Don't let the slangy title of this Nobel Prize winner's 14th novel mislead you --- light is one thing GET A LIFE is not. But like many challenging works of art, this one is worthwhile.
Nadine Gordimer tackles large-scale themes of conservation and survival, death and compromise, through the vehicle of a privileged, white South African family navigating several crises. The first is the necessity of Paul Bannerman, a thirty-something ecologist, to be physically isolated due to radiation treatments for an aggressive form of thyroid cancer. His parents, Lyndsay and Adrian, take him in for several weeks, while his wife Benni and their son Nickie must settle for distant waves from outside the garden fence. During this unnatural time, Paul drifts back out to the garden of his childhood, and contemplates the tension between his own career as a conservationist and his wife's executive position at an advertising agency for firms that would pollute and degrade the very environments he fights to protect. Small wonder that when he returns home, old patterns fray and everyone treads lightly.
Although they do not fight, Paul bluntly rejects Benni's suggestion that they try to conceive another child, and the reader wonders whether or not the marriage can survive. But part two of the novel switches focus to the relationship of Paul's parents. It begins with 59-year-old Lyndsay's reminiscences of the affair she had while in her 40s. The affair lasted for four years, at the end of which she informed her husband Adrian that it had been, and that it was, over. At first jarring, this revelation gives meaning to later developments as Paul's retired father Adrian pursues his avocation of archeology in Mexico.
As usual with Gordimer, her symbols sparkle, functioning on many levels. A trip to a wildlife preserve to view a breeding pair of Black Eagles becomes a meditation on both beauty and the cruel realities of survival. "The first egg laid hatches and is followed about a week later by a second. The two chicks, known as Cain and Abel. The first-born, Cain has already grown when Abel comes out of his shell. Cain and Abel fight and generally Abel is killed by Cain and thrown from the nest." Later Paul thinks of this in relation to the dams he opposes, recognizing that the dams could end poverty for thousands of people. "And if Abel has to be thrown from the nest by Cain; isn't that for a greater survival. The eagle allows this to happen, its all-powerful wings cannot prevail against it."
Gordimer eschews quotation marks entirely, and question marks mostly, using dashes to set off dialogue. Careful reading is required at times to distinguish between the characters' internal thoughts and their spoken dialogue. She also is not hampered by conventional grammar. Sentences with no predicate clause abound, and reading this book is often like trying to listen to four conversations at once, about four different topics. This is how we think, and the technique serves to pull us closer in to the character's point of view, if we take the time to follow the threads.
The Kirkus review of this book refers to the "exfoliation" of the plot, and after I rolled my eyes, I looked up the word and found it an apt description. The plot really does come off in layers, and the reader must simply sign on for the ride and let the multiple meanings come through.
--- Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol
Nadine Gordimer's novel, "Get a Life" is not a bedtime story or a nook to take on a plane. It requires attention and leaves the reader with a burden of thoughts.
The starting point is a very unusual, extreme situation: Paul, an otherwise healthy, active ecologist in his mid-thirties is diagnosed with thyroid cancer. He undergoes treatment, which, although effective, renders him radioactive and therefore potentially dangerous for those close to him. He decides to separate himself from his wife, Berenice, and his son, Nicky, and to stay in his parents' home, in maximum possible isolation. The forced solitude prompts Paul to think about his relations with people, to re-evaluate his marriage and to feel even more rooted in the world around him (although, paradoxically, also more alienated from it.
Paul's experience deeply affects his closest family - his parents, Lyndsay, a lawyer, and Adrian, a businessman with longings towards archeology, look into their past, and make unexpected decisions about their future. Berenice feels the change in Paul and the shift in their feelings to each other.
Paul's cancer experience changes not only his own life; it transforms the people around him. They seem at the same time more separate, distinct individual entities, and more connected to the network that is the world. As if their senses became sharper, more refined. Gordimer writes with clarity, analytically, looking a the characters from all angles; the novel has an omniscient narrator, and the universal becomes very personal. Despite the clear logic, the novel is not a breeze to read. It was a slow journey through the meandering words and I have to admit that sometimes I thought I'd give up. Luckily, always some breakthrough in the plot happened in these moments of doubt and this way I made it to the end. The multiplicity of weighty subjects (all kinds of interpersonal relations; post-Apartheid South Africa; nuclear energy and its impact on civilization, nature and medicine- to name a few; incidentally, nuclear fission is what becomes a kind of a bracket connecting everything here) together with complex, rich prose, made me pause often - there was just too much to think about and it was not possible to finish this novel at one sitting. But it was worth the effort.
I liked the dual meaning of the title: the colloquial exclamation encouraging to do something with your life; and the understanding of life; the first possible to accomplish with a little effort, the second - not at all.
Light or fun are not descriptions for a Nadine Gordimer novel -- and this book is no exception. But, it attempts to find happiness. Unlike Burger's Daughter, this book is AFTER Apartheid -- so most of those issues are not the core of the novel.
Revolving around parents Adrian and Lyndsey, the book focuses upon their grown son's (Paul) thyroid cancer experience and what happens afterward. Sprinkled in the first half of the novel is Paul's wife, Benni, and some awkward narratives about Paul's sisters, who we really never get to know or understand with any clarity, let alone depth.
Paul is the Prince, and his survival of cancer is about his and the parent's perspective of his or their own "getting of a life." And then, the author ponders about life and what it means, etc. And, their remonstrance about the same.
Paul's parents are relatively successful, and admirable. His mother is not only a great lawyer, but one who inherits and prevails for the causes of what Americans would call "truth, justice and the American way." She is the advocate for minorities' causes. And she wins. But, what does this success mean? "Success sometimes may be defined as a disaster put on hold." Depressing enough?
While most believe that life is a gift to be cherished and thoroughly enjoyed, Gordimer explains that it is "[N]ot an epiphany, life moves more slowly and inexorably than any belief in that."
This novel can dampen the spirits beneath the brightest blue skies. I do not know if the author's remorse is caused by decades of witnessing and living within Apartheid, or if other causes -- including chemical imbalance -- delivers this writer to darker regions than most people experience in their worst moments. Although not attempting to be a noir novel, the author's perspective is without doubt just that. And, the delivery of family biography -- which is what this is -- in the dark tone of this author can be about as pleasant as a Swedish film festival. The art is there -- but excitation and hilarity are not.
Gordimer, a Nobel laureate, is one of those authors with her own style, own meter, own everything. She can be described as a herky jerky writer. The quotations are dashes. Words are often inverted at times to pick up the African dialect. In short, this is not the easiest reading. But, it is good writing.
Hence, I deliver a warning to the reader that this author should not be necessarily read when all else is happy and good. And, maybe when all else is not good and happy, this should not be read as there may be many tissues and sobs in store which are neither wanted nor sought.
Nona van Heerden
I love the way she weaves so many things into the novel - human frailty, politics and an awesome description of the Black Eagle
I did not enjoy the book