The Pickup, by Nadine Gordimer

Being and Ignominy

Time and place. We’re in post-apartheid South Africa, apparently in the largest city, Johannesburg. We’re at the turn of the millennium, early in the new century. The Pickup (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 270 pages) begins with a scene describing a helpless woman and “clustered predators round a kill.” But not to worry, it’s only a modern young white woman, Julie Summers, having car trouble in the midst of a traffic snarl. Her gesture: “hands, palms open, in surrender.” I give up. Help me. They do. Julie Summers is assured of help because she is white and her father is rich. Her social status is that of one who belongs; she is born into privilege, part of the “real” world of Western capitalism. But does she feel that she belongs? Is her world really real? No. So we have, early on, the central theme of the book: identity, or the lack of, belonging and unbelonging.

Nearing age thirty, Julie Summers is totally unaware of what she wants to do with her life. She started out studying to be a lawyer, then gave that up. She went in for languages, but gave that up. She has ended up in PR, but does not enjoy her job. “I don’t know what I want to do, if that means what I want to be,” she tells Abdu, the man who is soon to become her latest lover. What to be? How to be? Can we even be? The ontological questions that are at the heart of this novel. What about love and marriage? Julie is apparently what they call a “modern” young woman, disinclined to devote her life to husband and children.

So she drifts, not unhappy, but not particularly happy. She has rebelled against her parents and the life of the rich in the suburbs; she has no close family ties—with the exception, somewhat, of good old Uncle Archie. Her parents are divorced, her mother now lives in California. Julie disdains the world of her father, steeped in high finance and manipulation of money. For her a family of sorts exists, made up of her like-minded, late-model hippie friends who frequent a table at the local bar known as the EL-AY (for Los Angeles) Café. At the time she meets Abdu, therefore, Julie is in something of a limbo, but unaware, not really concerned about that.

She first encounters Abdu at a local garage where he works as a mechanic—he repairs her car. Abdu is living in a limbo that is much more ominous. Native to a Muslim country in North Africa, Abdu has a university degree in economics. He has spent his youth trying to find purchase in a Western country. Everywhere the same story has repeated itself. He is living in England, or Germany, or somewhere else, eking out an existence. Then his visa runs out and he lives on illegally; until discovered and deported. In South Africa, when Julie first meets him, he is in exactly that situation again. Illegal. Abdu’s home country is never named—it, like him, is among the ignominious of the world. The root meaning of the word ignominy is “nameless” (ig + nomen). We find out Abdu’s real name only about a hundred pages into the book: Ibrahim ibn Musa.

The Internet tells us, incidentally, that the name Abdu can be a nickname for the Arabic Abdul, and that it means “worshipper of God,” which he is certainly not. Ibrahim is the Arabic for Abraham, that biblical patriarch who is viewed as the father of the Arab people, as well as of the Jewish. So neither of the two names that he uses in this novel suit him. When he arrives in the U.S.A.—in the near future, right after he will have departed the pages of this book—he may well rename himself there; maybe Jack, or Bill.

Julie’s friends at the EL-AY Café sum up Abdu’s country as follows: “a desert, a corrupt government, religious oppression, cross-border conflict.” Later it appears that Abdu himself has that same view of his homeland. Vile and ignominious. He’ll do anything to find a place in “the real world.” He wants desperately to rid himself of the ig in the ignominy, to stop being nobody and become somebody. For Julie he sums up the division of the world into two types of people: “You have no choice or you have choice.” Although published twenty years ago, The Pickup is more than timely today, in that millions of people all over the world, desperate migrants, are fleeing intolerable situations in their homelands, seeking to exit ignominy and become “real.”

