Review of Kill Yourself & Count to 10 by Gordon Torr

Reproduced in full with kind permission from the Sunday Times.

For an entire generation of South Africans, the Border War and the workings of the SANDF remain mostly a mystery. It was not, and I believe still not, taught in schools. For the 80s kids and born-frees, there’s an entire history barely documented and shrouded in obfuscation, shame and silence. It is not something that one can bring up freely, because there are still men haunted and ruined by what happened during their conscription.

Kill Yourself & Count to 10 loGordon Torr -  Kill Yourself & Count to 10 HRoks at a chapter in South African history that has been shoved so far out of the textbooks that it might as well be another country’s problem. When I heard of the book, my interest was piqued by the mention of the repulsive Levin, also known as Doctor Shock, a man infamous in my Rhodes days for his torture of gay conscripts during the Apartheid era. While charged by the TRC, he still remains mostly out of reach for his crimes here in South Africa.

Greefswald was a camp out in the Northern province where anyone considered unfit for the Nationalist army’s Calvinist-scripted needs was sent for rehabilitation. While much of it has been scraped from the records, Torr has done his research and crafted a narrative both riveting and genuinely horrifying. He also draws from his own experience of the camp, as discussed in this interview with The South African newspaper. The humiliation, degradation and physical privations of the conscripts makes for sickening reading. The frothing-mouth madness of the apartheid regime is fully on display, a madness that enabled a rogue psychiatrist to build a camp for his favourite broken toys.

And the writing! It is filled with shaking rage, with long, wonderfully complex sentences that just build and build and explode, splattering the page with disgust and sorrow, speaking for those who no longer can’t, or won’t, or don’t know how. It is writing put to its very best use – it is writing meant to stir and outrage. A particular favourite:

“It strikes you for the first time that all these boys have got Christian names, that at one time or another they would probably have been loved by their mothers and fathers, that their mothers and fathers would have had high hopes for them, and that you’re not the only one whose talent and potential will be fucked out of you before these Greefswald days are over.”

At several points, this was a difficult and depressing read, a corridor straight into the hearts and minds of young conscripts who had done nothing wrong, genuinely nothing wrong, and who were sent away and tortured for the entertainment and twisted research of one particularly deranged individual.

Kill Yourself and Count to 10 is essential reading for South Africans. It is especially important for those, who like me, had this entire history excised from their textbooks. It shouldn’t be the kind of thing that is a surprise to anyone.

 

This fine book is available at all good bookstores. 

Review of Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Never mind the beer ad guy – Lauren Beukes may be the most interesting author alive right now.

Broken Monsters follows in the tradition of Moxyland, Zoo City and The Shining Girls in using cities as characters, backdrops and plot points. In Broken Monsters, Detroit is both ruined and beautiful, the corpse of a model to which artists and hipsters flock as others tut over her corpse and say its just such a shame, and for the grace of god etc. In this Detroit, bait of urban explorers and home of tough cops, a murderer is stitching corpses and art together, a man tormented and the bearer of something beyond his power to control. But this is no Red Dragon – this is something more sinister and beautiful than that.

UK jacket for Broken Monsters

UK jacket for Broken Monsters

Detective Versado, her daughter Layla, Jonno Haim, Clayton Broom and TK make up the constellation of characters that are all interlinked to the Detroit Monster. This story is further complicated by what it means to be living in this naked age of social media, of constantly shifting identities and the repercussions the online world has on day to day life. As we see the CSI Effect damaging the American justice system, the novel explores how the rapid nature of the internet might get in the way of careful, thoughtful justice. The references to websites that millennials live on are rapid-fire and likely to be missed by many readers, but that is of no harm: it is Beukes showing her love of the internet, an exploration of our love-hate relationship with the world’s repository of cat pictures and memes. I was filled with the fuzzies at seeing a mention of Nyancat, possibly the most joyous meme (other than Pope Happycat, maybe) to come out of the noughtteens. (Shut up, that’s a real word, I’m using it now.)

Beukes’ research is remarkable, and the ability to incorporate her bottomless research without bogging the plot down is a rare skill – it informs rather than lectures, and she fleshes out Detroit as she has Chicago, Johannesburg and Cape Town before. Her characters are each exquisitely well-formed, especially Layla and her mother Gabriella Versado. Detective Versado takes no prisoners and no shit, and unlike many other female detectives in crime novels, never needs to be saved from her womanly self. She swears, she drinks whiskey, she tries to give a dead child his dignity while raising a daughter post divorce with no time to do it in. While another character calls her broken, I don’t think people who are genuinely broken are so capable, strong and empathetic, and maybe the definition of broken depends on who’s using it.

