The worst kind of censorship

It seems strange, in this age of Kindles and smart phones, to attend an event as retro, and as quaint, as a book launch. An unfortunate side-effect of the growing trend of digitised content is that the author has been banished to the margins of his or her own e-text.

Thus it was a great pleasure for me to see a real live author in person recently, which helped to dispel the Pynchonesque conspiracy theory that all authors have been replaced by computers. Added to the pleasure was the fact that the author in question was the feisty, outspoken and thoroughly delightful Dr Mamphela Ramphele – one cannot imagine her sassy vivacity being replicated by a computer. At least not soon. By which time nobody will be reading anymore anyway.

The venue was Exclusive Books at Hyde Park. Well, the entrance to the bookshop. A makeshift stage was hastily erected to give the short Dr Ramphele some bearing over the looming crowd, which was squashed into the entrance. Every now and again someone would break the laser beam of the alarm system, and elicit both a high-pitched beep from the alarm and a laser-like scowl from one of the attendants.

A packed restaurant nearby made it almost impossible for the dimunitive Dr Ramphele to be heard over the hubhub of dinner chatter, which meant she was soon declaiming into the microphone as if she was at a political rally. And, yes, the feisty founder of Agang SA was soon saying the sorts of things that you just do not hear in polite society anymore. This generated a nervous frisson in the well-dressed and comfortably-heeled crowd, as if they were expecting the Thought Police to pop around the corner at any second and confiscate their book purchases.

This is rather sad. The worst kind of censorship is self-censorship. If we are constantly policing our thoughts and utterances in order to be in tune with the dominant discourse – well, or to appear to be in tune with – for fear of repercussions attendant on our minority, and ex-exploiter class status, then the state does not ever have to deploy its evil apparatus, for it has already, and always, won.

Publisher Tafelberg pulled out all the stops at the event, which translated into a steady flow of wine to keep the crowd in a good mood and more likely to buy a book at the end. During the book-signing afterwards, Dr Ramphele made a point of talking briefly to each and every person who approached her, but not to the point of holding up the queue and making people feel restless. A consummate people’s person, and one who knows how to work a crowd.

So, one day if Dr Ramphele perhaps becomes president of our beautifuly country, all the people who were there at that event are likely to dig out their battered signed copies, or search through the picture libraries on their smart phones, in order to tell their children or grandchildren: this is how history happens, quietly in the wings.

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Outpost

Adam Baker’s Pitch-black zombie-apocalypse novel Outpost is simultaneously grim and beautiful. The setting, the spooky Kasker Rampart oil-rig platform, is inspired. The book begins with the main character, Reverend Jane, contemplating suicide by jumping to her death from the rig. She cannot do it; thus begins a personal odyssey that takes her to the very end of the world.

Baker’s clipped, matter-of-fact writing style takes getting used to, but it also makes for a fast and intense read. Outpost is a masterclass in how to control suspense and narrative tension. The extended section told from the POV of Elizabeth Rye as she transforms into one of the zombie-like creatures is powerful and disturbing.

Baker strikes just the right note of attraction and revulsion. The violence is in-your-face, but never gratuitous; the characters are believable and individualistic. We also never learn precisely what has happened; we are in the same boat (well, on the same oil rig) as the characters, struggling to make sense of the situation, and how to adapt or die. Or be eaten.

Adam Baker has the habit of running quotes from different characters together in a single para, which is disconcerting at first. This has a slow build-up, where we find out about life aboard the oil rig, and the different people and the social ecology. Then they get a distress signal, and the rescue mission that sets out also stumbles across a crashed Soyuz space capsule: in which the astronaut, when they open it, is not quite dead…

I was wondering if Baker could sustain the entire story in a single setting. He does eventually move off the oil rig, to an abandoned cruise ship … but the heart of the story returns to the original setting in quite an ingenious fashion. The ending is exceptionally bleak (but loses some of its impact, as I know of at least two sequels).

Pixels and paranoia

It took me ages to finish Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon. It starts off strongly, then seems to get mired down in the minutiae of a byzantine plot that just made my eyes glaze over every time I began reading again.

I had various reservations about this: firstly, Maxine is a troublesome heroine. A mother of two teenage boys just doesn’t go around packing a couple of firearms and doing weird things like engaging in foot sex.

A lot has been made of the fact that this is Pynchon’s big 9/11 novel, but the actual events of that fateful day in 2001 are rather tangential to the book and its plot. Of much more interest are the repercussions and refractions of that event.

This is, by and large, a weird kind of swansong for the internet, which Pynchon seems to believe is the ultimate iteration of consumer capitalism, likely to swallow up the entire world in a blaze of pixels, like a collapsing black hole. (His discussions of the Deep Web sound like William Gibson on drugs).

Pynchon’s attitude to the internet is wildly contradictory: there is a lot of nostalgic whimsy about it being the last true electronic frontier, and then there is the notion of it as being diabolical, born from the fevered brains of defense people caught in the clutches of the Cold War.

The New York in this novel is a strange combination of Woody Allen charm and Raymond Chandler noir. Well, the whole darn book is strange … it delights in tripping up the reader at every opportunity. As well-versed in narrative duplicity as we think we may be, Pynchon is a master of genre tropes and how to subvert them.

The period detail in this is quite astonishing, while the writing is some of Pynchon’s most relaxed and funny ever (some of the jokes are groan-inducingly bad). I would go so far as to say this is a perfect introduction for a new reader.

There is just something about the book that left me cold. I didn’t feel an emotional connection with the characters, and a lot of it seemed like set-dressing … but for what ultimate end, who knows. And there’s no real ending either, it just kind of peters out.