27 December 2014

The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs by Damon Galgut


For years, I've said I like novels to be x, y, or z; often that x, y, or z meant (in some way or another) unsettling, challenging, surprising... But those words feel inadequate, because inevitably there are things that are, for instance, unsettling in unproductive ways — a pulpy, detailed story of child molestation is probably unsettling and disturbing, but also plenty likely to be worthless, exploitative crap that aims primarily for the reader's gag reflex and puts the writer in the obnoxious position of nudging us endlessly with the question, "How much can you take?"

As I thought about why Damon Galgut's 1991 novel The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs worked so well for me where so many other books I've tried to read recently did not, I started to feel like I was finally moving toward some understanding of what the word disturbing, as praise, meant to me. It ties in with something Galgut himself said in an interview with Kianoosh Hashemzadeh for Web Conjunctions a few years ago:
...it seems to me, if you provide answers—the usual forms of literary catharsis are a kind of answer, things tie up and all the elements of the plot are neatly knotted at the end—you might have a good experience when you’re reading that book, but when you close the book you basically have closed any moral problems that the book raised and that’s it. Whereas if people are disturbed and unsettled, things have been raised and not resolved, people have to carry that around and work it out some way.
This is similar to things I've thought for a long time (I am, after all, a devotee of Chekhov, who famously said the job of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them), but Galgut's formulation there feels like it captures many of the qualities I value. The usual forms of literary catharsis is an interesting phrase, for instance, and makes me think of the thousand stories launched by Raymond Carver's example, stories that mistake bathos for epiphany. I think too of what Tom McCarthy called "the default mode dominating mainstream fiction and most culture in general: this kind of sentimental humanism" that wallows in "a certain set of assumptions, certain models of subjectivity – for example, the contemporary cult of the individual, the absolute authentic self who is measured through his or her absolutely authentic feeling."

(What I want in fiction: To push against those assumptions. To seek unusual forms of literary catharsis, or to abjure catharsis altogether. To stay surprising. To disturb, but not exploitatively, not in a way that produces easy emotion or predictable response — to write in a way that frustrates prediction, that lingers because it scratches you. And yet is this any different from those statements by Dickinson and Kafka that get repeated ad nauseam these days among the bookish? Dickinson: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." Kafka: "A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us." We put these on bookmarks and refrigerator magnets, we proclaim them to students, but I am skeptical that most people actually agree with these statements. If they did, they would read and write differently, and such works as Wallace Shawn's plays would be worshipped among the literati.)

The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs tells a simple story, if it can be said to tell a story at all: a young, white South African man named Patrick Winter had some sort of nervous breakdown during mandatory military service; he travels with his divorced mother to Namibia in late 1989 because his mother is dating a former student of hers, a black man involved in Namibia's independence struggle, which was then culminating in the country's first democratic elections. Patrick's mother and Godfrey, her boyfriend, break up because she's not particularly committed to Namibian independence, and she, Patrick, and a "I'm-not-a-racist!" racist white man they met all travel back to South Africa. The end.

While mostly accurate, such a summary pretty much misses everything that's important about the novel.

For instance, the details of Patrick's breakdown in the military: he wasn't as athletically skilled as some of the other soldiers in his unit, and he formed a friendship with another somewhat awkward guy, Lappies. Eventually, one night they had a sexual encounter with each other, something they never talked about — and then Lappies was killed a month later while out on patrol. Patrick comes undone.

The identity that most clearly defines Patrick is that of white South African man, which in many circumstances is (more than) enough. But one of the smartest moves of the book is to tease us toward a desire to pigeonhole Patrick more fully, and then, once revealing it, to frustrate that desire and illuminate its hollowness. Was Patrick's encounter with Lappies purely a matter of the circumstances — a friendship in a difficult place that, after a particularly stressful bit of warfare, blossoms into something physical — or are Patrick and Lappies gay men? We don't know, and Patrick probably doesn't know. His mother asks him, "Have you ever been in love?" and he replies, "Yes. Once. I think. I'm not sure." His mother says he never told her about it. "I don't think I knew at the time," he says. (The context clearly implies he's talking about Lappies here.) We learn no more about his sexual identity for the rest of the book.

This uncertainty of identity is important for the book's specific context, because one of the things Patrick tries to come to grips with is that some identities are social ones, and their reality is outside his ability to affect them without radical change: identities of skin color, of nationality, of gender, of class adhere to him, regardless of whether he wants them to, and their power is especially determining in South Africa and Namibia at the end of the 1980s.