The Ontology of Liminality

All her life Julie has lived in a kind of in-between world, drifting along with the flow. Assured of her status as a citizen of a Western country, of a job and high living standards, she need not worry if her life has no particular aim. At one point the author hints, briefly, that there is something to be said for the limbo: “In its very precariousness the stare is pure and free.” But this is not Abdu’s point of view. “He is here, and he is not here.” In other words, he is in the liminal, painful state of being neither here nor there. After he and Julie become lovers, they are burdened by what is a sort of freedom. They are free not to plan for the future, as most lovers do, since “there is no future without an identity to claim it.”

Abdu adamantly insists—over the whole course of the novel—that “If you want to be in the world, to get what you call the Christian world to let you in is the only way.” In reading a story by Dostoevsky, “The Gentle One,” Julie “has come upon a sentence, a statement that seems to have been written for her long before she came into existence and came to this space in the time of her life: ‘I decided to postpone our future as long as possible, leaving everything in its present state.’”

So for a while they live together in that condition of postponement. But then the big turning point in the action comes when Abdu’s illegality is discovered. The future is, ominously, at hand; it can no longer be postponed. Such is the typical situation of the folk tale hero or heroine. There is a sudden need or lack and action is demanded. The hero must depart from his present liminality and cross the threshold into a new and magical world, in search of the firebird, a bride, or some other boon. As do so many other fictional works in the history of world literature, this novel follows (with important alterations) the structural formula of the folkloric tale of magical adventure.

Abdu gets the bad news in the form of a letter, an official document calling into question his ontology. So you think that you are, more or less, living in being, that you exist in a certain—true, quite precarious—state. Then it turns out that your existence is proven illegal and you must depart. Nadine Gordimer is not a writer who much resembles Kafka, but the essence of what we have here is a scene from Kafka’s world.

Futures and Relocations

Julie’s father, Nigel Summers, represents for her everything she despises about cutthroat capitalism. He appears in only one scene of the novel, when Julie takes her new boyfriend to a soirée at his house in the suburbs, where he lives with his young and stylish wife. There the fascinated Abdu, economics major, listens to Nigel and his guests as they discuss the financial markets and speak of “buying into futures.” The irony here is that for Abdu no stable future exists, nothing to buy into except uncertainty. Another, more ill-omened irony, is that Abdu sees the lives these people are living as highly commendable. He remarks later to Julie, “Interesting people there. They make a success.” She replies, “They’d stamp on one another’s heads to make it.” Why is this ominous? Because further on in the novel Abdu’s determination to become such a “real” person in a “real” country clashes with Julie’s notions about what she’d like her husband to become.

The party at Nigel’s is held in honor of a colleague and his wife who are relocating to Australia. Inasmuch as this colleague is, like Nigel, well-established, rich, anchored in world finance, his arrival in a new country will be welcomed with open arms. Relocating, of course, is one of the big themes of the book. Now, like Julie, nearing age thirty, Abdu has spent much of his youth perpetually relocating to countries reluctant to receive his ontological existence. Soon Julie and Abdu will be immersed in a big relocation of their own. Then again, almost all of the guests at the soirée—their being now safely ensconced in South Africa—have come originally from somewhere else. They are immigrants.

This is one of several instances that suggest a broadening of the novel’s themes. The title of the book, The Pickup, is weak; a better title would be something like Limboland. The message being that even in the “real” countries with “real” people existence is a precarious and transient thing. An ontological question: if you are alive in flesh where, exactly, are you “located”? “To discover the exact location of a ‘thing’ is a simple matter of factual research. To discover the exact location of a person: where to locate the self?” You’re not necessarily a misanthrope or inveterate pessimist if you admit that we, all of us creatures in evanescent flesh, have no safe, stable place to be. Our very mortality makes it so. “There must be many, many people like himself [Abdu]—the two of them—in the shit.” Up to the nose in rising excrement. But to some extent it’s everyone alive on earth; the main differences between people consisting of to what level the shit has risen.

