Book title: Lacuna
Author: Fiona Snyckers
Publisher: Picador Africa
"You are concerned for my sake, which I appreciate, you think you understand, but finally you don’t. Because you can’t." — Lucy Lurie in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace
Reluctance. That is what I felt approaching Fiona Snyckers’s latest novel, Lacuna. Only after the third attempt did I manage to get beyond the second sentence of the first chapter: “My vagina is a lacuna that my attackers filled with their penises.” I eventually continued when asked to review the novel. And boy, am I glad that I did!
Lacuna is the story of Lucy Lurie, a fictional woman who shares a name with one of the main characters in Disgrace (published exactly two decades ago in 1999). It is a feminist "reply", for want of a better word, to JM Coetzee’s most famous — or infamous (depending on one’s reading) — novel.
Why my reluctance to read Lacuna? It’s complicated. But let me try to explain. Disgrace remains one of the most powerful novels I have ever read. The first two times I read the book, it was as a complete outsider, well versed in South African letters but living in Europe. I felt that I had to reread it now — after fifteen years of living in Cape Town and being intensely engaged in local life and literature — before giving Snyckers’s Lacuna a fair chance.
The rereading of Disgrace confirmed for me why I also balked at this paragraph from Lacuna’s blurb on the back cover of the book: “The Lucy of Coetzee’s fictional imaginings is a passive, peaceful creature, almost entirely lacking in agency. She is the lacuna in Coetzee’s novel — the missing piece of the puzzle.” I still disagree with this particular interpretation, not uncommon, of JM Coetzee’s Lucy Lurie. In my readings of years ago and of the more recently one, Coetzee’s Lucy has been anything but passive. It is precisely her agency in Disgrace that makes it such a powerful novel. For me. But this is not a review of Disgrace.
Another reason why I had to brace myself for Lacuna is what one of JM Coetzee’s characters in Elizabeth Costello once referred to as gold-fish critics: “Flecks of gold circling the dying whale, waiting their chance to dart in and take a quick mouthful.” (In this respect, it would be fascinating to read the references to Moby Dick; or, The Whale in Lacuna alongside Toni Morrison’s interpretation of Melville’s classic in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, but that is an essay for another day.)
In the last two or three decades, but especially after JM Coetzee won the Nobel Prize in Literature, an entire critical industry has been established around his writing. Countless articles, essays and books have been written about the oeuvre all around the world, offering insight into just as many topics. The author’s reputation for elusiveness and disinclination to participate in the frenzy created around his work and person only adds fuel to the fire. It all can get tiring for even the most passionate fans and critics.
Snyckers creates a fictional John Coetzee. In Lacuna, he is the author of a book called Disgrace, but neither the book nor the man in Snyckers’s novel is meant to be read as real, although they resemble both. In principle, I find this approach problematic. Despite the distortions Snyckers introduces, the existing proximity is disturbing. In this sense, Lacuna can be accused of the same transgressions that the original Disgrace has been. One needs to ask oneself whether Lacuna could have been written without the direct reference: same plot, different names and book titles? I think so. It might have been a more alluring novel, exactly because of its subtle ambiguity.
JM Coetzee, of course, is no stranger to controversy. The wave of negative criticism which hit Disgrace and its author after publication touched on the status of art in South Africa. Despite Coetzee’s insistence that the novel should be read “on its own terms, as a work of fiction, not as a message in disguise”, many local readers were outraged by its content, seeing it as the author’s direct commentary on their lives. The close, politicised relationship between fiction and reality which has existed here for decades has not made the distinction any easier.
I find it fascinating to observe what the mere mention of Disgrace can do to a dinner table conversation or an academic debate anywhere on the planet, from Algiers to Zurich. Usually, the result amounts to anything from sulking silence to outright fury, seldom agreement, never indifference.
Coetzee’s work goes to the core of the experience of what it means to be human. It crawls under your skin; makes you feel, makes you think. And this is the fundamental aspect of its appeal and what makes it so intriguing to so many individual readers and different schools of thought. And to authors, who in their own way attempt to come to terms with the fictional and real predicaments the work presents. Just to name a few fictional responses to Disgrace alone: Ken Barris’s What Kind of Child, André Brink’s The Rights of Desire, or Elleke Boehmer’s short story “Sharmilla”.
Globally, JM Coetzee’s writing removes readers from their comfort zones, a quality I appreciate most in his writing. It will continue making people feel uncomfortable, as any great fiction does, for numerous reasons and wherever it is read. And that is a good thing. Lacuna is one of this process’s many fruitful outcomes.
Once you get beyond the blurb and the first few pages, Lacuna becomes an irresistible meditation on privilege, literature, patriarchy, law, social media, race, and academia, specifically the Coetzee industry referred to above. It might seem like too many weighty topics for one novel to hold, but it does, with aplomb. It is by far the best thing Snyckers has written, and it is highly satisfying to see her writing soar to new heights like this.
At the novel’s centre is Lacuna’s Lucy, an unreliable narrator if there ever was one, but, paradoxically, it is through her unreliability that Snyckers’s creates a credible character of note. This Lucy does not hold back. In the instability of her narrative she is able to articulate things that would otherwise remain unsayable. She allows the reader into her mind, heart and, most crucially, her soul — in all her conflicted complexity. She does not keep silent about her body, pronouncing its hurt. At no point is she afraid to slaughter sacred cows. Snyckers’s Lucy dares to speak what many only dare to think. And she asks one of the most pertinent and difficult questions of all: Who owns a story?
It is her unflinching voice that adds to the page-turning quality of this layered novel that will make you take a deep breath, and a step back, and then engage in ways that will leave their own indelible marks: “My story isn’t beautiful. It is an infected boil I can’t lance because its roots are too deep.”
Reviewing Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004), JM Coetzee wrote about two aspects of writing which most authors will recognise only too well: “The stories we write sometimes begin to write themselves, after which their truth or falsehood is out of our hands and declarations of authorial intent carry no weight. Furthermore, once a book is launched into the world it becomes the property of its readers, who, given half a chance, will twist its meaning in accord with their own preconceptions and desires.”
I don’t want to indulge in that kind of twisting. I can only encourage every reader: Do yourself a favour. Read Lacuna; it is a stunning piece of fiction. And then return to Disgrace with fresh insights, but don’t be blinded and consumed by Lucy’s father. Listen carefully to what the "original" Lucy has to say instead: “You behave as if everything I do is part of a story of your life. You are the main character; I am a minor character who doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through. Well, contrary to what you think, people are not divided into major and minor. I am not minor. I have a life of my own, just as important to me as yours is to you, and in my life I am the one who makes the decisions.”
Lacuna’s Lucy thinks of John Coetzee’s story as “fountain pen on vellum”; and her own as “menstrual blood on toilet paper”, as “female and angry and incoherent and messy and ugly and raw”. It is all of those things. As it should be. And that’s its ultimate strength and beauty.