December 19, 2013
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Ivan Vladislavic's Double Negative is a vivid and unique portrait of post-Apartheid Johannesburg.
Teju Coile wrote of the book:
"His prose is vibrant: it is alert to vibrations, movement and feints, as though it were fitted with a secret accelerometer.'"
When Neville Lister, the narrator of my novel Double Negative, leaves Johannesburg in 1983 and goes to live in London, he feels as if he's dropped the thread of his own story. He's never quite able to pick it up again.
Neville's friend Benjy, who has a small part in the book, stays on in Joburg. By 1986, he's working for an education NGO and making half a living. He has a flat in Yeoville and a VW Beetle. The tape deck in the Beetle is like an immobilizer: the car won't move until you've pressed the play button. He has hundreds of tapes, constantly shuffled between the flat and the car in plastic cases that hold twenty. If I could open one of them, this is what I might find.
Most of the tapes are home recordings rather than legal purchases. Benjy copies things off vinyl, often tapes over old cassettes or exchanges them with friends. The records carry this notice: 'Unauthorized duplication is a violation of applicable laws.' Ja, ja. You can fit most albums on one side of a TDK 90, but sometimes you lose the last track or two. A few of his favourite albums have a song on them he's never heard.
Benjy's collection grows less by choice than chance encounter and he doesn't think much about how it's ordered. Some of the pairings on a single cassette are inspired. This one has Thriller on one side and Boogie Woogie Party on the other: Michael Jackson doing 'Billie Jean' and Meade Lux Lewis doing 'Rising Tide Blues'.
This is local stuff: the Kalahari Surfers and Jennifer Ferguson. There's only one surfer actually – it's Warrick Sony. His shrewd cut-ups of the South African soundscape, full of political speeches, documentary scraps and liturgical cadences, are some of the sharpest satires around ('Surfer', 'Prayer for Civilization', 'Crossed Cheques'). There's only one Jennifer Ferguson too, resonant with threat and anxiety, humming like a glass about to shatter. Benjy is trying to find his way from Ferguson's 'Suburban Hum' to Sony's 'Don't Dance' without falling on his face.
And here we have Dave van Ronk and the Roches. There's a residue of sixties folk in Benjy's collection. He's gone off most of it lately, but he loves the way Van Ronk croaks out 'Show me the way to the next whisky bar' as if he's just rolled out of the last one. A friend gave Benjy this tape and he has no idea who the Roches are. Today he would type the name into a search engine. In 1986, he plays the tape until he knows the songs by heart ('Mr Sellack', 'Runs in the Family', 'The Married Men') but all he can tell you about the Roches is what they tell him: 'We are Maggie, Terry and Susie' – or Terre and Suzzy, as it turns out.
This is weird. Grace Jones's 'Warm Leatherette', which reeks of petrol fumes and JG Ballard, has been recorded on a Medica Media training tape. It must have been made by one of Benjy's pals at Medical School. On the plastic cover it says 'Private Life', 'The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game', 'Breakdown' – but on the tape itself it says 'The Tonsillectomy Debate', 'Treatments for Sickle Cell Disease' and 'The Chronopathology of the Placenta'.
Talking of which, he's got Jane Fonda's Workout Record in here, a legal purchase from CBS. It says 'record' even though it's a tape because they reused the artwork from the sleeve, and a red banner across one corner promises that it's 'new and improved'. If you asked Benjy, he'd say an old girlfriend left it behind, but that doesn't stop him from tapping his foot aerobically to 'Wanna Be Startin' Somethin''.
It's party time in Joburg. PW Botha has imposed a state of emergency, the police are killing the comrades, the comrades are killing the sell-outs, and often it feels as if the place is going up in smoke. Despite all this, or because of it, people are partying as if there's no tomorrow. A visiting London journalist, a colleague of Gerald Brookes who appears in Double Negative, tells Benjy he's never seen so much drinking in his life. Not even in Scotland.
Benjy is a slave to the rhythm like everyone else. On a Friday night, before he hits the King of Clubs downtown, he puts Graham Parker in the tape player and leaps around in his kitchen like a madman. His hangover-deflecting bolognaise is bubbling on the stove and he's waving his wooden spoon. He loves Parker's quieter ballads ('That's What They All Say', 'Turned Up Too Late'), but Friday evening demands 'Howlin' Wind' at full blast.
'Life during Wartime' is about him and his town: 'Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons, Packed up and ready to go … The sound of gunfire, off in the distance, I'm getting used to it now.' The best part is the chorus, which he affirms at the top of his voice even though he's rattling around like a highly strung puppet: 'This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, This ain't no fooling around. No time for dancing, or lovey dovey, I ain't got time for that now.'
When he gets home in the early hours, wasted and glum, he eats what's in the pot and listens to Khaya Mahlangu or Winston Mankunku Ngozi. Yakhal' Inkomo, the 1968 recording by sax legend Mankunku and the Early Mabuza trio, was taped off vinyl from somebody's father's jazz collection. Benjy knows that it means 'the cry of cattle at the slaughter house', because he has a poetry collection with the same title by Mongane Wally Serote, and in the introduction Serote writes about hearing Mankunku play until that bloodstained sound came out of his horn.
This last tape he actually paid for as a gesture of solidarity: FOSATU Worker Choirs, recorded by Lloyd Ross and Brian Tilley. Some of Benjy's friends are more serious about 'worker culture' than he is, but he supports the cause and likes the melodies. These are militant calls for action that move with the plaintive grace of hymns. 'Hlanganani basebenzi nibemunye' … 'Come together workers and be one.' Benjy slots it into the player when he's frying eggs and drinking tomato juice on Sunday afternoon. Brunch, so to speak. Thirty years later, and twenty years into the democratic dispensation, poor South Africans will be singing versions of these songs during service delivery protests. Fortunately Benjy, dozing on the couch with a copy of Illuminations open on his chest, cannot see into the future.
As for Neville Lister, the narrator of Double Negative, he avoids the turbulent final years of apartheid, arriving back in Johannesburg in 1994, after South Africa's first democratic elections and the death of his father. Neville is no dancer: he's 'congenitally out of step,' he says. He drives around the city in his dad's old Merc, trying to put the place together in his head. One day, he tells us, he finds a case of tapes under the passenger seat: the soundtrack of his father's life. He mentions only one track – Acker Bilk's 'Stranger on the Shore' – but it's enough.
Ivan Vladislavic and Double Negative links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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