What we learn in the final chapters of the book is the difficulty of escaping not just a white identity, but racist power. Patrick wants to be like a white political leader Godfrey knew who was murdered, but he knows he doesn't have it in him. He encounters both proud racists and people who are vehemently racist but won't admit it to themselves. He watches his mother spiral from anti-racist political commitment back into the comfort of her racial privilege. The last sentence is: "In front of us, empty and cold, the road travelled on toward home." By that point in the book, it is a sad, even horrifying sentence, for it is a sentence filled with a sense that home is a place of wrongness, but there is no escape from it, no hope, even: its gravity shapes and binds you. And yet there is some hope because Patrick is not his parents (his father is a wealthy capitalist in South Africa). He's not a political activist, he's not anyone who should be held up as a model, but he's not quite as bad as his parents, not quite as stuck, it seems, in acceptance of the power his skin color brings him. What will become of him in the last days of the apartheid era? We don't know, nor does Patrick, nor could Galgut when he wrote the novel (it was first published in 1991) because too much in the world, and especially South Africa, was unknown at the time, and so any clear resolution he gave to it would have rung false. He could have given us the comfort of showing Patrick coming to a political awakening, renouncing his parents, staying behind in Namibia to work with Godfrey. He could have had Patrick find a nice guy to settle down with and overcome his trauma, perhaps even a black guy, showing that unlike his mother, he, the enlightened individual, is capable of creating a good interracial romance. Conversely, Galgut could have given us pure nihilism and had Patrick killed somehow in Namibia, maybe a suicide, maybe killed in a political bombing (mistaken for an activist!). But instead, Galgut made what seems to me the right choice, the most resonant choice, to let the book exist with a kind of possibility, even if a pessimistic one. It's not a comforting ending, it's not consoling, but it's also not hopeless, and it lingers, because it forces us to think about what will become of Patrick, and why. We are disturbed, left to our own intense tumult, disorder, chaos.

The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs uses the first-person point of view to move the reader beyond an affirmation of uncomplicated individualism. Galgut could have written a book with multiple viewpoints, allowing us to see the likely very different perceptions of Patrick's mother, of Godfrey, of Dirk Blaauw (the racist who doesn't think he's a racist). That sort of copious social realism has its place, but it is not necessary here, because we can guess it all. Patrick is an observer in most of this story, and every encounter is rich with history behind it. Details are telling. Patrick's mother shows him a little glass bottle she bought in town, but Patrick knows it came from a German shop that also displayed items with swastikas on them. It's a tiny detail, and yet suddenly we know what is happening to Patrick's mother: from someone who said she was committed to anti-racist politics, she has become someone who can buy a trinket at a shop that also sells Nazi kitsch. It was a shocking moment for me, and it made me realize I had held out hope for his mother, hope that for all her messiness and confusion that she would end up okay. We don't need the complex armature of the social novel here. (Which is not to denigrate the 19th century social novel. In the hands of its greatest practitioners — Balzac, Flaubert, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, a few others — it could be a remarkably diverse, radical form.) Galgut can unsettle readers' assumptions and desires through the intensity of the book's focus and the power that gives to each sentence and each narrative gesture.

Galgut's prose serves his purposes well: it's bare, efficient, even cold — qualities that not only vividly convey Patrick's sense of disassociation from the world, but also guard against hyperbole and sentimentalism. The danger of such a style is that it can turn into the opposite of sentimentalism, earnest frigidity, but it doesn't feel to me that it does so. Instead, the words and sentences leave room for our own response, our own flows of emotion, whatever those flows may be.

I've been reading Steven Shaviro's new book, The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism, and I was especially taken with this passage (if you want the context, the chapter it's from originally appeared as the article "Self-Enjoyment and Concern: On Whitehead and Levinas"):
A philosophy of processes and events explores manners of being rather than states of being, "modes of thought" rather than any supposed essence of thought, and contingent interactions rather than unchanging substances. It focuses, you might say, on adverbs instead of nouns. It is as concerned with the way that one says things as it is with the ostensible content of what is said. Even if the facts, or data, have not themselves changed, the manner in which we entertain those facts or data may well change... (p. 18)
Shaviro goes on to explore these ideas within philosophical contexts, but I think there's something to them for fiction, too, in what such ideas suggest about fictive consciousness, identity, and subjectivity. If we want to overcome the banalities inherent in the usual forms of literary catharsis, the default mode of sentimental humanism, etc., then perhaps we need a fiction of processes, modes of thought, and contingent interactions. That's what it seems to me Galgut gives us with The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs, a novel in which perceptions are in process up to the final sentence, and which, when its last page is turned, leaves readers to their own modes of thought — modes of thought that are themselves processes, and which now become processes inflected by interaction with the novel. Kafka's axe chops the frozen sea within us, but it isn't "real" ice that it is chopping, merely our perception of frozenness. The sea was never frozen; it was what it always was, despite our failed perception: in flux, like Heraclitus's river, on the banks of which stands a sign reading: Watch your step!