Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Stepping Out by Steven Boykey Sidley

Stepping Out is not you average midlife-crisis novel. Our protagonist Harold Cummings is in his sixties, and his crisis does not consist of getting a much younger mistress and a new Jaguar. After attending the funeral of the his teenage best friend and hero, the retired Harold realizes that he has done everything right in his life. He was the goodie-two-shoes who never partied too hard, got into fights, tried drugs or slept around. When Harold's wife Millie goes to visit her sick sister, Harold's subconscious decides it is time to do something about his situation. Downtown here we come.

Harold's escapades gradually escalate from peeking at a naked girl through the fence, to getting a tattoo and trying crack. With every downwards step, Harold realizes that he is getting less and less afraid. His increasingly frequent visits downtown, to a world he never knew before, is making him bolder and giving him a feeling of accomplishment his many years of "being good" simply can't compete with. But sooner than Harold could have anticipated, his "experiments" catch up with him. His tolerant neighbour and confidante Shawnee wants to hear no more about his wild exploits. Friends who have never seen Harold drunk phone Millie out of worry. And a dinner with a prostitute turns out to have repercussions no one could have anticipated. The lies are piling up around Harold, and the way out is getting harder and harder to see.

Stepping Out is a funny novel, but perhaps I'm too young to laugh out loud at Harold as he squeezes into clothes made for someone 40 years younger whilst quoting gangster lines from old movies. It's almost like I find Harold more sad than anything. He's desperately trying to make up for a lifetime of being boring. And we learn along the way that part of his desperation comes out of a longing to leave something behind. His two adult children are long fled, and their relationship amounts to very little. However, through his experiments, it is almost as if Harold perhaps finds a way to communicate with his daughter again.

What I really enjoyed about this novel is that you never really know what to expect. There were new surprises around each corner, and Millie was probably the biggest one. I was a bit perplexed that the novel is set in the USA, despite the fact that the author is South African. Sidley seems to join Andre Brink and J M Coetzee in having a preoccupation with old men lamenting their lost youth. 

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Anticipation of the year: Here and Now: Letters by Paul Auster and J M Coetzee

I am SO excited about the upcoming Here and Now: Letters (2008-2011) by Paul Auster and J M Coetzee which is due for release in March this year. What an intriguing clash of minds! I have read and enjoyed novels by both authors, and although they are very different, they also share some traits, especially in their metafictional focus.

According to Amazon, the authors met in 2008 and Coetzee later got in touch with Auster suggesting they should be pen pals! How cute! I simply cannot wait to read what these two masters of their craft have debated in their letters to each other, so I'm praying one of the publishing reps will stop by with a preview copy soon. 

Monday, 21 January 2013

The Childhood of Jesus by J M Coetzee | Another masterful novel by Coetzee

Gosh did I feel happy when my boss so generously allowed me to throw myself into the new J M Coetzee before her! It's due for release in March this year, and I feel kind of special to be one of the first in the world (out of prolly a few thousand other preview readers!) to have the privilege of reading The Childhood of Jesus. I literally inhaled the book which will definitely intrigue literature students worldwide in the next century. It would not surprise me in the least if Coetzee with this novel would go on to take his third Booker Prize. 

With The Childhood of Jesus Coetzee goes back to the almost sci-fi setting of Waiting for the Barbarians. Time and place is not defined. All we know is that we are in a (real? imaginary?) Spanish-speaking place called Novilla (which means "young bull"), that our protagonists have come across the ocean in search of a new life. They've had to leave their old lives behind. Memories, names, old family ties, and even language seems lost. We also learn that there is no return to whence you came. Those who come to this place must first learn Spanish, and then build a new life for themselves.

We follow the old man Simon (turns out he's estimated to be 45) and his "charge"/"godson" David, who is around 5. We learn that they arrived on a boat and that they stayed in the camp Belstar where they learned Spanish for 6 weeks. They have just arrived in Novilla, where Simon wants to search for David's mother. Without having ever met her, and with David remembering not a thing about her, Simon is still convinced they will somehow recognise her on sight.

The people in Novilla are helpful, and they express a lot of "goodwill", but there seems to be something lacking. Simon laments that they have left all feelings of passion behind. A diet of mostly bread seems to bother none of the other citizens, but for Simon it is simply not enough. His appetites for a meaty diet and even for women, have not been "washed clean". He still craves human touch, and he takes up a passionless sexual relationship with one of the neighbouring women. With his views and his appetites, there is a strong sense that Simon does not quite fit in with his peers. Nonetheless, he has a job and colleagues who respect him, and it is clear that David looks up to him.

From the start, Simon is clear about his mission. Before the boat, he did not know David, and the details about the boat trip are very unclear. We learn that David had a letter that got lost on the boat, a letter that in some way is connected to his mother. There also seems to be suggested that there was some kind of accident on the boat, and that it is a miracle they are both still alive. At any rate, Simon's mission is to reunite David with his mother one way or the other. When they eventually do find the mother Ynes, she turns out to be quite set in her ways of raising David. For a while David is completely kept away from his old "godfather", and Ynes' mothering threatens to completely spoil the child. But in one respect both Ynes and Simon wholeheartedly agree: David is an exceptional child.

