Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

"In a strange room" by Damon Galgut (Atlantic Books, 2010)

Three related novellas. Here's the start of "The Follower" -

It happens like this. He sets out in the afternoon on the track that has been shown to him and soon he leaves the little town behind. In an hour or so he is among low hills covered by olive trees and grey stones, from which there is a view out over a plain that gradually descends to the sea. He is intensely happy, which is possible for him when he is walking alone.
As the road rises and falls there are moments when he can see far ahead and other moments when he can see nothing at all. He keeps looking out for other people, but the huge landscape seems to be completely deserted. The only sign of human beings is the occasional house, tiny and distant, and the fact of the road itself.

It has the standard life=journey analogies, almost parodically so. The analogies continue - "Too much travelling and placelessness have put him outside everything, so that history happens elsewhere ... The truth is that he is not a traveller by nature, it is a state that has been forced on him by circumstance" (p.15).

The narrator refers to himself both in the 3rd and 1st person. Here's where the narrator (initially 3rd person) meets someone -

When they draw even they stop. The figure is a man about his own age, dressed entirely in black. Black pants and shirt, black boots. Even his rucksack is black. What the first man is wearing I don't know, I forget. (p.3)

Dialogue is without quote-marks and question-marks -

Where have you come from

Mycenae. He points back over his shoulder. And you.

This new companion seems to like him. He goes away, promises to return, and does. He has a different outlook, he's "a man who finds a proper bed unnecessary but for whom a perfectly good map is insufficient" (p.22). The man wants a more detailed map before setting off on a trek. The 2 of them go on a long walk through Africa, much of the time far from anyone else.

There are heavy passages - "On that lonely road they looked like mirror images of each other. Perhaps each of them thought of real communication as unnecessary, words divide by multiplying, what was certain was the oneness underneath the words. But now they refrain from talking because it might reveal to them how dangerously unlike one another they are. An image in a mirror is a reversal, the reflection and the original are joined but might cancel each other out" (p.41). I liked the tone of two people crossing an almost empty landscape, but the shy longing of the narrator becomes predictable.

The 2nd story, "The Lover", also involves travel, mixed 3rd and 1st person, a narrator who fancies another man but is shy of making the first advance, and women who chat up the narrator. This time though the narrator begins by joining a group of travellers. This time it's he who promises to travel across continents to see someone again. "He has always had a dread of crossing borders, he doesn't like to leave what's known and safe for the blank space beyond in which anything can happen. Everything at times of transition takes on a symbolic weight and power. But that too is why he travels" (p.85). Again no sex. The story ends in the death of the fancied one - hints of suicide.

The same but older narrator who takes a female (lesbian/bisexual) psychotic on holiday to India in "The Guardian" ends up helping her recover from a suicide attempt. The pace just after the episode is faster than anywhere else in the book. But once home, out of his sight, she tries again.

Other reviews

  • William Skidelsky (with this new book he has struck out in a new direction and taken his writing to a whole other level. It is a quite astonishing work. ... Every so often the narrative flits to the first person, before returning to the third. ... This device, which is less disruptive than one might imagine, achieves two paradoxical things. ... The first person, then, simultaneously implicates Galgut in what he is describing while reinforcing his distance from it, establishing In a Strange Room' as a work poised between memoir and fiction.)
  • Adam Langer (Perhaps most memorably and effectively, throughout his novel Mr. Galgut frequently shifts back and forth from third person to first, and even upon occasion to second. How quickly, he seems to tell the reader, significant moments become distant memories, how quickly our actions become those of someone we barely remember or recognize.)
  • Philip Womack (The ordered prose, brimming with tension, is written in a mixture of the third and first persons, even within paragraphs. This is not confusing and, in fact, casts a beguiling spell. The narrator is both involved and distant. )
  • Natalie Bakopoulos (Damon Galgut ... distorts the I as both first person and third. The storytelling alternates between these two perspectives, often in the same paragraph and sometimes in the same sentence. Soon, in the same way we become accustomed to a new locale when traveling, this point of view choice asserts itself not simply as artistic quirk but as part of the story itself. )
  • Gia Metherell (The novel is written in the third person but occasionally shifts to first-person narration, sometimes in the same sentence or paragraph, as in Damon/the narrator's comment: "So even in the first few days I become aware of certain differences between them [Damon and Reiner]." The device serves to show the narrator as both agent, an active participant, and as observer, looking back at an earlier self from a distance.)
  • Ron Charles ( there's no escaping the artificiality of this performance. The story's creepiness and ambiguity are a substitute for the emotional profundity it makes a claim to. Vacillating erratically between first and third person, the tale is all poses ... Plenty of sophisticated, sensitive readers have praised these stories, and I don't doubt their insight or their critical acumen. But how much you enjoy this novel will depend largely on how moved you are by oracular pronouncements such as: "A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it's made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there.")

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