Not infrequently I think of the job of writing fiction as picking at things that make us uncomfortable. This means novels, in particular, have changed a good bit in their function over the centuries. Once upon a time novels confirmed the social order--think of Jane Austen. Now we have writers like Nadine Gordimer who was born into the white discomfort of black South Africa, and she manages to write plausible, discomfiting stories that make us dissatisfied, appalled, sympathetic, and even, occasionally, energetic.
In the case of The Pickup Gordimer assigns herself a task that at first I found a kind of fairy tale, not every credible.
Reaching beyond South Africa, she places a man from the Arab world in South Africa, has a white South African rich girl take a shine to him, and then, in the first part of the novel, traces his descent into deportation--for he has come to South Africa, as he has gone elsewhere, illegally. And the authorities have caught up to him, and this time he can’t fight it, he has to leave.
Okay, but it’s challenging to believe in Julie’s love for Abdu. She is recognizable, a young p.r. professional who hangs out in cafes. He is intentionally vague, doesn’t want to be seen. What country does he come from? We’re not told. Where else has he been? Not told. Is there more here than Julie’s social rebellion and his fugitive’s allure?
The novel’s first 75 pages tumble along from past tense to present tense, first person to third, and are short on quotation marks, distinguishing who’s talking or thinking.
Sort of thin.
Where does this guy come from?
Well, Julie decides she’s going back there with him. What do you think of that?
It’s hard to know, but it happens. He’s deported and she goes right along with him.
My guess is that they go to Yemen. I could be wrong, and I’m not sure exactly how important it is that I’m right, but I find, as I read, that I like thinking, “They’re in Yemen. They’re in his home village outside the capital, on the fringes of the desert, in a ghastly place.”
Turns out his name isn’t Abdu, it’s Ibrahim, he has a family that has seen him deported back home before but never in the company of a white female non-Muslim.
This is where the novel becomes interesting. It doesn’t take a turn toward Ibrahim having been some kind of failed sleeper in an al-Qaeda cell. It focuses on him expending all of his energy trying to get a visa to some other country that might give him a chance in life. And it focuses, more importantly, on the crushing process of Julie learning how to be a woman in the cramped difficult confines of Ibrahim’s family’s house--and life.
I find myself highly skeptical. Experiences like this really don’t work very well. They turn out as Ibrahim constantly fears: she’ll decide to call Daddy and get a ticket back to South Africa. But Gordimer keeps pounding at the situation into which Julie becomes more and more embedded, finding a meaning in certain relations, times of day, beliefs, methods of preparing food that she never found in the emerald belt of South African suburbs where she was raised.
The territory we’re in is Paul Bowles’s territory, but that’s just one take on it. It’s also Gordimer’s. She’s got the right feeling for the desert, the trash, the dust, the limited options, the minor flashes of tackiness, the turbulent emotions within Ibrahim’s family, and Julie’s gradual realization that she has built a life for herself there.
I’m not going to take this description of the book to its narrative end. That would spoil it for you. I want to go back to where I started: the fiction writer today is bearing a burden that a lot of journalists, politicians, health workers, business people and scientists are bearing: how to bring the First and Third Worlds, the Christian and Islamic worlds in particular, closer together.
This isn’t Jane Austen, who is wonderful in her way. This is a writer of relentless intelligence and aesthetic vision.
One can “buy” a percentage of the ending in terms of believability and yet value this book; you don’t have to take it 100%; it could be less; would still be worth the time to read it.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund