IT WAS A MAN’S WORLD

Financial Mail - - LIFE INBOX - David Gorin

ý In a co­in­ci­dence of as­so­ci­ated ideas, snip­pets from two po­lit­i­cal and fem­i­nist writers crossed with my read­ing of the new book by SA’S pedi­greed su­per­nat­u­ral/sci-fi/ sus­pense nov­el­ist Lau­ren Beukes, After­land (Umuzi, Pen­guin Ran­dom House).

First a quote from Si­mone de Beau­voir: “Rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the world, like the world it­self, is the work of men.” Then an in­ter­view with Lucy Ell­mann, whose book Mimi ends with a ma­tri­ar­chal call to arms to save the world: “Now that we’re in a cli­mate emer­gency, the closer we can get to zero births, the better.”

In After­land, set in 2023, women have won the gender power strug­gle by de­fault, be­cause al­most the en­tire male pop­u­la­tion has been wiped out by a can­cer-caus­ing virus.

And, match­ing Ell­mann’s wish, there is a “re­pro­hi­bi­tion”. All sur­viv­ing males are quar­an­tined to save them and re­tain hope for hu­man­ity’s fu­ture pro­cre­ation, but un­til a cure or vac­cine is dis­cov­ered, no more chil­dren can be brought into the world.

Ni­cole (Cole) Brady’s nearly 13year-old son, Miles, is one of a tiny num­ber of sur­viv­ing, im­mune males. The fam­ily were vis­it­ing US rel­a­tives when the virus ex­ploded. Her brother-in-law got sick, then her hus­band, then men and boys died en masse, “and then no-one was fly­ing any­where”. Af­ter three years of be­ing held in US fa­cil­i­ties — tests on Miles, then in­vol­un­tary and un­end­ing quar­an­tine — Cole is desperate to re­turn home to Joburg and at­tempt to re­dis­cover some form of new nor­mal. “You can’t imag­ine how much the world can change in six months. You just can’t,” she ag­o­nises.

Be­sides the con­cep­tual premise, small snip­pets are also clair­voy­antly up to date: a shop sign apol­o­gises for be­ing out of hand sani­tiser; Black Lives Mat­ter protest ref­er­ences are sprin­kled in; when a po­lice squadron sur­rounds Cole and Miles, a nearby black fam­ily cower, ex­pect­ing they are be­ing tar­geted.

Read­ing this is sur­real — and all too real. Beukes’s spec­u­la­tive, out­landish vi­sion is pre­science as art, so un­canny that I in­quire whether Beukes ac­tu­ally wrote, fran­ti­cally, at the start of the Covid-19 out­break.

I’m put in my place: she spent five years con­cep­tu­al­is­ing and re­search­ing the ef­fects of a pan­demic. “I fin­ished writ­ing it in March 2019 and then spent an­other six months edit­ing it, but it was done and dusted by Novem­ber 2019,” she says.

Beukes spe­cialises in the whiteknuck­le, the riv­et­ing. She’s prob­a­bly best known for The Shin­ing Girls (2013), a para­nor­mal hor­ror story to ri­val any­thing Stephen King has writ­ten.

After­land is less nerve-shred­ding, but is still a roller­coaster read, al­beit with a sim­ple plot­line. Cole and

Miles es­cape from quar­an­tine, but her son is coveted cargo, so she must shield him from mul­ti­ple an­tag­o­nists.

Con­trary to Ell­mann’s vi­sion, the new ma­tri­archy is much the same as the pre­ced­ing patriarchy: pow­er­hun­gry, con­trol­ling, avari­cious.

Cole shape-shifts Miles’s gender to Mila to hide in plain sight, flee­ing from the gov­ern­ment in­tent on re­cap­tur­ing a male spec­i­men; from the threat of crim­i­nals who would traf­fic him or his sperm; from Cole’s du­plic­i­tous and par­a­sitic sis­ter hell­bent on sell­ing him to an un­der­world as­so­ciate.

Cole must also re­sist the wellmean­ing but tight­en­ing clutches of the flam­boy­ant nuns of the Church of All Sor­rows, who have al­lowed Cole and Mila to travel with them in their pros­e­lytis­ing mis­sions but who Cole in­tu­its will de­ify Miles as a spir­i­tual saviour if they dis­cover his true gender.

And, like all im­pres­sion­able teenagers, a de­gree of pro­tec­tion from self is needed. Partly, Stock­holm syn­drome is suck­ing Miles/mila into the Church of All Sor­rows’ am­bit but badly timed teen spirit is also at play. Cole needs to ur­gently bridge a grow­ing di­vide be­tween mother and early-ado­les­cent son.

Th­ese di­verse threats ag­gre­gate into a race against time to catch a smug­gler’s boat from Mi­ami. As the pur­suers close in, in mind’s eye Cole is Linda Hamil­ton’s kick-ass, heroic mother in The Ter­mi­na­tor — with un­wa­ver­ingly pro­tec­tive in­stincts and un­remit­ting met­tle.

Cole’s and Miles’s/mila’s flight also harkens the wronged but steely, de­ter­mined women in Thelma and Louise, their road trip across Amer­ica set in a time and place of per­va­sive doom and dread, a na­tion gone to seed, still beau­ti­ful and char­ac­ter­ful, but run­down, ghostly, and some­times scary. Again, the way of things now — a di­min­ished and dis­hon­oured Amer­ica.

Thus, After­land is also an obliquely po­lit­i­cal novel, in­te­grat­ing the mor­ti­fy­ing dystopia which we are glimps­ing in how Covid-19 is trig­ger­ing eco­nomic dev­as­ta­tion, emo­tional dis­tanc­ing, and en­croach­ing au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism.

But even in our cur­rent con­text After­land is less about power or the pol­i­tics of a post-apoc­a­lypse; it’s just a damnably pacey thriller, an el­e­men­tal strug­gle be­tween pro­tec­tive, nur­tur­ing moth­er­hood and the baser in­stincts of hu­man na­ture.

What it lacks in plot com­plex­ity it makes up in in­ge­nu­ity, taut lan­guage, cap­ti­vat­ing mood, and en­thralling im­agery. “Doubt is the devil’s crow­bar,” Cole in­tones as she seeks to re­fo­cus and re­set her “sand­pa­pered” nerves.

“It’s not for sissies, tak­ing on the sor­rows of the world.”

This is the not-so-new fem­i­nist zeit­geist. A com­pul­sive, prophetic page-turner, After­land ends with ex­actly what we need now — a faint but boldly fem­i­nist flicker of hope.

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