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US Jacket for Broken Monsters

As always, Beukes covers a myriad of topics in each work; in Broken Monsters she covers bullying, the rapid dissemination of videos that ruin lives, urban exploration, grief, loss, divorce, police procedure, sex, the vastness of the internet’s invasive reach, hipsters, the art scene, homelessness, revenge, the proliferation of cyber-paedophilia, alcoholism, Detroit as the corpse of America’s hopes, clickbaiting, pottery, fucking Buzzfeed and Upworthy, and Santeria. While the novel does teeter near the line of claustrophobia with so many ideas battling for even a scrap of the spotlight, it contains and expresses its ideas in small details, settings and turns of phrase. Also: hooray for thorough editing. Not a single spelling or grammar mistake in the entire work, which is indeed a rare joy these days. One day when I am big, I hope to put my work before Helen Moffett, Beukes’ editor.

I hesitate to use the word paranormal because that word has been completely ruined by ridiculous ghost-hunting shows and drippy teen novels, but this story does push at the boundaries of what’s real, what lies on the other side of the dimensional fabric and what gives the monsters power. It manages to infuse the story with a sense of genuine horror without getting Lovecraftian (Lovecraft was a racist asshole, which is worth knowing)  and instead doing something more avant-garde with horror. (The birds! The glass! The flowers! The tattoos!) There is also a gorgeous reference to Our Patron Saint of the Internet Neil Gaiman‘s stupendous American Gods, another delicious treat for pretentious people like me who like to catch references like other people catch pokemon.

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The best jacket: the SA jacket by Joey Hi-Fi

Beukes is a novelist of unflinchingly keen eye and ambitious ideas, her body of work constantly building on some themes while incorporating others. Her love of the cityscape is palpable in her work, and her social commentary biting. Brett Easton Ellis should take notes. If she is capable of writing novels of this kind of depth once a year, I feel that we are in for a treat as readers.

 

Broken Monsters will be available in South Africa from July from Random House Struik

Watch the terrifying and eerily perfect trailer below:

Review of The Girl With All The Gifts by MJ Carey

To be released June 15th, 2014

the-girl-with-all-the-gifts-by-mj-carey-191x300SPOILERS AHEAD!

I have a theory for the endless proliferation of zombie novels, which have been around in various forms since the early 1800s. They usually show science gone wrong, a handsome, rugged male protagonist saving the day and everyone else is boring and undead. The origin of the zombie virus is nearly always caused by scientists overstepping their boundaries, because science is evil and we’re living in a despairingly anti-intellectual society that gives anti-vaccination crazy people a place to peddle their bullshit. The zombie story ultimately panders to the hideously solipsistic belief that we alone are special and everyone else deserves to die and be shotgun fodder. After all, zombies are the last acceptable humans to murder without any guilt or overtones of racism and ‘my country it is of thee’ jingoism. It is for this reason that I generally avoid zombie novels, though sometimes I am pleasantly surprised.

As such, I was tricked into The Girl With All The Gifts, which is revealed to be a story about zombies relatively early on. Except the zombies are called hungries, and this time the origin of the plague is caused by a natural mutation of a particularly ugly fungus. This fungus gets into the brain and causes zombies, and wipes out most of the planet. Now, this is a much more interesting premise than usual, and is delivered with a lot of proper scientific talk and less ‘stuff happens, yo’. Most zombie stories are based around “zombies are here because science”, which is a terrible and boring explanation.

Anyway, to the plot. Melanie is one of many little children who are kept in wheelchairs, strapped down and wheeled to class to learn things. They are fed grubs and washed in chemicals. The opening of the novel is done in Melanie’s voice. The novel flits from voice to voice but remains in the third person. The author is definitely capable of rendering several different writing styles. So the barracks is overrun by junkers (that usual old chestnut about what happens when people survive and basically turn into extras from Deliverance) and five people escape from the base: a teacher, a scientist, a grunt, an army general and Melanie, a kid with an eidetic memory who isn’t sure who she is. They must traverse zombie-ruined England to get to the last known bit of civilisation left. Goal in place, they set off.

