Losing the plot: crime, reality, and fiction in postapartheid writing by Leon de Kock: book review

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Losing the plot: crime, reality, and fiction in postapartheid writing
Leon de Kock
Publisher: Wits University Press
ISBN: 9781868149643

Crime in our time

Because if poetry transports one to the heavens, crime novels plunge you into the way life really is; they dirty your hands and blacken your face the way coal stains engine stokers on trains in the South, where I was born.

 – Pablo Neruda, in Roberto Ampuero, The neruda case

In the introduction to Losing the plot, Leon de Kock observes that his new book gives a version, rather than an encyclopedic account of South African literary production after apartheid. The field, he suggests, should be viewed as a hologram from which different patterns will emerge depending on how it is tilted and scrutinized. Such caveats are always appropriate: coverage is not only an impossible ideal, but one that presumes a static object; forceful selective readings are more useful than dutiful surveys and compressed summaries (unless one is in the unfortunate position of studying for an exam). But despite his disclaimer, De Kock’s work is ambitious. For what is at stake in this book is not “literature”, but “writing”: a larger object than “literature” and, arguably, a more exciting and politically revealing one.

Before I cracked its covers, I did wonder whether De Kock’s focus on crime might not narrow the implications of the study, and, yes, whether the topic was not an excuse for scholarly indulgence in a fun reading list of fast-paced popular fiction. To be sure, the book does, at one point, rehearse the familiar critical debates about the emergence and popularity of crime fiction in South Africa, and it treats books like Deon Meyer’s The heart of the hunter, Angela Mokholwa’s Black widow society, and Roger Smith’s Mixed blood with something of a fan’s verve. But the overall conception of “crime writing” here is broad: it includes any writing that is energized by a forensic impulse – by an attempt to “get the facts”. De Kock also absorbs from Jean and John Comaroff’s important work a powerful understanding of the significance of crime and criminality in late modernity. If, as Durkheim has argued, crime has always been indispensible to the demonstration of state sovereignty, it has become so much more visible and fraught in a situation where it is difficult to distinguish legality from illegality (never an easy matter in South Africa), wealth management from money laundering, and governance from theft. Crime, in other words, has profound political and epistemological ramifications, which are both under scrutiny here.

In a context where such fundamental definitional boundaries have become fuzzy, it makes sense that generic boundaries should do so as well, and one of the contributions of this book is the way it demonstrates that the distinction between non-fiction and imaginative writing, popular and political writing, and high culture and mass-mediated culture is not all that easily drawn. The remapping of the field that results is salutary. De Kock may be right, I fear, that “SA Lit” has become a small, somewhat provincial academic concern, now that international interest in the early transition and the TRC has waned. A PhD candidate with an interest in the field would have to make some noises about the “Global Anglophone” to be viable on the US job market these days. So, De Kock’s expansion of the range of significant texts beyond those usually surveyed (the work of the “big five”: Gordimer, Coetzee, Wicomb, Mda and Vladislavic) is welcome. So, too, are his efforts throughout the book to yoke South African concerns with Euro-American critical debates, in his references, for instance, to David Shields (on reality hunger), Paul Virilio (on the new media dromosphere), Mark Seltzer (on wound culture), Michael Warner (on publics and counter publics), and Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best (on surface reading). I am happy, though, that this book does not share the obsession with the circulation of texts and generic forms that characterizes many recent studies of “global” or world literature. For, though De Kock is interested – sporadically – in markets, Losing the plot is not a work of literary sociology; it rather delivers (at times) a kind of political formalism. De Kock writes, first and foremost, because he shares what I want to call the patriotic concerns of the writers he discusses: a need to understand what has happened in South Africa since 1990, why our rainbow nation dreams faded so quickly, and what the hell is going on in a polity that is not only objectively confusing in its polyculturalism, but also subject to competing regimes of information and disinformation. (The escalating harassment of journalists and the nefarious interventions of the Bell Pottinger public relations film are but the latest and most shocking symptoms of this distressing cognitive situation.)

It is true, of course, that a certain precariousness has become a global condition. “We have lost the handrails of stories,” as Anna Tsing so beautifully puts it in The mushroom at the end of the world. And South Africa, “tainted by the more general rot of a neoliberal world order of hypercapitalism”, De Kock insists, can no longer claim any exceptional status. But it is also true that this generalized “plot loss”, as he terms this epistemological condition, is felt with particular intensity in South Africa. The events of 1994 were truly epochal, he rightly insists, and the derailing of the teleological story of the rainbow nation’s liberation therefore felt so catastrophic as to reek of betrayal – indeed, of outright robbery. This perception has only intensified since the book’s publication, as the evidence of wide-scale malfeasance on the part of the president and his henchmen, lackeys and enablers continues daily to mount.

