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M Blackman

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

What is up with my thumbs and Sleeper’s Wake.

If the thumb is what distinguishes us from other animals, then I was recently dehumanised by my friend Dan Halter. It might sound slightly pathetic but it occurred when he decided to hug (or some such act) me outside the Kimberly. Unfortunately it was at the very moment that my hands were inopportunely positioned. The one popped out its socket while the other decided to hurt, maybe in an act of solidarity (it wouldn’t be the first time that the right and left have acted together to create a great deal of misery). My unusual amount of productivity on this blog is largely due to the fact that I can’t turn the Yale lock to get out of my house. Another result is that the book, Sleeper’s Wake, will never be as well thumbed as it deserves to be (although I am sure, knowing Alistair Morgan, he will, no doubt, be delighted to hear that his book has now been well fingered).

It is always difficult reading a friend’s published work, there are always issues of jealousy lurking in the background. And of course there is sometimes the realization that it isn’t really that good and that one is going to have to resort to lame jokes like:
Author/Friend: ‘How did you find my book?’
Me: ‘I didn’t, the shop assistant found it for me.’
However Morgan’s book is not one of these cases. For me it is certainly the best novel to come out of South Africa since the Good Doctor and Blood Kin. The style and theme – of what lies in the heart of men who find themselves alone, bereaved and alienated in contemporary society – do resemble his friend Damon Gulgut’s (much like perhaps Gulgut’s, in The Quarry, resembled JM Coetzee’s). However, I find Morgan’s honesty, to a degree, more penetrating than Galgut’s.

I generally find representations of the contemporary middle classes slightly over bearing, usually slightly untrue and almost always sanctimonious. It is one of the reasons why I find it so difficult to read so much of contemporary fiction (I had to throw Ian McEwen’s Saturday at the wall so many times that I ended up producing a little cement garden of my own). But Morgan, in his portrayal of John Wraith, certainly escapes many of these criticisms.

John Wraith is a man who has recently been in a car accident, which led to the death of both his wife and child (it also turns out in the autopsy that his wife was newly pregnant). His recovery (if he does in fact make a recovery) is made difficult by the fact that he can’t remember what lead to the accident. The only knowledge he has of it is from the people who were driving behind him, which is that the car veered off the road for no apparent reason. Feelings of guilt and remembrances of the imperfect relationship he had with his wife plague him for the rest of the novel. It is only after deciding to go down to his brother-in-law’s chalet in Nature’s Valley that he begins to get some kind of understanding of the horror’s and selfishness of his own personality; something which he intimates might have been the reason for the accident. What is particularly interesting about the novel is that for John Nature’s Valley is not a catharsis.

While there he meets a father and his two teenage children who have gone through one of those contemporary Southern African horrors of having had their house broken into during the night. The incident resulted in the murder of the mother while trying to stop her daughter from being raped. The book revolves around the idea that although John can empathise with them he cannot help them or himself to redress or understand the agonies of loss. Far from it, in fact he compounds the daughter’s problems by sleeping with her on repeated occasions.

Morgan skilfully portrays humans at the extremes of their emotions. To explain John’s rather shabby behaviour Morgan proffers what has been called ‘the sleeper theory’. That is to say that there is with in us a certain ‘survival mechanism which enables us’ to act in brutal ways in order to sustain ourselves. It is what Morgan refers to as a ‘clinical cruelty’. However, I find his portrayal of the events and their psychological results more interesting than his explanation. As for the explanation, from which the book gets its title, it seems to me to be slightly paradoxical. Because far from a survival instinct these acts of ‘clinical cruelty’ are what Hobbes would have referred to as the war of all against all in a state of nature. That is to say they are not survival mechanism but are quite the reverse; they are deeply destructive. It is precisely because of these actions that we require laws and moral precepts in order to stop one another from destroying each other and indeed ourselves. And surely it is this, rather than thumbs, that makes us human – that is to say our ability to rationalise and empathise.

However it is not this that I find awkward within the novel but rather the narrative voice (I find no fault in Morgan’s attempt to understand contemporary South Africa and offer an explanation). As in so many novels today, the voice of Morgan’s narrator is that of a rationalist; somebody who has inspected not only the world around him but delved into some of the most painful failings of his own character and sought explanations from them. However, the actions that John Wraith describes himself doing are not part of that rational world. They are that darker atavistic nature that lies deep within us that more often than not defies rational explanation. And this is what strikes me as so peculiar with not only Morgan’s work, but in so many other contemporary writers. That is to say how a rational (one might almost say Freudian) narrative voice can attempt to explain the irrational, the unknown and the subconscious.

However, in saying this Morgan does, I believe, get closer to successfully describing a man under emotional extremes than do many other novelists writing today. It is extremely well written and his earnest attempt to get to grips with what lies at the heart of contemporary South Africa is highly laudable. It is certainly an attempt which most novelists today tend to shy away from. If I had the use of my thumbs Sleeper’s Wake would have them placed upwards.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    July 22nd, 2009 @16:06 #

    Good, knotty review, Matthew. I mean neither you nor Alistair any discredit -- you are both exceptionally fine writers -- when I say that as a result of reading this, I don't think I'll be reading Sleeper's Wake (far too much of a wuss). I wish Alistair and his book well, though.


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