People, however, will be people, and people will spend a lifetime—while on their path toward death—adamantly striving to “be someone.” The human race, it seems, cannot do without the imaginary thing called the future. With only a few days left before Abdu is forced to leave South Africa, he and Julie speak of possibilities. They might move to Cape Town, live by the sea; he might study computer science. “They talked about the future that would come or never come. It was there, theirs, existed for them.” Well, not if it never came. Then again, anyone speaking of any future is, in reality, floating through a hazy dreamland.

The Relocation of Julie and Abdu

When his time runs out in South Africa, everyone—including Abdu and all of Julie’s friends at the EL-AY Café—assumes that he will return to his home country, leaving his lover Julie behind. Julie has had many lovers in the past, and this will be just one more by the boards. But Julie surprises everyone, and maybe even herself. She buys not one, but two airline tickets; she will go with him. Returning home with the tickets, “She stood before him with her hands linked behind her back, like a schoolgirl.” At this point the narrator of the novel decides that it’s time to view Julie with new eyes. “And now’s the time: there has been no description of this Julie, little indication of what she looks like, unless an individual’s actions and words conjure a face and body. There is, anyway, no description that is the description. Everyone who sees a face sees a different face—her father, Nigel Ackroyd Summers, his wife Danielle, her mother in California . . .”

Most importantly, Abdu the lover puts those new eyes in his head. His point of view on this new Julie goes on for two pages, beginning, “The face he sees is the definitive face for the present situation. The two air tickets he holds in his hands, turns over, unfolds, verifies, materialize a face, her face for him, that didn’t exist before, the face of what is impossible, can’t be. So what she was, and now is—what the woman Julie looks like comes through his eyes.” In the long passage that follows we get, incidentally, the first physical description of Julie in the book: not a blonde, “hair a no-colour brown, and smooth and straight falling behind the ears . . . eyes water-grey and not large,” etc. Why did the author not describe her main character at the beginning of the book, at her first appearance? Maybe because the novel treats life in flux, people constantly changing, while seeking a place to stop moving, changing and find genuine existence. A physical description of them—like a camera halting the flux—at any one point accomplishes little.

Abdu’s reflections on the new Julie are far from flattering. Here is a young Western woman who thinks she knows things about life, but who “knows nothing, nothing . . . What’m I expected to do with her. There . . . I’ll be the filthy foreigner who’s taken her to a run-down depraved strip of a country Europeans didn’t even want to hold on to any longer, were glad to get rid of, even the oil is over the border . . . She’s not for me, can’t she realize that? Too indulged and pampered to understand that’s what she is, she thinks she can have everything, she doesn’t know that the one thing she can’t have is to survive what she’s decided she wants to do now. Madness. Madness. I thought she was intelligent. Stupidity: That’s it. That’s final.” A lover’s fond thoughts on the woman he soon will marry.

They marry not because either of them wants to. Julie has the modern Western view of marriage as an outmoded bourgeois institution: what do we need with that? Abdu realizes that if he returns home to his Muslim society bringing a stray female with him, she will be viewed as a fallen woman, a prostitute. Carrying with them little physical baggage, but tons of emotional baggage, seeking a place to be, Julie and Abdu fly to North Africa together, to his unnamed home country. What chance is there that such a marriage will succeed? Zilch. We recall at this point a poem by William Plomer mentioned or cited several times in the text (also as the epigraph of the novel): “Let us go to another country/Not yours or mine/And start again . . . /Hope would be our passport./The rest is understood.” Maybe you weren’t listening, dear protagonists of the novel: I said “not yours or mine.”

The Theme of Love

There are constant parallels drawn between the two main characters. Both, for example, have left their families behind, both are adrift, seeking a life and a place to be real. Do they find that genuine reality in their conjugal union, in romantic love? For this book is, indeed, a love story. But only sort of. To recall once again the formula of the folk tale of magical adventure, at the beginning the hero/heroine, propelled into motion by some sort of lack, departs from home and crosses the threshold into the primeval forest and a new world. As the fairy tale works, he or she goes through a good deal of adversity in that magical land, but always returns home in triumph. The structural pattern goes like this:  departure/initiation/return (triumphant). If the folk hero is a male his triumph often consists in finding a bride and bringing her back with him (and they live happily ever after). But the formula is somewhat simplistic, and life has a way of not working like a folk tale of magical adventure.

