The Exploded View by Ivan Vladislavić. Archipelago Books. 196pp, $18.00.
Let me begin by saying that The Exploded View is a small masterpiece by one of the best writers working today. I have written about the value of Vladislavić in these pages. So please take for granted that I like the work. I recommend it. You should read it. You won’t be sorry. What I’m struck by in my most recent read-through, however, is the strange mixture of distance and closeness that I feel to this text from Johannesburg in 2004 when reading it from upstate New York in 2017.
Whether The Exploded View is a novel in four parts or a collection of four longish stories is a question akin to whether South Africa is a nation of peoples or a collection of nations. The four parts of The Exploded View are indeed linked, through setting and theme, but it doesn’t have the marked through-line of the short story cycles that so often come out of MFA programs here in the U.S. For one thing, the links between stories are underplayed, their fragmentation being essential to the structure as well as the governing visual and epistemological theme. Vladislavić’s reluctance to give a whole and holistic image of post-apartheid South African society has earned him some critics. As the idiom has it, “when Johannesburg catches a cold, South Africa sneezes.” So a representation of the fractured, divided city, with little cause for optimism about those divisions being overcome, has been sometimes read as a sign of Afro-pessimism and willful naysaying of the entire national project. Now, in 2017, not only do these critiques seem quaint and outdated, stemming as they do from a moment of unfounded optimism when the “Rainbow Nation” and the “African Renaissance” seemed plausible projects, but The Exploded View also seems more globally relevant than ever. The world is sneezing, and while Johannesburg’s cold is not the cause, it is certainly one of the clearest presentations of the symptoms.
In his 2006 work of creative non-fiction, Portrait with Keys: The City of Johannesburg Unlocked, Ivan Vladislavić describes a scene where the narrator leaves Johannesburg by plane for a residency in Europe and hopes to see the city spread out below him as he departs.
But we have hardly lifted into the air when the plane banks to the left and the lights dip below the horizon of the window ledge. It is sudden enough to be alarming, this lurch and slide, but I am merely annoyed. I look across the dim sloping interior, but the dull-witted economizer in the window seat opposite has pulled down the shade. Through the other windows I catch the briefest sparkles and flares. The plane continues to bank. We are going to spiral out of here, I can just see it, rising like a leaf in a whirlwind until the entire city has been lost in the darkness below. Disappointment wells up in me, disproportionate and childishly ominous. This failure to see Johannesburg whole, for the last time, will cast a pall over the future.
How familiar is this sense of simultaneous freedom and constriction to those who have any experience of commercial air travel! The openness of the skies countered by the enclosure of partial views and limited legroom. The horizon is abutted, hope hemmed in by a series of buts: “But we have hardly” . . . “but I am merely” . . . “but the dull-witted.” And disappointment ensues. There will be no complete view of the city finally revealing the sprawling megalopolis in its totality. Instead, like the format of Portrait with Keys suggests, we’ll have to do with fragments, or, to echo the title of Vladislavić’s 2004 novel, with an “exploded view.”
My own experience of air travel has recently changed significantly. Earlier this year, following no small cost and effort, I received my U.S. permanent resident card at a time when immigrating to this country was beginning to seem less possible or desirable than ever. My country of origin, South Africa, has not so far been the target of any specific anti-immigration initiative or sentiment, and for the entirely arbitrary reason of where I happened to be born, I have had a much easier time obtaining official resident status (not to mention actually residing here) than my Syrian, Iranian, Libyan, Somali, Sudanese, or Yemeni colleagues. I have since then been trying to get a grip on my new permanence in this place. I still travel with a South African passport—the “green mamba” as we sometimes like to call it—which means tedious and expensive visa applications to places where my American spouse can travel freely; but whenever I return I am allowed to enter the U.S. through the faster queue, where nicer immigration officials ask gentler questions. More importantly, I’m allowed to stay, permanently. Permanence implies an unchanging or lasting relationship, in this case the relationship of residence, another word connoting a stationary or fixed state. But how can my relationship to this place remain unchanged when the place itself is changing so fast? Trapped, as I am along with everyone else, in my own information bubble, overwhelmed with a quantity of fake news and real news too vast to process, spurred to learn the history of my surroundings while that history is being contested, I’m finding it difficult to unite what I know about America under one picture.
‘Radio-controlled lawnmower lets inventor loaf in shade.’ ‘Unique floor lamp has aquarium base improvised from gas-online-pump bowl.’ ‘Bathroom scale folds into wall when not in use.’ ‘Decorative kitchen wall-light made from spoon and bowl.’ Half the magazine was taken up with descriptions of gadgets and inventions, household hints and handyman’s tips, objects put to new purposes or brought into new relationships with one another, improvements, adaptations, and customizations. He went from one headline to another, poring over the pictures and diagrams, absorbing the innovative emanations of seemingly ordinary things. Nothing was truly itself. ‘Jar covers provide small pulleys.’ ‘Drawing board is easily adjusted if held by storm-sash brackets.’ ‘Mesh tube laid in gutters prevents clogging by leaves.’ This must be the meaning of America: an endless series of improvisations on the material world. A kind of jazz.
