Monday, October 19, 2015

The Restless Supermarket

It is somewhat rare to encounter a book where the title just does not give you any indication of what is actually inside.  Ivan Vladislavić's The Restless Supermarket is a consummate case of a novel just being really hard to pin down (with the title not helping at all).  David Foster Wallace's The Broom of the System is another.

Surprisingly, it has gotten relatively easy to get Vladislavić's books in North America.  It used to be quite difficult, and I actually ordered this one and a few others from a bookseller in South Africa when I was researching Johannesburg and its suburbs.  (This actually led to 2 or 3 conference papers and a chapter published in Suburbanization in Global Society, so I suppose it was all worth it.)  I will say that I like the original cover (below) a lot more than the reissued version, but otherwise I would certainly encourage people to get the newer, more convenient edition.

Should I be chagrined that I had ample opportunity to scoop all these reviews that only came out in 2014 in conjunction with the reissue (and its wider availability)?  Perhaps, but I really only started blogging seriously in 2012.  In fact, I probably only got the book in 2009, and, while I had read a few of Vladislavic's earlier books such as his short story collections and The Folly, I wasn't able to get a copy of this one in time during the period when I was reading quite a few books set in Johannesburg and its suburbs (particularly Sophiatown/Triomf and Hillbrow).  Given that The Restless Supermarket is set in Hillbrow, I almost certainly would have read it to further buttress the arguments put forth in those papers.  After the chapter was published, I moved on to other things and didn't actually read this novel until last June.

I'm having trouble keeping this post under control, since there are a few tangents I want to go off on.

I guess I will first just list the main books by this still fairly obscure writer:

R Missing Persons (1989)
R The Folly (1993)
R Propaganda by Monuments (1996)
R The Restless Supermarket (2001)
R The Exploded View (2004)
O Portrait with Keys (2006)
  Double Negative (2011)
R The Loss Library (2012)
R A Labour of Moles (2012)
R 101 Detectives (2015)

I believe everything written before 2010 has either been republished (the two short story collections Missing Persons and Propaganda by Monuments were collected as Flashback Hotel) or is still in print, which is actually quite impressive.  I'm quite surprised that the Toronto Public Library has so many, including all the books published or republished since 2010.  (I actually paused writing to go put a couple on hold.)  Vladislavić is quite well-known for engaging/indulging in post-modern writing that calls attention to its own artifice, which is fine in small doses (the short pieces in The Loss Library for example or the "Deleted Scenes" he put at the end of 101 Detectives) but gets kind of wearying over long stretches (say David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, which I kind of doubt I will ever tackle).  While the tone is quite different, I do see Vladislavić as a bit of a kindred spirit to Robert Walser.  The other thing that Vladislavić is well-known for is merging pictures and writing and sometimes writing fictions about the images (or even the artist!), which he did in Double Negative, as well as part of 101 Detectives.  This playfulness and blurring of art and narrative reminds me a bit of Audrey Niffenegger, when she is in art student mode and not trying to write thrillers.

While I found something of interest in all of his books I have read to date, my favourites were Propaganda by Monuments and The Restless Supermarket.  The reviews I saw of The Restless Supermarket seem uniformly positive.  I'll link to a few, though warn you that there might be some spoilers embedded within: here and here and here.

Now I'll circle back to some history regarding Hillbrow.  It's actually unclear whether Hillbrow was technically a suburb or simply a very well-defined district within Johannesburg, since it was described variously, even in government publications.  I usually went with the second definition.  Today, this is a moot point, as the boundaries of Johannesburg expanded dramatically in 2002 with all the neighbouring suburbs becoming part of the central city.

Curiously, Hillbrow had quite a number of multi-story residential units, as well as Hillbrow Tower, a radio tower that is still one of the tallest structures in all of Johannesburg, and indeed all of Africa.

While at one point, Hillbrow was quite a chic place to live, in the mid to late 80s, many whites had started moving to the northern suburbs such as Sandton and Randburg, leaving landlords desperate to fill their buildings.  They turned Hillbrow into one of the first "grey areas" where Asian and coloured, i.e. mixed race, tenants were able to live (illegally) in areas reserved for whites.  (At this point, they still were not renting to Blacks, as that would have been too much for the authorities.)  Some scholars actually contend that the growth of these grey areas made evident the internal contradictions of Apartheid and somewhat accelerated the end of Apartheid in South Africa.