Western literature, however, has not rid itself entirely of folkloric ideals, and in the modern Western sensibility the great romantic dream is often still ascendant. Neither of the two protagonists of The Pickup, however, believes thoroughly in that dream. “With the acceptance of love there comes the authority to impose conditions. They have never said the worn old words to one another, for her they are bourgeois clichés left behind; or perhaps it is because each would need a different vocabulary in their two languages.”

The sort-of love story begins when Abdu concedes in his mind that this girl who knows nothing is, for all that, devoted to him; therefore, she must know something. He will not, however, indulge in what he sees as this Western business of romantic love. He guards against, resists “that thing, luxury, people who could afford it called love.” At several points Julie—who herself disdains simplistic cliches about love—seems, nonetheless, on the verge of telling him, “I love you,” but he won’t allow her to mouth the words.  

At times we are told that the sexual act is something transcendent for them. “That night they made love, the kind of love-making that is another country, a country of its own, not yours or mine.” That passage comes before their departure from South Africa. Here is another, describing her consoling him in difficult times back in his home country: “[Julie] felt the force of his [emotions] with humility and offered all she had in recognition: love-making. In her body he was himself, he belonged to nobody, she was the country to which he had emigrated.” Not too much of this sort of thing in the novel, but already a bit too much.

Archie the Interloper

Estranged from both her father and mother, Julie Summers has one close relative whom she adores, her uncle Archibald Summers, who works in Johannesburg as a highly respected gynecologist and obstetrician. The story of Uncle Archie lights up the book with its radiance. The narrative is extremely well told, interesting. The pages where Archie is charged with sexual abuse by one of his patients, a mentally disturbed woman, amount to a fine short story in themselves, an ancillary plot that somehow does not belong in this novel. If fact, while reading about Archie, who, incidentally, is the most attractive and vibrant character in the whole book, you constantly get the feeling that he belongs in another book, not this one. Odd how that can sometimes happen to a writer: I’m writing a book about people who live in Limboland, who are desperately searching for a place to be, but I cannot get this other character out of my head, this lovely man who has defied all the rules of Limboland and made himself a secure and wonderful life in our imperfect world. A man, furthermore, who is loved by one and all. Yes, dear reader, people such as Archie do exist on earth; seldom maybe, but they do.

Back In The Meantime, Where Verisimilitude Begins Bending

“Life in the meantime,” the in-between time. When Julie and Abdu fly back to his homeland and begin a new life with his family, this changes nothing in Abdu’s ontological status. He is not really home at all, for the only home that he will accept is permanent residence in some “real” Western country. So they depart from Limboland and arrive in still one more Limboland. His relatives gracefully accept the prodigal son upon his return; they make his Western wife welcome. Abdu’s rich uncle gives him employment, ironically, in the same menial job he had in South Africa—working as a grease monkey in a garage, repairing cars.

More liminality. Here is the description of the airport at their arrival: “An airport in a country like this is a surging, shifting human mass with all individualism subsumed in two human states, both of suspension, both temporary, both vacuums before reality: Leaving, Arriving. Total self-absorption becomes its opposite, a vast amorphous condition. The old women squatting, wide-kneed, skirts occupied by the to-and-fro of children, the black-veiled women gazing, jostling, the mouths masticating food, the big bellies of men pregnant with age under white tunics, the tangling patterns of human speech, laughter, exasperation, argument, the clumps of baggage, residue of lives, sum of lives (which?), in a common existence-that-does-not-exist. Julie is no different, she has no sense of who she is in this immersion, everyone nameless . . .” One more description of the ignominious of this earth, among whom we all can be counted, our desolate limbo of life in flesh. Our “common existence that does not exist.”

