By Nadine Gordimer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 270 pp., $24
The scene is a city in modern South Africa, but it could be any large city anywhere -- a narrow street choked with traffic but traffic brought to a standstill when a car battery dies. The driver of the car, a young woman, throws up her hands before the faces cursing her, her palms open in a gesture of helplessness. She gets out of her car prepared to face faces that could kill. An unemployed man arrives, in this case a black man used to earning spare change directing drivers into freed parking spaces, and he directs the young woman back behind the wheel. With help he pushes her car out of traffic. A street vendor enthroned on a fruit-box and shawled in a towel observes the same scene then makes some remark to the man in a native language the young woman doesn't understand. End of scene, as Nadine Gordimer herself once witnessed it and as Gordimer relates it as introduction to her new novel, The Pickup. But who the young woman is and what she means by that gesture of surrender Gordimer has had to invent. Here's the back-story, the fictional follow-up to each and all of the above:
The woman is 29, white, and named Julie Summers. She lives in Johannesburg, works in PR. Her investment-banker father is loaded and lives in a gated suburb; her mother's just as rich and lives with a "casino king" in California. Julie's on uneven terms with both of them but knows she could be living the high life too. Instead she's chosen to strike out on her own and make a home in what was once a servant's cottage, the mess she makes of it nonetheless a sure sign of privilege. She's happy, she thinks. She's at home in her neighborhood of "aging Hippies and Leftist Jews," a neighborhood that more resembles an Oriental bazaar. She likes her crowd (a self-professed poet, a self-styled philosopher, etc.) and their watering hole, the El-Ay (as in L.A.) Cafe. From there Julie & Co. talk politics, drink coffee, drink wine, smoke dope, find the next "underground" dance club, until the next day they re-form at the El-Ay, sure of themselves, less sure of their place in the world.
Julie "goes" for chance encounters, and she goes instantly for a "grease-monkey" named Abdu, who checks out her car, then finds her a new, used one. And Abdu -- 28, more brown than black, from some country Julie has "barely heard of," one "where you can't tell religion apart from politics" -- goes instantly for her and for this not entirely unhidden reason: Abdu has outstayed his visa and risks criminal charges if he doesn't leave South Africa soon. Julie's father won't help; Julie's kind uncle can't either. Even a high-ranking (black) lawyer (and family friend) can't see the sense in appealing Abdu's case. The couple marry and still it does Abdu's chances no good (for the time being), so they land in Abdu's desert country -- Julie (in love) in parts unknown; Abdu (less in love?) to resume his family place and reassume his family name, Ibrahim ibn Musa.
To Julie's surprise, the desert suits her, despite the hard landscape. Ibrahim's family suits her too, despite the limits put on women and a mother-in-law enthroned, enrobed on a sofa and speaking a native language Julie's at pains to understand. Ibrahim, back being a mechanic in his uncle's shop, can do nothing but work -- toward what? Anything, anywhere that is not this village, which to him is nowhere. Word has it his crowd talk politics in the name of Islam. The truth is: Ibrahim talks of "making it" -- in Chicago, in Detroit, in California maybe, and that's where he intends to wind up, courtesy his faith in capitalism, courtesy his vehicle, Julie. No need to go into where this scene's heading.
A few words, though, on Gordimer's manner of telling it, which is, on the one hand, suggestive of all kinds of possibilities but possibilities tied to a few themes and variations -- one root idea: "possession"; wordplay: on the order of palm trees and greasy palms; the color green and "green," as in cash money -- and on the other hand, a style that is idiosyncratic to the point of irritation: elliptical, shorthand storytelling that begs for words gone deliberately missing and that depends on subordinate clauses strung to the max. As in this and chosen at random: "He gets up to greet her and takes a chair nearer her she indicates with a half-tilt of a hand from her lap." Sorry, 270 pages of like sentences and the rare, simple, declarative one comes as an absolute oasis.
Still, Nadine Gordimer has won a Nobel Prize, which must mean she knows what she's driving at, and in The Pickup it's prose-poetry. Her subject: of vital importance today. Why poetry that keeps us at such arm's length it'll take another committee to decide.