Mark Winkler’s Wasted, as yet largely unheralded by critics and the reading public at large, is without question one of the year’s most ambitious, suspenseful, tightly controlled and expertly executed novels. Not content to merely challenge the reader’s perceptions of causality and to delve deeply into ethical questions of responsibility towards others, justice and fairness, the novel actively embraces a sense of messy complexity and opaque human consciousness, all the more extraordinary because of the mastery the writer embodies in his formal stylistic presentation of what deftly blurs the line between subjective and objective truths. Put another way: Winkler goes all out to reveal the ways in which the stories we tell ourselves, of ourselves and of others, can never fully escape rupture. Our self-narratives are, despite our best attempts at coherence, consistency and clarity, always vulnerable to implosion, always caught off guard by the blunt force of traumatic events. That trauma destroys narrative is not what Winkler is getting at here; rather, he is at pains to illustrate, through a central protagonist that is as singular and elusive as he is peculiarly engaging and perceptive, that trauma paradoxically coaxes from the source of suffering, fragment by pained fragment, a kind of narrative wound, an aperture or opening that writes itself, in ways that cannot be predicted. What Winkler then does with Wasted is to construct a carefully layered meditation on the ways that latent wounds manifest, revealing to the reader one man’s flawed attempts at constructing a coherent self-narrative, of coping with his many wounds. Who are we if not a sum of our wounds?
Nathan Lucius, 31, is Winkler’s enigmatic subject. A man with a library of faces to put on at opportune moments, poorly kempt, sexually driven, possibly prone to heinous violence, terse, disengaged (yet fully aware of what is happening around him), Lucius sells ad space with his pointy-nippled boss, Sonia, purchases old photographs from a terminal old antiques dealer, Madge, engages in barely legal sexual exploits with his thoroughly medicated and well-rounded neighbour, Mrs Du Toit, and has trouble sleeping with the light off. He is also prone to hauntings that involve darkness, mould and pine needles. His pithy, brutally frank observations centre on his barely-there interactions with others, his ennui and disaffection towards the world, and his inability to want much more from his life than his banal, regulated existence on the slopes of Table Mountain.
In what amounts to an extended conversation with Dostoyevsky’s Crime and punishment, Lucius is a Cape Town Raskolnikov, a man all at sea that eventually obeys the dying wishes of his friend, Madge, to end her life. This key event will ripple through the rest of the narrative in profound and unexpected ways, yet Winkler is not content to let the Lucius mercy killing stand on its own: in a dizzyingly dazzling complication of “before” and “after”, Winkler implicates the reader as judge, jury and executioner in a wider set of criminal entanglements, both forging intense sympathy for the troubled Lucius, and forcing the reader to consider whether this disaffected man is capable of much greater, more disturbing acts of violence towards others.
Much like Richard de Nooy in his sterling novel The Unsaid, Winkler is interested in the contorted spaces between crime and punishment, brutality and sensitivity, rage and redemption, fear, loathing and understanding, memory and narrative. Much like De Nooy with his affectively powerful novel, Winkler is stylistically adept: his weapon of choice in Wasted is the elegantly curated, seemingly simple sentence, stripped of all excess, all waste, and each a rapier blow to the senses. Winkler’s lean, lithe sentences ripple with allusive intensity and gritty detail. You can almost smell the cordite on the pages; individual passages are shot through with irradiating intensity.
Winkler’s writing precision (pristinely edited, certainly) is mirrored in the daring he expresses in inserting seemingly random or ill-fitting moments, reflections, insights and echoes into scenes where the reader might have expected explications altogether more uncluttered, unambiguous or unequivocal. Whether these fragmentary “pine needles” of the discarded, the unpleasant, the unwanted and unloved, together with the “darkness” and “mould” of the futile and the fruitless, the inexplicable and the lost-forever, are to be read as a catalogue of injury and despair will come down to individual responses.
What is, however, most clear to me, particularly as I closed the novel for the second time, was how important difficult, three-dimensional writing is at this particular juncture in our besieged country. If we are to listen to one another, and to one another’s stories, we must be willing to recognise not only our own wounds but the wounds of others. We all survive this tumultuous place every day, becoming incrementally stranger. What a fitting irony, then, that a novel fully at peace with strangeness and incongruity allows us to understand how much common ground we might have.