Abdu’s assumptions about how Julie will adjust to her new life in the dregs of the Muslim world are totally pessimistic. In his own mind he predicts that sooner or later she’ll be out of there and back in South Africa—most likely sooner. His assumptions seem perfectly logical; by all indications Julie has enormous problems ahead of her. One of the big surprises of the book, however, is how easily she adapts to the patriarchal Islamic mores of a small village in the desert; the problems do not materialize. Another assumption—this on the part of the reader, at least one reader, me—is that the newlyweds will soon find their marriage in shambles. Bad beginnings make for bad marriages, and all of their conjugal beginnings have been bad.

The fact that Abdu is reluctant to bring her home with him, angry at her, the fact that he did not really want this marriage forced on him, angry at her, the fact that he considers her move reckless and naïve, angry at her, etc., etc. Resentment upon resentment, all directed at his Western bride, and yet when they begin their new life, living in a lean-to attached to the family domicile, do they quarrel? No. They get on remarkably well together, largely, perhaps, because Julie assumes the role of a subservient wife and adjusts quickly to a world in which she is surrounded by relatives speaking a language (Arabic) that she does not understand.

Much is admirable about Nadine Gordimer’s description of a Muslim family living on the edges of poverty in North Africa. The portrayal of the matriarch, Abdu’s staunch and pious mother, is particularly good. But there is much that is unbelievable about Julie’s adjustment to this way of life. True, her attitude toward everything novel is more than positive. She immediately sets about trying to learn Arabic; she helps with chores around the household, befriends the children; she teaches English to various groups of people in the village. All right, that’s all good. But she is living in a place where electricity works only erratically; is that easy for her? Apparently so. Aren’t there bugs that bite? If so, Julie is never bitten.

What about adjusting to the new food and the local microbes that inhabit that food? No problem. Julie’s only comment on the food is to emphasize, repeatedly, how delicious it is. No stomach or bowel problems for Julie. She even buys and eats fritters from a street vendor and suffers no consequences. When I read that my comment to myself was, “No way.” Soon the newlyweds are a year into their new life, and, to Abdu’s amazement, Julie is still here, and still doing well. But what has she learned about the culture in which she is immersed? Apparently not that much.

A telling detail: she seems not even to have learned the time-worn hunkering-down squat that is emblematic of third-world culture. Here she is taking a walk out into the desert with the child, Leila: “Sometimes hand in hand they moved a short way into the desert from the stump of masonry, a smooth dragging gait imposed by depth of sand, and sat down cross-legged both of them, in the sand. It sifted up, sidled round their backsides, her fleshy one and the child’s neat bones.” Note that Abdu never goes out into the desert, does not particularly approve of Julie’s habit of taking walks out of the village into the sands. The other relatives probably have the same attitude; the desert is the enemy, and local denizens do not feel at one with its emptiness—find a kind of solace in its void—as Julie learns to do over the course of her first year in the village. I cannot prove this, but in my opinion the locals would be shocked to see her sit down in the sand, rather than squat over it. Despite Leila’s young years, I also doubt that she would join Julie in communing with the sand. If the child returned home with sand in her pants she probably would get a good hiding. But there are no descriptions of violence in this North African family.

At one point Julie has visited a rice farm belonging to an acquaintance of Abdu’s father. She naively begins making plans to start growing rice herself, unaware that in Abdu’s country—as in so many countries all over the world—business goes cheek by jowl with corruption. Abdu is aware that the rice farm she has seen is run as a front for a smuggling operation and arms dealing. “We wouldn’t have anything to do with all that,” says Julie. “We would just be growing rice.” Easily said, but not easily done.

