Amid the current deluge of crime fiction and creative non-fiction investigating the “state of the nation”, ad man Mark Winkler, current creative director of M and C Abel South Africa, has written an intensely absorbing and unapologetically apolitical tale. It speaks about approaching middle age and suburban discontent, in a way that is refreshingly bereft of political posturing and banal platitudes about living harmoniously in the umbra of apartheid.
Close to forty, amputee architect Chris Hayes, at a remove from his wife and teenage son – not to mention from his business colleague keen on a black business partner to increase government work – is in a bad way. Struggling to cope with domestic disappointments and the death of a previous girlfriend in the car accident that cost him his leg, the death of his adoptive mother propels him to reflect on his midlife crisis. He musters the courage to seek out his adoptive parents, which leaves him with more questions than answers.
Certainly not an escapist work aimed at an undiscerning readership, Winkler’s text is concerned with no less than loss (in as many forms as can be conceived of), death, disability, the inability to communicate effectively with loved ones, alienation, domestic discontent, religion, rootlessness and masculinity. While this sounds like a laundry list of narrative preoccupations indeed shared with many other post-apartheid fictions, Winkler also soberly reflects on matters such as familial ties and affiliative connections, resilience after trauma, the need for community and mutually affirming parent-child relationships.
I would argue that the complexity and rich texture that emerges is the product of a writer with real passion and acumen writing about difficult subject matter. Regret and remorse are certainly not matters to take lightly, and what we bear witness to when reading is no less than a highly damaged male subject in search of self-definition in the face of being disabled, adopted and cuckolded, the dissolution and death of adoptive parents, and maintaining a relationship with a teenage son who seems to be from an entirely different world.
The novel can be heavy going. There were times when I wanted to give the protagonist a good kick under the backside; so too almost every other character in the novel. However, the narration has a real bite and lightness of touch. It is tremendously caustic and justifiably bitter in places, the sometimes sardonic, sometimes tender reflections grounding the writing in a kind of confessional aesthetic where we never feel at a remove from what is being told to us.
Winkler’s writing is something of a paradox: economical and precise, expansive and allusive, complex and clear, conveying an immediacy of description and perception that adds to the novel’s overall heft. Offered here is an acutely realised portrait of universally felt longings and challenges, clever without being too flamboyant or showy.
Perhaps it is best to quote a few passages from the novel to illustrate:
My son, my teenage son. I want to take him by the shoulders and shake him and slap him on the back of the head and tell him that soon I’ll no longer be able to hold him back from his friends and his beach parties. That the weight of a few more years will remove the zits and the clumsiness and will fill him out a bit and allow his brain to grow a little more so that he is better equipped to tell right from wrong. That he will then face a glorious, untainted future stretching like a blank canvas from his feet to the horizon – and I want to warn him that the canvas will be far less forgiving than his father ever was, because every mark he makes on it will govern the next mark, so he had better make every fucking choice count unless he wants to hit thirty-nine and a quarter looking over his shoulder, unless he wants to become the next generation’s forensic archaeologist and sift through a sandpit of past choices in the hope of finding the seminal potsherd, the traces in the coprolite, the original artefact of misdirection to understand where, when, how it all went wrong. (31–2)
And squirrels; I have squirrels. Squirrels living in the roof, bent on destruction. Young people do not have squirrels, and if they do it’s someone else’s problem – the parents’, the landlord’s. Squirrels are an old person’s problem. (32)
Perhaps it’s a tugging towards discovery, or a tugging towards forgetting, towards simplicity, a tugging away from the complexity that wraps around you more tightly by the day. Perhaps it’s tugging because even before I lost my leg I had only one foot on the ground anyway. A man dropped into his existence, landing like Mr Bean on a cobbled sidewalk in those old Atkinson skits, an unwanted alien beamed down. A white man dropped into Africa. A husband dropped into marriage, dropped into fatherhood. Dropped into middle age. Talent dropped into ambition, ambition into business, business into capital, capital into boredom, and boredom converted into badges of success and the flotsam that takes even more capital to sustain. And all the foundations and the concrete and steel in your buildings amounting to nothing – one foot and the two square inches of rubber at the ends of your crutches your only true connections to the world beneath you, behind you. While others grow from somewhere. From the roots of a nation and the seeds cast by a towering family tree; an act as simple as a backward glance over a shoulder an instant reassurance. What is rooted is mere rootlessness, the permanence of transience, manifested that this is not my country, that I am here by the grace of others, a long-term visitor with a cloudy future and no home to return to. (57)
The author, Mark Winkler.
The novel has a likeable, thoroughly relatable protagonist, although some female readers might quibble with the lack of other voices to complement or disperse what amounts to a very dominant male voice. I see it, rather, as Winkler’s taking exception with the compulsion to offer storytelling that is necessary polyphonic or more cosmopolitan in character, rooted in a particular post-apartheid moment of telling stories rife with socio-political commentary about race and crime and xenophobia. He is, arguably, claiming his right to have Chris tell his own story, one that tells without apology the story of a disabled soon to be a forty-year-old man feeling all at sea, despite all the trappings of upper middle-class living in Cape Town.
This is not a story that has been told ad infinitum, although there are moments where the writing could make you think of what John Dobson does in Year of the Gherkin, or perhaps Diane Awerbuck in Home Remedies, although those novels are also very different from Winkler’s.
If one were to criticise a specific part of the novel it would be the final third. It feels disproportionately packed with traumatic incidents and suffering for most characters in a work where a considerable weight already rests on the trauma (both ongoing and residual) felt by the protagonist. Winkler is ambitious in his debut – using familiar trappings to tell the story of a white, disabled male in a manner that is not reminiscent of the sombre musings to be found in a Coetzee or a Galgut – and at a relatively meagre 220 pages, the novel’s concluding chapters are perhaps guilty of straining for effect when the rest of the novel already presents so much to commend and to ponder over.
One could also argue that the treatment of the protagonist’s wife is overly harsh, rather relentless in its constant vilification of her obsession with remaining young and beautiful. Her affair with the non-descript Jono is also described acidly, and the difference between the voice of the protagonist and the writer is not drawn with much distinction in much of the narration.
It doesn’t take long to realise that precious little in this novel is treated as “exceptionally simple”: a multitude of ironies emerge throughout the course of the action. What these ironies are or amount to is a matter that prospective readers should uncover with gusto. Bold, brave, well crafted, An Exceptionally Simple Theory (of Absolutely Everything) ultimately stands as a debut work of adult fiction where consistent depth of feeling and cognition is channelled into a story truly worth telling.
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