Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Get a Life

Nadine Gordimer's Get a Life is ostensibly about South African ecologist Paul Bannerman's bout with thyroid cancer and the treatment that leaves him temporarily radioactive. Weakened and a danger to his wife and young son, he retreats to his parents' home, recuperating in their garden.

Gordimer uses Paul's situation as a flimsy construct to preach about the exploitation of South African lands, political corruption, AIDS, and lingering post-apartheid inequities. Paul falls ill as he is working to prevent the construction of a nuclear plant; everything, from his bodily fluids to the potential reactor, is radiant. While these are all real concerns, at times I felt the characters were mere cover for Gordimer's true topics, and if ecological and political disasters were what she wanted to discuss, she might have done away with the novelistic veneer.

That said, she keenly limns both Paul's marriage to advertising executive Benni and Adrian and Lyndsay's long, bumpy union. Paul and Benni's relationship is most disturbing. Their careers are exemplify their differences: Benni is concerned with slick surfaces and the business of selling them, while Paul loves the land, spending days away from Benni working in remote areas of the country with his mates.

Much is made of these mates, who share his passion and are conveniently racially mixed. Thapelo is black, proud of his streetwise background and fluency in numerous dialects: he gets on well with Adrian and Lyndsay's servant Primrose. His visits Paul during his dangerous convalescence; radiance flies. When Paul recovers, halfway through the novel, Benni decides to initiate social life with Thapelo, Derek, their wives and children, inviting them to weekend luncheon. She includes some friends from her office, including an American and a lesbian, then twists herself into knots patting her own back. The reader is left wondering why Paul married this superficial woman to begin with, and can only follow along as he gradually arrives at the same conclusion.

Lyndsay and Adrian, married far longer, have overcome Lyndsay's four-year affair and appear to be on the road to an active retirement. Adrian has retired from civil service and looks forward to traveling, where he will indulge his passion for archeology (giving Gordimer more eco-political fodder). He is hoping to talk Lyndsay into leaving her law office to accompany him. They care nervously for Paul, acutely aware not only of his potential mortality but the strangeness of having an adult child home again. Upon his recovery and departure, they fly to Mexico.

Paul's illness and recovery are described with surprising speed. He is ill, treated, cured. His revelations as he recuperates--about his marriage, his distant siblings, his work--do not add up to significant change. His newfound awareness of the distances possible between intimate family members is examined, then put aside the moment he is cleared to go into the bush.

The action then moves to Lyndsay, who leaves Adrian in Mexico for an important case. Adrian extends his stay, sending letters documenting his travels. Then comes the letter annoucing the truth: he has fallen in love with his guide, a woman decades his junior. He has decided to pursue this late-life liasion. Lyndsay accepts this with near equanimity, moving forward almost heedlessly. Gordimer weaves environmental and ecological woes throughout; we learn of the endangered animals, the toll roads running through preserves, exploited native communities, orphans. Paul and Benni stay married. Lyndsay and Adrian do not. The end.

Gordimer is a great writer--she the won the Nobel, for heaven's sake--and the stylistic liberties she takes bespeak her skill. Dialogue is set off with dashes instead of quotation marks, emphasizing missed or otherwise poor communication between characters. Language is minimal:

"The pesitilent one, the leper. The new leper, that's it, how he thinks of himself, sardoncially flip." (6)

"What do you do when you have no purpose, are allowed no purpose but something his mother has called 'recuperate.'" (20)

Benni is referred to as Benni or Berenice, or, most often, Benni/Berenice, denoting the warm wife and mother and her other, the decisive career woman. As the book progresses, the boundaries between these personas blur, and she becomes Benni/Berenice at all times.

Ultimately I cannot say I liked the book, but her writing is impressive and I would try other works.

Nadine Gordimer: Get a Life. New York: Penguin Books: 2005.

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