Another rather unbelievable thing in the plot of the book is how little friction there is between Abdu (and Julie) and the close relatives. Abdu does not disdain the Islamic religion altogether, but his observance of Muslim ritual is clearly perfunctory. During Ramadan the newlyweds break a serious taboo: they engage in sexual intercourse in the afternoon, when sex is strictly prohibited. No one but Abdu’s mother finds out, but she does not give them away. There are no consequences. Later Abdu’s rich uncle makes what he sees as a generous gesture. He offers to promote Abdu to a position as manager at his auto dealership and garage, and, in effect, name him the direct heir of his business and wealth. Intent on leaving the country, Abdu insults this influential uncle by refusing the offer. In addition, the uncle frowns upon Abdu’s association with rebellious young men of the village, those who question the workings of the government and the patriarchal order. Abdu, however, continues working at the garage, he goes on driving the car his uncle has given him, and, other than his uncle’s resentment, there are no consequences. Too easy.

The Ending

Throughout their year-long stay in North Africa—what Abdu calls “living in the meantime”—he doggedly pursues his dream of getting a visa that will take him back to the Western world. Thanks, largely, to letters written by Julie’s relatives in California—her mother and stepfather live there—his efforts are finally rewarded. He receives permission to enter the U.S.A., and the folk tale formula—departure, initiation, return triumphant—seems on the verge of realization. In Abdu’s case, of course, the formula varies somewhat: (1) repeated departures from his homeland, repeated initiations in adversity, but return home defeated; (2) a final departure into a new Magical Kingdom, The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, where triumph is all but assured, and from where there will be no return. What could be better? California dreaming, a happy ending. The newlyweds leave this desolate village behind and make it big in Silicon Valley. Now they are set to go to “another country” of the poem, “not yours or mine.” But then Julie throws a wrench in Abdu’s spokes, and we get the surprise ending of the novel. “You can go, but I’m staying here.” At first he says to her something like, “I knew it all the time; you’re going back home to South Africa.” But no. “I don’t want to go back there.”

Julie has grown to realize that her pseudo family at the EL-AY Café—what takes the place of a real family for her—consists of a coterie of fools. Assured by birth of a certain ontological succor, they, nonetheless, rebel against the ways of their world while doing nothing of merit, drifting along in what amounts to another Limboland. Well-intentioned, right-thinking Western liberals that they are, they remain, for all that, shallow, haphazard people. The novel is, among other things, an indictment of the puerile younger generation in the West. The elderly poet who sits at their table and speaks as a kind of oracle is as much a fake as all the rest of them. By the time she has been in the Muslim village for nearly a year, Julie has come to see her previous life in South Africa as something unreal. “We were playing at reality; it was a doll’s house, the cottage [where she lived modestly in the black section of the city]; a game, the EL-AY Café.” So I won’t go back there because back there nothing is real. Another ontological void.

Since the book ends with Julie’s remaining in North Africa and Abdu’s departure for the U.S.A., the reader is left to answer a persistent question: why did she do it? Abdu, of course, has seen through the pretentiousness of the EL-AY crowd early on, but—to Julie’s consternation—he views her father’s cronies in the world of high finance as positive; here’s the kind of man he aspires to be: a real person with an identity. This suggests reasons why Julie refuses to go with him to America. Why go with him there if that is what he aspires to be? Another rapacious capitalist, like her father.

Furthermore, Julie, earlier in her life, had lived in the U.S. for a year and found the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave far from a nice place to be: “And again: America, America. The great and terrible U.S.A. Australia, New Zealand—that would have been something better? Anywhere would be. America. The harshest country in the world. The highest buildings to reach up to in corporate positions (there he is, one of the poor devils, the beloved one, climbing a home-made rope ladder up forty storeys); and to jump off from head-first. That’s where the world is. He thinks I don’t know; he doesn’t know.” So much for California dreaming, and, for that matter, for the whole overblown myth of the American Dream.