Found in “Crocodile Lodge,” the last section of The Exploded View, this passage is one of several impressions of America conveyed by the narrator, Gordon Duffy. This hyphen-heavy America of luxuries, conveniences, gadgets, and contraptions is not just physically but temporally distant, deriving from Gordon’s childhood when he would spend hours flipping through his father’s copies of Popular Mechanics dreaming about becoming an engineer. Inspired by the handiness of Americans, Gordon becomes a contractor specializing in putting up billboards along Johannesburg’s highways. There is a special significance to handiwork in South Africa. Vladislavić’s countryman, J. M. Coetzee, has a scene in his 2009 novel, Summertime, where the narrator/Coetzee persona, recently returned from America, covers his house with an insulating layer of impermeable concrete, something he learns to do from a “home improvement guide.” He finds this work boring, and it makes him stand out among others of his race and class, but he is not dissatisfied because, “What he finds himself doing is what people like him should have been doing ever since 1652 [when the Dutch first colonized the Cape], namely, his own dirty work.” Gordon Duffy likewise does his own dirty work. He values practical know-how but also realizes that handiness is relative. Stuck in traffic he finds himself wondering how and whether, in an imagined post-apocalyptic scenario, humans would be able to rebuild the technologies they now take for granted:
How many people knew what went into the manufacture of a fibre-optic cable, a compact disc, a silicon chip, a printing press, a sheet of paper? . . . If he were one of the lucky few, a volume in the human library, what could be learned from him? How to use a rivet gun. How to take it apart and put it back together again. How to renovate a swimming pool—but not how to chlorinate a glass of water. How to erect a billboard.
One of the billboards that Gordon is commissioned to put up depicts the titular “Crocodile Lodge,” a gated community built in the American style echoing other gated communities built in foreign styles that appear in the course of The Exploded View. The appearance of this particular billboard triggers Gordon’s nostalgia for a place he only ever imagined:
He had spent many hours gazing at this picture, trying to decipher the specific meaning of America that lay in these shapes and shades, in the gloss on a fender like a smear of butter or the rune of smoke from a chimney pot mimicking a seabird. This place, impossibly distant and unreal, filled him with painful longing, an ache for containment that was peculiarly like homesickness. To be bathed in these colours, held by this light falling benevolently on every surface, aglow with prosperity and happiness.
When The Exploded View was published thirteen years ago, in 2004, in Thabo Mbeki’s South Africa, I shared Gordon’s perspective; America was simultaneously far-off and omnipresent. This year The Exploded View was released in its first American edition. And so it was that while I was trying to fathom my new status in this (relatively) new place, a parcel came with a reviewer’s copy of one of my favorite books, a book that was in part about the difficulties of fathoming quite another time and place. Excellent timing.
In 2004 South Africans were fond of talking about the “transition.” The transition was to be a shift from “apartheid,” an internationally isolated racist state, to a vibrant multiracial democracy that would, in Nelson Mandela’s unforgettable phrase, no longer be “the skunk of the world.” (While there are in fact no skunks in Africa, we easily understood this outward-looking idiom, and those of us traveling with the green mamba still know what it means to smell of skunk.) It was less clear how exactly the transition would be achieved, what obstacles we would have to surmount, what strategies for nation-building would be the ones to unite us in the end. Every phenomenon and event was ascribable to an in-between condition, the interregnum between the unjust past and the utopian future. The base assumption was that change would occur in every sphere of life, from sports to commerce to politics to academia, in language, customs, and social mores. Everything would be “normalized,” which is to say brought into line with international norms. Nowadays South Africans are as likely to evoke the longer and geographically broader history of colonialism as they are the more recent history of apartheid when contemplating the causes of current social ills, at least in part because the end of apartheid did not, in fact, signal the end of systemic inequality. And nowadays hardly any South African has any realistic anticipation of the Rainbow Nation or the African Renaissance (a favorite theme of the Mbeki presidency) being achieved any time soon. We have indeed begun to adjust to international norms. It is just that those norms, especially in America to which South Africa cast an admiring eye when beginning its democracy, turn out to be less admirable that they appeared during the transition years. The norm is of a fractured, unequal, disharmonious society existing under formal and legal equality rather than the magical harmony and egalitarianism we had imagined.
It is at this time—when the path between past and future looked so determined, when no matter where we South Africans found ourselves as a nation we assumed we were at a point “on the way”—that Ivan Vladislavić published his book about the one thing that was being persistently overlooked: the lived present of real South Africans trying to make sense of it all. Or, more accurately, this is when he wrote his book depicting the “exploded view” that South Africans had of their collective present.