What is not contested is that after the ANC came to power, whites fled Hillbrow and migrated north.  This was repeated in most neighbourhoods in Johannesburg, though it wasn't quite as extreme as it was in Hillbrow.  Many of these multi-story buildings became the equivalent of run-down public housing projects, as seen in so many of America's inner cities.  Maintenance was deferred, and the elevators broke down.  Dealing with drugs and crime, as well as the spectre of AIDS, become a recurring theme in fiction about Hillbrow, such as Phaswane Mpe's Welcome to Our Hillbrow and Kgebetli Moele's Room 207.

Presumably some parts of Hillbrow are better/safer than others, and Aubrey Tearle, the protagonist of The Restless Supermarket, seems to be living in a relatively stable area, though becoming the victim of violent crime is always a looming possibility.  While in some ways, Tearle is a bit of an outsider, observing from a somewhat elevated, remote position (despite his quite humble economic status as a pensioner/retiree), at heart he is a racist, openly longing for the certainties and relative security of the Apartheid era.  It would be one thing if he simply wanted to return to the time when the streets were clean and there was less crime, but no, he clearly wishes to return to a whites-only policy at Café Europa, the restaurant he frequents on a near daily basis, and he has a few unpleasant things to say about Madiba (Nelson Mandela).  This last is a bit too much even for his friends at the restaurant, and they warn him to keep himself in check.

In the early goings of the novel, I had hoped that Tearle would be a bit like Charles Reznikoff, a poet who observed the racial turmoil of New York in the 1960s and 70s and wrote spare, powerful poems about the city (not all were focused on race).  However, Reznikoff wrote from the position of being Jewish, another minority in America, though certainly one more privileged than Blacks or Puerto Ricans.  So he was far more sensitive to their struggles, and wasn't trying to keep them "in their place," which is Tearle's main goal.  Actually, the opening scene is quite strange with Tearle coming across a drunken man trying to bugger the pink plastic elephant, which is like a mascot for the Jumbo Liquor Store.  His slightly more sober companion tries to stop him, and, in the confusion, another wino comes over to mount the elephant.  One of the elephant's ears breaks off and the three end up sprawled on the sidewalk.  Later on, Tearle recovers this ear and returns it to the store.  So this sets up expectations of the novel being largely about strange goings on in Hillbrow, so not so different from Welcome to Our Hillbrow, though observed through the unsympathetic eyes of a white man.  However, this novel ends up being far different from that.  It is a much more interior novel with a narrator who is largely stuck in the past.  But the author takes many opportunities to undercut his main character, most notably in the playfulness of the language.

I'm not sure it is really possible to SPOIL the plot of this novel, but just in case, I will soon be talking about the events towards the end of the book, so

SPOILER alert...

Through various hints, Vladislavić makes it clear that he does not agree with his main character or share his racist views.  He is writing him more as an Archie Bunker kind of character, though it is a bit unusual that Tearle is one of the better educated characters in the novel, but is definitely more racist than many of the other patrons of Café Europa, most of whom he looks down upon at least a little bit.  I am not entirely sure why Tearle is so explicitly racist, other than he was a proofreader and is obsessed with order, and the fact that one could explicitly carve up a city and place some races in some districts and others in other areas must have been incredibly appealing.  There is actually an extended metafictional section at the heart of The Restless Supermarket ("The Proofreader's Derby") where the plot is such that proofreaders and editors are the only people who can reorder the city and put things to right once various landmarks start moving around.  In fact, the first sign of the instability of the city is when a supermarket goes missing, which explains the title in a very roundabout way.  Actually, the cover is also quite apropos, since it shows a discarded phone book, and for most of his career, Tearle was a proofreader of phone books (who knew there was such a position?) though he longed to be a proofreader of dictionaries.