Ynes does not want to send David to school, so Simon attempts to teach him to read through a children's version of Don Quixote. Similar to the character of Don Quixote, David sees the imaginary as being the real. In many ways, David absorbs Don Quixote's characteristics as believing himself to be a hero with great powers, as wanting to save someone who doesn't wants to be saved, and in seeing the world differently to the majority. Throughout this, Simon patiently humours him, whilst simultaneously explaining that other people might see the world differently. Despite David's intelligence, he seems to have a resistance against learning to read and write, and against numbers. He writes gibberish claiming that it means something, and expresses a deep fear of falling between numbers. Simon can't be sure if David is wrong and everyone else is right, or if it's the other way around. Eventually David is sent to school, and this is when the cracks truly begin to show.

Coetzee seems to be paying homage to Cervantes and Don Quixote in this novel. David embodies the essence of Don Quixote in what is considered one of the first novels ever written. We're in a Spanish speaking country where the imagination seems to colour everything David sees. If I had ever actually read Don Quixote I am sure there would be a whole added reading to Coetzee's novel, but I will stick with the little I know.

Seeing as the book is called The Childhood of Jesus, I cannot escape making comment of David as Jesus. David is of course also the name of Jesus' ancestor, King David, who also slayed Goliath. A little man who defeated a giant. In David's case, perhaps a prediction that David will topple the philosophical beliefs that prevail in Novilla? He is a child who does not fit in. Similar to Jesus, his beliefs do not fit in with the accepted norm. David's ideas are radical, and he will easily contest the truths of anyone else, including his "parents" Simon and Ynes. At some point he claims to walk through barbed wire, but we later learn the "truth" that there is no barbed wire. Further, David is happy to spend his time with "sinners" such as Senor Daga who is clearly a bad apple.

To connect this to his "parents", we have Simon who is older, and admits to not being his biological father, similar to how Joseph was not Jesus' biological father. He still protects and loves David as if he was his own. His name can also be connected to Jesus' apostle, Simon Peter who perhaps is best know for having denied Jesus. Ynes is perhaps not David's biological mother, but Simon claims that he intuitively felt that she was David's "true" mother. She strikes Simon as being virginal, similar to the Virgin Mary. Ynes is also derived from the name Agnes, who was a virgin martyr.

There is a lot of philosophy in this novel. Simon gets a job carrying cargo onto boats. It is heavy work, and he questions his foreman and his colleagues why they simply do not use machines for this type of work. The men launch into a philosophical debate about being closer to the thing itself, etc... And despite being working men, they all know their philosophy. And whilst Simon is happy to philosophize, he does not enjoy the philosophy class his colleagues are taking. The chairness of a chair, and the tableness of a table is of no interest to him.

I was kind of hoping for some sort of explanation by the end of the novel. Where did they come from? And why? What really happened? Seeing as it is Coetzee, I should have known better. I am left with two theories. Something big has happened in the world, and this Spanish-speaking place, be it actually Spain, or perhaps South America, seems to be the promised land of whatever time we're in. We're in a brave new Ellis Island. However, in order to be part of (physically) building this new place, the people go through some sort of brainwashing, or rebirth, to leave their memories and their passions behind. For Simon, this is only partly successful. There is no return-trip however. Novilla has a university where the citizens are encouraged to take classes for free, to educate themselves. A lot of other things are free, but the price seems to be that once you've committed to this new world, there is no going back.

My other theory is that this is death. The people have no memory simply because in the afterlife, your past life doesn't matter anymore. You have been "washed clean". Passions are dead, because you are actually dead. Thus David is alone without his mother, Simon is alone, and none of the family units in the novel are made up of actual blood relations. Thus the "new life" Simon is always talking about, is an actual new life. There is no going back, but who knows, there might be another new life somewhere else - in the reincarnation sense. This would also explain the vagueness of the boat trip, and the accident which David and Simon somehow "survived". In some old beliefs and religions, you leave this life on a boat to the next life. In the afterlife, everyone is feeling goodwill, but nothing more. With the exception of Simon. To take this reading further, I can also theorize that perhaps David is a sort of saviour in this world. The other people are still clinging to the laws of the human world, whereas David can see that there are gaps between numbers that you can fall between, and that there is a different language with which to communicate. He is trying to aid them in letting go of human logic, and in the case of Simon and Ynes, he at least has their acceptance. Perhaps this is taking it a bit far, but it's fun to play with ideas anyway.

I really liked this book. Congratulations J M Coetzee on yet another masterpiece! In my opinion the best Coetzee since Disgrace and definitely worthy of a Booker prize, numerous articles, and PhD's and master thesis's. If you haven't read Coetzee before, you have until March to read Boyhood and Disgrace as a sort of preparation. However, The Childhood of Jesus has a power that is uniquely its own, and uniquely Coetzeean. Go find out for yourself.