As far as actual writing goes, the book is occasionally ponderous and spends too much time telling us every minute detail in each character’s head. While I would normally applaud such in-depth storytelling, it was not done with enough skill to maintain pacing and interest. There are some well-scripted action scenes and there are moments of decent, palpable horror. It is a book with an interesting premise and approach to zombies, shifting the focus away from bad science to the cost of survival. Most of the characters are forgettable though, and even Melanie fails to captivate the reader throughout. I would have liked to see this approach in the hands of a more polished author. As is typical of debut authors, the prose lacks polish and edge, and is occasionally too dedicated to setting up backgrounds for ultimately boring characters than fleshing out the overarching philosophy and implications.

It’ll appeal to most zombie fans, but as far as a ‘mind-bending thriller’ goes (so sayeth the blurb), it didn’t really bake my cake. It passes the time and asks some interesting questions about the cost of a scientific cure and the failure of humankind; it could have been a much more powerful novel with some judicious editing.

All Body Glitter and No Gold – Review of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby

the-great-gatsby-movie-posterAnyone who hasn’t read The Great Gatsby may find it a lovely, lovely movie. They may have enjoyed its lavish party setpieces, the glorious settings, the indulgent cinematography. And well they might – had it not been an adaptation and an original story, then I probably would have enjoyed it more. But no one ever comes to this blog for a fence-sitting opinion, so here is mine: for the first hour of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, it was like I had a glitter-covered toddler jumping up and down in my lap screaming “LOOK AT MEEEEE”. And then the toddler went into a coma and no amount of overwrought drama could wake it up.
I taught the Great Gatsby to matrics and undergrads for three years. I have probably read it from start to finish about six times. I could likely sit down right now and write a ten thousand word mini-thesis on the themes of Gatsby, none of which seem to have made it into the movie. The Great Gatsby is about failure. It is about the failure of the American dream to provide for all, it is about a man who turns to crime to impress a woman, it is about racism (barely even glimpsed in the movie), it is about failed marriages and cowardice. It even suggests the failure of God. It is ruthless social commentary. It is not a great love story, it is not about overcoming all odds. Gatsby is not an underdog, and Daisy is not worth the attention she gets from him. It is not about the parties, or the fun, or the beautiful, beautiful shirts.

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And yet, Baz Luhrmann not only turns in a piss-poor understanding of the greater ideas of the novel, but he also fails to elicit any kind of spectacular performance from any of his actors. Di Caprio recently gave an outstanding performance for Django Unchained, after all. As the eponymous Gatsby, he was luke-warm. And this should have been the role that finally, finally, got him the Oscar he so deserves. The only characters that came across well as their book counterparts was the thuggish Tom and the wilting idiot Daisy, who everyone should despise for being so fickle and so careless. Already the internet is gushing with the Pinterest-friendly idea of the great love of Gatsby and Daisy, but how could any love predicated almost purely on a five-year old memory be one for the ages? Daisy goes back to her awful, philandering husband and leaves Gatsby’s life to ruin – thankfully the movie left in the whole idea of her carelessness, and Gatsby’s sad departure.

There are some other details worth nitpicking – the soundtrack that delayed the movie by five months. Why have such an incredibly anachronistic soundtrack when every other detail about the time period is so meticulous? It was the time of jazz, not hip hop. Goldfish could have done a better soundtrack that would have suited the time and the tone perfectly. And the mental asylum? There is no suggestion that Nick’s life is ruined afterwards, not that much. Instead, he returns to the Midwest bruised by New York, and simply recounts what happened rather than writing a novel. It was such a clumsy framing device that should have been done away with entirely.

This is a serious novel filled with complex themes and characters that was turned into a gaudy, overly dramatic pageant of itself, and that broke my heart. In the hands of a mature director, this could have been the adaptation I have been waiting for for so long. Baz Luhrmann makes a fine art director, but he fails to get across important themes with any sense of weight or pacing: the drama is on the level of The Bold and the Beautiful. Had this been directed by David Fincher of Fight Club fame, or Sophia Coppola (Lost in Translation) or perhaps Jane Campion of The Piano, we might have had a movie that encompassed the themes that have made Gatsby still echo nearly a hundred years later.

Instead, all I got was this tub of stripper glitter.

What the rest had to say: 

Rotten Tomatoes: 52% Critics’ Rating

MetaCritic – 54% 

“Luhrmann’s less a filmmaker than a music-video director with endless resources and a stunning absence of taste” – The New Yorker 

As Shallow as Spilt Champagne – The Daily Mail

George RR Martin Loved it – Not A Blog