The title phrase is itself exploded. First shard: “Budlender tilted his head so that the crack in the windscreen, a sunburst of the kind made by a bullet, centered on the vendor’s body and broke him into pieces.” In the first story, “Villa Toscana” (named after another gated community, this time in Italianate style), Budlender is a statistician who interviews South Africans for the national census, itself an exercise in gathering flecks and arranging them into a meaningful mosaic. His statistician’s viewpoint is highly informative in its own way, but Budlender, nurturing a hopeless crush on a television presenter, is incapable of reading individuals the way he is of reading populations. Budlender tries to discern whether the vendor in question is Nigerian (this new “ethnography” practiced by Johannesburgers, a response to the influx of foreigners in the city as well as a displacement of older and plainer forms of racism, is something we see repeated across the sections of The Exploded View):
Since he had been made aware of the characteristics—a particular curl to the hair or shade to the skin, the angle of a cheekbone or jawline, the ridge of a lip, the slant of an eye, the size of an ear—it seemed to him there were Nigerians everywhere. He had started to see Mozambicans too, and Somalis. It was the opposite of the old stereotype: they all looked different to him. Foreigners on every side. Could the aliens have outstripped the indigenes? Was it possible? There were no reliable statistics.
It is difficult to read Budlender’s thoughts without being reminded of the absurd rationalization and calculation that went into justifying apartheid. The statistician sees the world in terms of statistics, but something in this view is broken, shattered like a windscreen hit by a bullet. We hold out hope that Budlender might escape from his world made up of concrete statistical facts and rigid statistical categories by falling in love with the television personality: Eros, after all, is said to be a force for binding, synthesis, blending boundaries, and dissolving limits. She is a “continuity presenter,” someone whose purpose is to join discrete television programs into an uninterrupted thread in the minds of the watchers. The slogan of post-apartheid public television in South Africa: “Simunye! We are one!”
Second shard: in the second section, “Afritude Sauce,” Egan, a sanitation engineer visiting Johannesburg to consult on a building project, goes to a business dinner, where he is the only white person in his party, at Bra Zama’s Eatery, an upscale restaurant in the style of a “shebeen” (a kind of shanty-town dive bar, often operated illegally), decorated with African masks. “His eyes wandered from the faces of his companions to the masks on the walls. There seemed to be more and more of them. Multipliers. He felt surrounded. It was uncannily like a white South African nightmare, he thought. An old one. As if they were in a glass house, feasting, while the hordes outside pressed their hungry faces to the walls.” The perspectival explosion is temporal as well as spatial; drunk and out of place, Egan finds uncomfortable racist fantasies belonging to another sensibility of another age surfacing within him, quickly to be pushed back down.
Third shard: Simeon Majara, the protagonist of the third section, is the artist who decorated Bra Zama’s Eatery with African masks. The witty, brilliant, and endlessly entertaining Simeon Majara, difficult to place on the spectrum between charlatan and authentic genius, is by far the most memorable of the protagonists of The Exploded View. Readers will be glad to hear that he returns for cameos in later Vladislavić texts. As it turns out, Simeon has come into a large stash of wooden masks and curios of undetermined origin and has been using them in a number of art projects, including his most recent show, which gives the section its title, “Curiouser.” At some point Simeon began sawing up the curios and in experimenting with this “repeated dismemberment” finds the “primary dynamic” of the exhibition.
The first small pieces were simply animal figures sawn into chunks and displayed like butcher’s carcases on marble chopping boards. Then came a series of rhinos and elephants sliced into cross sections a centimeter thick, vertically or horizontally, and reassembled with variable spaces between the sections, so that certain parts of their bodies were unnaturally elongated or thickened. They were like distorted reflections in a hall of mirrors. Later, after he’d acquired the bandsaw which allowed for thinner cross sections and more precise cuts, he could graft the parts of different animals into new species, the head of a lion, the horns of a buffalo, the legs of a hippopotamus, exquisite corpses, many-headed monsters for a contemporary bestiary. The pieces were presented in glass display cases with mock scientific seriousness, as if they were taxidermic specimens. The effects were uncanny – ‘spooky’ was the description he came to – the studio turned into a museum of unnatural history.
This dynamic of fragmentation and recombination is clearly one that speaks to Vladislavić’s own “primary dynamic” in certain works. It is a process that makes us see something anew. Vladislavić has spoken of how the “art world seems to ‘stand in’ for the literary world in The Exploded View.” Perhaps there is an equal resonance between the projects of these specific artistic and literary works.
Final shard: We’re back with Gordon Duffy, the boy who read his father’s copies of Popular Mechanics and grew up to run a billboard installation business. While young, lying on his bed, “lost in his father’s America,” Gordon learnt the art of mentally deconstructing and reconstructing the material world.
In time, the wholes and the parts drew closer and closer together, infected with purpose, until they pressed up against one another, sometimes, and fused.
It must have started with simple objects, he supposed, with salt cellars and push toys, but what came back to him always was the holiday house on the edge of the lake. The way its plywood panels filled up with colour, the way texture finishes – Kencork, Marlite, Novoply – goosefleshed the surface of blank paper, and metallic sheens slid over beadings and facings. Having consumed the technical drawing and its qualities, the lifelike image became manipulable.
The exploded view.
Jan Steyn is a translator and scholar working in Afrikaans, Dutch, English, and French. He lives in upstate New York with a whippet and a novelist.
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