You don’t read Nadine Gordimer without knowing it will be about Africa and its manifold problems of which you will know too little and even if you did know more could do little about. Her new book is no exception, though I think it will trouble our conscience less than usual. Paul Bannerman is a 35-year-old ecologist faced with the probability that a huge dam and a nuclear reactor are going to be built, causing immense damage to the land around them and disruption for those who live there. He and his colleagues are out to stop both ventures. Their activities stall when Paul is operated on for thyroid cancer. Though he is still radioactive and dangerously infectious, his parents, Lyndsay and Adrian, take him into their home to protect his small child and wife, Berenice, who live nearby. Gordimer’s meticulous description of the protective measures, different cutlery, paper plates, monitored sheets and towels, showing how ‘the inconceivable can become routine’, and her description of Paul’s recovery and smile as he reads an e-mail from a sister, ‘D’you mean, you can’t even have a fuck?’, is all very well done. Paul, like all his family, loves sex and his fear that he will never be wakened again by an early-morning erection proves groundless. He recovers and resumes his crusade.
Berenice/Benni, as Gordimer rather irritatingly calls his wife to show she is both sensible and a chick who still likes to be shown a good time, is in advertising and wants to take Paul to recuperate at a client’s resort surrounded by wild life where he will feel at home, but in great luxury where he won’t. Recently he’s told her of fish floating belly up because vital water was diverted to build a huge swimming pool like the one she wants him to swim in. Gordimer shies away from turning this into a major split between them — he the pure environmentalist, she in advertising, a crack officer serving in the shock troops of aggressive capitalism. Ironically Paul sometimes sacrilegiously wishes he had some advertising up his sleeve —‘Come, rap for the planet!’
But Paul soldiers on in what seems to be a hopeless cause only to find such peace of mind as he can muster further threatened by a series of totally unexpected domestic disasters. Out of the blue his father, Adrian, leaves his mother for a Norwegian guide they’d hired to show them around archaeological sites when on holiday in Mexico. Soon after that his father dies and then his mother adopts a black two-year- old child who’s been raped and is HIV positive and may not live. And as if this isn’t enough to bring him to his knees, his wife, Berenice/Benni is pregnant — will the baby be born infected by the cancer he’s recently suffered? Mercifully now the gods move in; enough is enough. The government climbs down and Paul wins his case. Both the nuclear and the dam projects are shelved.
All this is a little too neat an ending, but Paul’s surprising victory does strike a rare note of optimism for Gordimer and so does the first third of the book, which is buoyant and well done. On balance, though, Get a Life is a difficult read. Sometimes it’s more like translating than reading. Sentences have to be read slowly and re-read equally slowly. It’s as if to write a simple sentence is an error of taste or sloppy thinking. Gordimer strains too hard for an originality a writer of her stature doesn’t need: ‘Without the accompanying happening of a child’ … ‘She is that persona who has no need of convictions’. Writers can be forgiven their peccadilloes but where were her editors?