Given his general fastidiousness and somewhat uptight nature, it sounds like he would be an ideal volunteer Wikipedia editor.  He even writes letters to the editor all the time, so he sounds like he would fit right in with today's on-line culture, so filled with pedants and cranks.  While Tearle was somewhat frustrated at work as well as romantically (like quite a few of Machado de Assis's characters), his vision seems so crabbed.  All he really wanted was to move up to dictionaries...  It reminds me quite a bit of the Monty Python Vocational Guidance Counsellor sketch where Michael Palin starts off wanted to be a lion tamer, then a banker and then finally settles on remaining a chartered accountant.  There's a strong likelihood had that Tearle would still have been at least somewhat racist even had he started an autumnal romance with one of the women that joined them at Table 2 at the Café Europa.

In the extended first section of the novel, Tearle keeps flipping back and forth from the "degraded present" to an earlier era where there were four core friends at Table 2 (Tearle, Spilikin (another crossword puzzle addict) and two women: Merle and Mevrouw, a piano player employed by the Café Europa) and the Café Europa was still a classy joint with a piano player and not the jukebox that eventually replaced Mevrouw.  The group has scattered with only Tearle still a frequent visitor to the café, more than a little disgruntled at his new companion Wessels, who is a pun-lover (horror of horrors).  In the past, Tearle ended up confessing his desire to put together a text he calls The Proofreader's Derby, which would be composed of all kinds of errors drawn from newspapers and books where there is a misspelling that changes the sense of the text but slips through since the incorrect word is still spelled correctly.  Spilikin basically mocks him a bit for this, and this is one of several events that starts splintering the group.

The plot, such as it is, is that Tearle finds out that the new owner of the Café Europa is going to close it down and remake it into something else, probably a bar.  So Wessels decides to throw a huge bash and invite back all of the old crowd, and Tearle mostly goes along for the ride.  However, he decides that now he is retired, he will finally finish The Proofreader's Derby.

The entire text of this Proofreader's Derby is the second section, and it is quite odd.  Basically it is the story of how proofreaders and editors save the city, as I mentioned above.  (In a bit of extra meta-textuality, the powers that be actually set up a contest for readers to copyedit this text when The Restless Supermarket was reissued.)

The final section of the novel goes into the party and how everything goes awry.  I'm not sure it was directly inspired by the crazy nightclub scene towards the end of Tati's Playtime, but it has that same sort of manic energy, but with a bit more edge.  Tearle really does not like interacting with all the Black customers at the party and inadvertently gets into a scuffle with a few of them at the pool table.

At some point or other, one of the friends at his table has a serious talk with Tearle and basically says that they only tolerated him and his racist views but they never shared them.  In fact, they were never nearly as close friends as he was remembering. They basically indicate he has to find a way to open up to the new South Africa or he will never survive.  I'm actually having a bit of trouble remembering the exact sequence of events, but I think Tearle somehow ends up getting brown make-up on his face, goes outside (possibly a bit buzzed from more alcohol than he is used to), gets mugged and then is rescued by one of the younger Black women that had started hanging out at the Café Europa.  But I have probably scrambled this a bit.  Vladislavić has so much going on in this part of the book that I was a bit overwhelmed.  This final turn reminds me of Almodóvar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, where after all this manic energy leads to one character having a bit of a breakthrough and may become a more agreeable person after all is said and done.  I was also strongly reminded of Robert Coover's Pinocchio in Venice, where a respected professor loses his uptight identity as the long, long night goes on.

I'm not sure if I've made the novel sound appealing or appalling, given that it is about a fairly racist former proofreader shuffling about Johannesburg wishing for a return of the Apartheid era.  But this is definitely one of these novels where the plot is secondary (and you aren't expected to root for the protagonist).  Above all this is a novel about language.  While the wordplay never quite rises to say Nabokov's level, it is inventive throughout.  However, be warned that if you can't stand puns, this is probably a book to avoid -- better just leave it covered up...

Edit (10/25): I just had a chance to read The Loss Library, which basically completes my run through Vladislavić's work, though I will get to Portrait with Keys reasonably soon and some day I will most likely read Double Negative.  I added quite a bit of text, but it really merits a separate post.

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