The novel starts in the heat of apartheid, and we follow Neville, a young, white Coetzeean adolescent as he tries to make sense of the injustice he sees around him. I use the term Coetzeean because J M Coetzee’s male characters often feel estranged from the people around him, and have a sense of impotence in the face of injustice. He can identify the injustice, but he is helpless to do anything about it. “So I wandered around in town, seeing imperfection and injustice at every turn, working myself into a childish temper, and then I went home and criticized my parents and their friends” (p. 9). His insecurity is envisaged here: “Brookes made it sound so easy to do the right thing, to make a stand, but it was difficult. Wasn’t it?” (p. 40). And, like Coetzee’s characters, he ends up fleeing it.
At the beginning of the novel, Neville has kind of lost track. He’s dropped out of uni, and is doing some menial jobs to please his father. Finally the father insists that he get a more healthy input, and arranges for him to spend a day with well-known photographer Saul Auerbach. As it turns out Auerbach is accompanied by Brookes, an American journalist, so Neville is pretty much just along for the ride.
All the same, the experience becomes somewhat of a turning point in Neville’s life. He remains a sort of fly on the wall as Auerbach and Brookes discuss the ideas behind photography, stories, and the duty one has to tell it:
“ ‘Everyone has a story to tell.’
‘But not everyone is a storyteller.’
‘Fair enough. Everyone has a story, full stop. Someone might have to tell it. That’s where you come in.’ “ (p. 45)
The notion is that a photograph tells a story, and decide to test the thesis by picking three (but it turns out only to be two) random houses to visit, and see if there’s a story there. As it turns out, there are gripping stories in both, and the portraits Auerbach takes in these homes later become some of his most iconic. The house Neville picked they somehow skip as they are losing the light. But Neville will never forget the house and the potential story hidden behind its walls continue to haunt him through time.
After this event, our young man leaves South Africa for London. Here he somehow falls into photography, but he insists that this is not because of Auerbach, but rather that circumstances placed him in that role. “I fell into photograohy – ‘without a splash.’” (p. 144). At any rate, his photographs are mostly for magazines, and are not “art” like Auerbachs (who also claims not to be an artist). Whilst in London, what keeps him connected to South Africa is the letters from his mother which sometimes hold strange articles with seemingly uninteresting stories. But these are the stories he can relate to, unlike the grand stories of apartheid.
Despite himself, our now not so young man is drawn back to South Africa “once apartheid fell – or sat down” (p. 145). He is compelled to return to the house that they did not visit on that day with Auerbach, and he finds a story of dead letters here: “Perhaps this was the photograph Auerbach was destined not to take?” (p. 131).
The dead letters leave a strong impression on Neville, and seem to be the catalysts that finally allow Neville to go on with his life and abandon his shame. He is free of his own chains in terms of photography, and he can finally claim his own place as a photographer.
At the end of the novel we have reached present times, and Neville is being interviewed by Janie, a young blogger/journalist who sees him as an artist. Neville is now in the position Auerbach was when he spent a day with him, so the story kind of comes full circle. But Janie, on the other hand, is sure of herself, asks critical questions and already has her own thing going in an increasingly competitive environment.
Double Negative is in essence a novel about three encounters for our protagonist, divided by three parts in the novel (we also find this pattern in Damon Galgut’s In A Strange Room). The first one titled “Available Light” is the encounter with Auerbach. The second, titled “Dead Letters” is the encounter with old Mrs Pinheiro who lives in the house Neville returns to years later. The third encounter, “Small Talk” is with the young blogger/journalist Janie who is writing a story about this “artist” Neville. These snapshots of Neville’s history show his coming into his own as an artist and as a human being. The lost youth from the Auerbach encounter who is unsure of his own identity is just the beginning of the artist who takes photographs of “thresholders” and people with their letterboxes.
A strong theme in the novel is that of identity. At the beginning of the novel, the lost youth Neville tell us how he “was a solitary actor on stage: a white boy playing a black man.” (p. 13). In London, however, working as a waiter and “waiting on the lords and ladies of the realm knocked the last bit of working-class-stuffing out of me.” (p. 89).
Similar to Coetzee, history as it relates to fiction is also an important theme. “Now that it was safe to do so, every second person was joining the struggle, and backdating the membership form too. In retrospect, everyone had done their bit.” (p. 83). Neville himself, however, was not part of this: “Apparently, I needed to go on excluding myself a little longer.” (p. 75).
“How much past can the present bear? There was already talk of a Truth Commission. But people are constitutionally unmade for the truth. Good, reliable fictions, that’s what the doctor ordered.” (p. 83). This quote, to me, is like taken straight out of a Coetzee novel. The notion that truth and fiction go hand in hand, and that truth to fact isn’t necessarily the best truth. To go on with the present, a certain amount of amnesia is needed. Digging up too much history has its threats too. And there is a certain paradox in these statements. In their fictions, Coetzee and Vladislavic both dig up the past, but through fiction. Is fiction the safe distance needed to consider the past?
Memory also comes into play. Our narrator tells us: “I wish I could remember clearly what was said that day. Between them, the photographs Auerbach took in the next few hours and my own disordered memories, which by comparison are mere snapshots with the heads cut off and the hands out of focus, have displaced everything else.” (p. 39).
Memory as unreliable relates to history too. For a while, Neville works for a very racist man, and Neville reflects: “In the mirror of his stories, however, the perspective was reversed. While he was always hurting someone, doing harm and causing trouble, he saw himself as the victim./ It was he who suffered.” (p. 18). Thus memory and history is subjective.
I could go on about this novel. There are so many interesting points made in it, and the similarities to J M Coetzee’s work make it even more interesting to me. But I’d rather have other people read it and find their own meanings in it. Double Negative is a truly great work of fiction. And now that I know the quality of Ian Vladislavic’s writing, I’ll definitely make sure I read more of his books!
Oh, and it might also be interesting to know that the background for this novel. Quoting directly from the back cover blurb: “Double Negative was first published in November 2010 in TJ/Double Negative as the fictional companion to David Goldblatt’s book of Johannesburg photographs titled TJ. “