Now, I spoke earlier about the book as interested in the politics of form. I see this in De Kock’s intriguing assertion that the condition of “plot loss” has elicited two opposing responses: underplotting (in high art forms) and overplotting (in genre fiction). What I like here is the lack of interest in any value judgment: the overplotting of crime fiction and the underplotting of serious literary fiction are taken to be what Fredric Jameson might call “twin and dialectically related responses” to a historical moment – a contradictory one, where hope and despair, idealism and disillusion, nationalism and neoliberal forms of transnationalism are equally in play. It is a moment in which realism of the old sort (which, for Jameson – and Lukács before him – always involves the capacity to discern developments, historical trajectories and emergent patterns) is unavailable; yet, the need to confront “reality” is urgent. It is interesting, then, from a formal point of view that De Kock should suggest in Chapter 3 that contemporary crime writing assumes the quality of the frontier adventures (notably, a pre-novelistic form): its task is to discover whether the unchartered land out there is at all habitable. This is very different from the modus operandi of the realist novel, which, as Roland Barthes’s delightful annotations of Balzac have taught us, can rely on a referential code, a received typology that enables the author to refer confidently to a character as “one of those”. Such a pre-scripted code is not available in South Africa today – if it ever was, for all the earlier predominance of the liberal realist novel.

What these reflections suggest is that any contemplation of “reality” (the most arresting and trickiest term, for my money, in De Kock’s title) also requires a reflection on temporality – on how South Africans, writers and citizens, have imagined the relationship between past, present and future. After all, “plot” is a pattern imposed on the unfolding of events, and its loss (as David Scott has argued so persuasively in Omens of adversity) occasions a heightened alertness to the particular qualities and affective valences of our collective experience of time. It is fitting, therefore, that in the introduction and elsewhere in the book, De Kock should offer an overview of the various periodizing terms that have emerged over the last three decades, including “postapartheid”, “post-antipartheid”, “post-postapartheid” and “post-transition”. While paying respectful attention to the nuances of these terms and the reasons why critics have proposed them, De Kock is firm in his insistence that “transition” remains the crucial term for us. I think he is absolutely right in this respect. To be sure, the triumphal, winning-nation story has met with skeptical counter-discourses since the Mbeki presidency, but that does not mean we are “post” anything; nor does it diminish the fact that we are constantly and inevitably pondering the relationship between the old and the new. In the course of the book De Kock therefore, returns to two rather dark meditations on the idea of “transition”, which we have perhaps forgotten too soon. One is Grant Farred’s introduction to the special issue of South Atlantic quarterly, entitled After the thrill is gone: ten years of democracy in South Africa (2004). What De Kock homes in on here is Farred’s observation that the new democracy yielded not a teleological fulfilment of dreams, but rather a peculiar double temporality: “the new nomos of the South African earth is haunted by the old nomos,” Farred declares, and this yields a double vision, alternatively cyclopean and bifurcated. The other intervention De Kock favours is Ashraf Jamal’s irreverent Predicaments of culture in South Africa (2005). What draws De Kock to this book is not only Jamal’s deployment of Hal Foster’s term “future anterior” (suggesting a mode of living in the ruins of the past’s future), but also his mocking critique of earlier optimistic interpretations of South African literature as yielding to a democratic state of play. In Jamal’s view, such interpretations emplot events with a narrative clarity (“see where we have come from; see where we now are; see where we are going”) that now seems quite delusional. In other words, these early sunny interpretations skate over the epistemological concerns that are central to Losing the plot: to the problematic “reality” of the title. The term de Kock himself eventually settles on to describe the uncanny imbrication of past and present that these critics evoke is “mash-up” – and the term’s implications of both mixture and violence, of a polyglot, polyrhythmic “pulpiness” are very much intended. Pulpy fictions, pulpy times. I like it.

Would I have wanted anything to be done differently? Well, I would probably have urged De Kock to cut the close reading of Steinberg’s The number in the introduction, and replace it with parts or the whole of Chapter 4, where he usefully lays out the broad trajectory or “metanarrative” of post-apartheid literary criticism. (Interesting, this, since the work is mainly about the invalidation of national metanarratives.) But I find the book stimulating as it is, with its lively descriptions and effective juxtaposition of texts. I would commend here Chapter 3, where Krog’s Begging to be black, Steinberg’s Midlands, and Bloom’s Ways of staying are read in together; and Chapter 6, where Gevisser’s Lost and found in Johannesburg, Mzilikazi wa Afrika’s Nothing left to steal, and Greg Marinovitch’s heartbreaking reporting on the Marikana massacre form another surprising triad. I also very much like the line-up of texts in the final chapter, especially the way it opens with a wholly persuasive reading of Vladislavic’s Double negative and closes with reflections on Imraan Coovadia’s excellent Tales of the metric system, both of which, as De Kock perceptively points out, deal with the problematic clarity of unilinear historical narratives by offering a series of disparate but revealing moments that might bring to view “the true nature of the ‘real’”.

