McKewan’s Sweet Tooth will no doubt delight in engaging with this lively, mischievous and inventive tale.

Read an interview with Cope and Barris here.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in July 2014




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