Mul­grew lets his imag­i­na­tion breathe

In his new short story col­lec­tion, the Capeto­nian au­thor nails down the white South African zeit­geist

Mail & Guardian - - Reviews - Rus­sell Grant

‘Kip closed his eyes, seek­ing blank­ness for the small­est mo­ment; but in the ab­sence of light came a wave of sound, tin­ni­tus fill­ing his skull, roar­ing sea-foam and scum. The world, too full of colour, too pos­si­ble.”

Dur­ban-born Capeto­nian Nick Mul­grew’s lat­est col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, The First Law of Sad­ness, is a book full of the pos­si­ble be­com­ing prob­a­ble, of the mun­dane made mas­sive, of leviathans glimpsed out of the cor­ner of an eye.

The quoted ex­cerpt is from Jumper, a story that dis­tils the typ­i­cally South African psy­cho­log­i­cal trait of view­ing im­pend­ing doom with both a cold sense of de­tach­ment and a pan­icked and un­der-re­hearsed dread. The story is filled with the sense of be­ing cer­tain of calamity, while meet­ing it with farce; never know­ing ex­actly which bomb will go off.

The lead char­ac­ter, Kip, finds him­self in the throng of a pa­rade for our vic­to­ri­ous Spring­boks, and un­wit­tingly be­comes a wit­ness to a man stand­ing on a ledge out­side of his apart­ment, threat­en­ing to jump.

In the end (spoiler alert), the man does jump, but this is not a sui­cide. The man is a base-jumper, jump­ing as part of the cel­e­bra­tion, the whole spec­ta­cle ap­par­ently staged.

In Jumper, Mul­grew manages to cap­ture sev­eral as­pects of white South African men­tal­ity in just a few short pages: the ridicu­lous use of vi­o­lence and spec­ta­cle as en­ter­tain­ment, the im­po­tent voices im­plor­ing him not to jump, the ca­sual use of the word “bru”, and the even­tual re­lief and nor­mal­i­sa­tion of the spec­ta­cle as the show achieves its con­clu­sion. Jumper muses on a twisted joke em­braced by the pub­lic for the sim­ple fact that it is not true.

It is this cap­tur­ing of a white South African zeit­geist that Mul­grew does so mas­ter­fully. Per­haps this is what he set out to do with his first col­lec­tion, Sta­tions, an ac­com­plished book that at times felt throt­tled by the overtly po­lit­i­cal. In his new­est col­lec­tion, how­ever, his sto­ries are given space to breathe. Here, Mul­grew’s scope of imag­i­na­tion is im­mense and, although some may find his po­si­tion­al­ity prob­lem­atic, his clear depth of re­search and sen­si­tiv­ity lends his sto­ries cre­dence and his char­ac­ters hu­man­ity, while pro­vid­ing us with some­thing of a road map to em­pa­thy.

Another of Mul­grew’s achieve­ments is the pro­tean abil­ity of his voice and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with modes of sto­ry­telling. One of the most tragic sto­ries in the col­lec­tion, For Sale: Set of Sec­ond Hand Mags for Toy­ota Corolla (mint con­di­tion), Bar­gain, is told through an ad placed on­line. One can­not help but be re­minded of the six-word, flash-fic­tion story For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn, of­ten at­trib­uted to Hem­ing­way.

This oblique form is an as­pect that runs through­out Mul­grew’s fic­tion, with some of the most telling and poignant parts pre­sented as asides or muf­fled voices over­heard. For in­stance, in one of the col­lec­tion’s sto­ries, the spec­tre of white, male vi­o­lence shows it­self, as it so of­ten does in re­al­ity, as a flip­pant re­mark. In The Tur­tle-Keeper, a white man, af­ter hear­ing that in­fant tur­tles are of­ten dug up on the beach for muti, responds: “Typ­i­cal, hey. Muti.” This three-worded dis­missal is a pinch that is eas­ily recog­nised, hold­ing far more weight than the small space it takes up on the page.

Mul­grew does well not to cen­tre white priv­i­lege, choos­ing in­stead to have it fea­ture as an om­nipresent force, lurk­ing men­ac­ingly in the cor­ner, wield­ing its power but never tak­ing cen­tre-stage. It is this ob­scur­ing of power that gives his sto­ries their force, al­low­ing them to flour­ish with pos­si­bil­ity.

The sense of the pos­si­ble be­com­ing prob­a­ble is ev­ery­where in The First Law of Sad­ness; from a for­eign med­i­cal student land­ing up with a dead goat in the boot of his car at the home of an un­known in­ter­locu­tor to a woman skin­care ther­a­pist who slowly turns into a tor­turer, the steps are all in­cre­men­tal, mun­dane even. The con­se­quences, how­ever, are dras­tic (aside from a cer­tain air­plane crash in Dur­ban in the fi­nal story, which would be a deus ex machina had it not ac­tu­ally hap­pened in re­al­ity).

This col­lec­tion is cer­tainly a mat­u­ra­tion from what was al­ready a strong de­but, of­fer­ing us an idea of what is pos­si­ble for writ­ers writ­ing out­side of their own lived ex­pe­ri­ence. Through Mul­grew’s lens, we are opened up to a world that, like our Kip, be­comes al­most “too full of colour, too pos­si­ble”.

Economies of words: Nick Mul­grew’s fic­tion has be­come more as­sured, as he ex­per­i­ments with modes of sto­ry­telling and writes out­side his own lived ex­pe­ri­ence

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