While I learned much from the entirety of Losing the plot, I would single out the two closing chapters as the most indispensible, especially in the way they address some probing questions to all of us who read. The penultimate chapter makes the crucial observation that South Africa’s transition to democracy coincided not only with the fall of the Soviet Union (a point that is often made), but also with the rise of the social media, which has created an entirely new context of reception, new publics and counter publics. The result is what De Kock (after Mark Seltzer) terms a “wound culture”. This can be defined as an affective configuration (Seltzer calls it a “pathological public sphere”) sponsored by the media, when violent events become generative social mechanisms, allowing identities and publics to form through identification with victims and eliciting collective feelings akin to the catharsis so long associated only with literature. A key event in South Africa’s wound culture is, of course, the Marikana massacre about which De Kock asks, “What is more urgent, ‘reimagining’ the event, or finding out the deliberately obscured facts behind this catastrophe?” Sjoe.

This kind of disconcerting question also drives the final chapter. Here, De Kock reviews with admirable brevity some of the defining literary works of the last two decades (Double negative, The quiet violence of dreams, Welcome to our Hillbrow, Zoo city, Nineveh and Tales of the metric system), acknowledging their effective suturing of invention and social data, of the visual and the verbal, and of global genres and local specificities. But more important than all this literary analysis is, ultimately, the chapter’s honest contemplation of contemporary contexts of reception. De Kock makes the irrefutable observation that even those of us who take literature seriously find ourselves anxiously scrutinizing the breaking news, to the point where the time we have to spend reading fiction is significantly diminished. So, how do we read in these precarious and impatient times? And how do we write? In the past, authors often worried about the appropriate form in which to write about South Africa (Coetzee’s anguished reflections on the relation between the novel and the pressing demands of history immediately come to mind). But now, the worries besetting authors today are even more strenuous. In the violent and illegible terrain of the present, one may well ask whether literature is a viable enterprise at all. What does one write “in a country where you couldn’t make this shit up” (as Rian Malan so memorably phrases it)?

As I read it, this book does not despair for literature – and even less so for writing. But it insists that it is all the more important, in our dark and confusing times, that stories “get it right”. And De Kock, it seems to me, gets much right in Losing the plot. His preoccupations seem all the more relevant as we try to untangle the dense web of corruption in South Africa, decipher the shifty nonsense emerging from the White House, strive diligently to differentiate news from fake news, and find ways of living in a murky world in which states have become indistinguishable from criminal enterprises and politicians from racketeers. It is refreshing to read an academic book not written for the purposes of advancement and credentialing, but because it has something pressing to say.

Rita Barnard, University of Pennsylvania and University of the Western Cape

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  • The last sentence of this book review is the one - apart from all the other incisive comments - that convinces me to read the book.

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    Regine Fourie

    Excellent review, thank you, and one that certainly fulfills its purpose by generating interest in reading Losing the Plot. However, it would seem that the focus of the book is solely on South African English writing, whereas Afrikaans writing deals with much the same post-, antipost-, postpost- etc problematics - is there a reason for this?

    • If I may answer from the "authorial" position: the book takes into account the leading contributions of Marlene van Niekerk quite explicitly, and it also brings into view the works of Etienne van Heerden, Ingrid Winterbach, Eben Venter, Deon Meyer, Willem Anker, and other Afrikaans writers.

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        Regine Fourie

        Thank you for clearing this up. I got the impression from the review that you focus exclusively on English. Maar nou wil ek u boek éérs lees!

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    Herman Lategan

    I agree with Regine, I too got the erroneous impression from the review that you focus solely on local English works. An easy mistake, as it happens often that when articles or reviews are written about South African literature it refers ONLY to local English writing.
    So crudely colonial, as if none of the other local language matter, or is deemed by Her Majesty’s Empire and her acolytes as literature at all.
    I raised my eyebrows at this little gem though: The work of the “big five”: Gordimer, Coetzee, Wicomb, Mda and Vladislavić. I realise in which context it was used and of course they are all impressive authors, but (as Advocatus Diaboli), I rest my case.
    Nevertheless, it is valuable to hear your book has a wider focus than simply the occasional overinflated tiny echo chambers of the local English literary scene.
    This is a good review, I will certainly read the book. Thank you.

    • Yes, what would the "Big Five" look like if all works of SA literature were taken into account, as they must? Impossible task, but how could one possibly leave out Marlene van Niekerk, Etienne van Heerden and Ingrid Winterbach? That's not even to mention other prominent names. Better not to make such lists in the first place.

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    Regine Fourie

    Thank you Herman, my thoughts exactly. By the way, it doesn't only happen with our local languages. German, Russian, French etc classics are often just subsumed under English Literary Studies, to the extent that one might be excused for thinking Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka are authors who wrote in English!

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