So she won’t go to America with him because whatever future she sees for him there will not be the future she wants. The first possible future involves his doing what he has done in the West many times before: living the immigrant’s life, working the dirty jobs Americans don’t want—until his visa expires and then he sinks deeper into the dregs, living on illegally in the old familiar limbo world, until he is caught and deported. The second possible future involves his working hard, pulling himself up by the bootstraps, advancing, succeeding, getting more education, then the magical green card, and eventually becoming someone like Nigel Summers, a successful businessman.

Meanwhile, what about Julie and her new life in the wastelands of Islamic North Africa? Here she has learned to be at one with the desert and find some mystical wisdom in that communion. Is that what this whole book is about? About how Julie Summers, who has lived all her life in Limboland, finally finds a place to really be real? About how Julie Summers, a stranger to herself, finally discovers in an alien land who she really is. Or does she? Much is made of her mystical communion with the desert, where one can live in a time void of time. Take this quotation: “The desert. No seasons of bloom and decay. Just the endless turn of night and day. Out of time: and she is gazing—not over it, taken into it, for it has no measure of space, features that mark distance from here to there. In a film of haze there is no horizon, the pallor of sand, pink-traced, lilac-luminous with its own colour of faint light, has no demarcation from land to air. Sky-haze is indistinguishable from sand-haze. All drifts together, and there is no onlooker; the desert is eternity.”

Right. There’s where you can find a place to really be, in a kind of Nihil, which seems remarkably akin to Death. As she tells Abdu, “I thought, I really thought you saw how I was beginning—you make it so hard to explain—to live here. Oh my god. How I was different—not the same as I was back there when you met me.” The enraged Abdu demands she tell him where she got the idea of staying. She knows where, but dare not tell him. “From the desert.” She does not tell him, so he does not react, but we are given his reaction (had she told him): “her decision was a typical piece of sheltered middle-class Western romanticism. Like picking up a grease-monkey.” So how does the book end, with the transcendence of Julie, her having found a place to be, or with Julie’s self-delusion? The author leaves it up to the reader to decide. Me, personally, I find this business of her communing with the desert totally unconvincing—even silly—so I’ll go with Abdu’s take on the matter: a piece of deluded romanticism. Julie may believe that she has finally found herself; she has not.

“Like me, like me, she won’t go back where she belongs,” thinks Abdu, and maybe that’s the main point. This is a book about two people who don’t want to go back where they belong, because they have come to the conclusion that that’s not where they belong. They look elsewhere for a place to belong and be, and at the end of the novel they are still looking, still in Limboland.

Beyond the Bounds of the Action

If an author wants to give a definitive ending to his book he kills off the main character. Take, e.g., Anna Karenina. Tolstoy leaves no room for conjecture about what will happen to Anna after the novel ends, since Anna is dead. But the other main characters live on, so we can speculate as to what will happen to them. This is especially relevant with respect to the character who rivals Anna as central in the novel: Tolstoy’s alter ego, Konstantin Levin. As the book concludes Levin is experiencing bouts of depression, at times on the verge of suicide, and the reader may well worry for him beyond the bounds of the book.

What will happen to Julie and Abdu beyond the bounds of the narrative titled (badly) The Pickup? Given Julie’s (and the author’s?) evaluation of the U.S.A. as “the harshest country in the world,” one might hold little hope for Abdu’s finally finding himself there. But let me say a few words in defense of our beleaguered country. Given the astonishing, utterly depressing events of recent years, the election as President of Bozo the Clown in 2016, his farcical rule, followed by another election, that of 2020, in which over 70 million Americans voted for this crazed moron again, followed by their willing connivance—as well as that of one of our two major political parties—in his attempt to overthrow the whole democratic process; given all these developments, there is reason to fear for the future of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

But the fact remains that the U.S.A. is still among a very limited number of countries that will allow a decent person—one with no connections, no tendencies toward chicanery and criminality, purely on the basis of merit—to make a good life for herself/himself. It cannot be done in that unnamed North African Islamic country, Abdu’s homeland. Probably not in any Islamic country. But in the U.S.A. you can still be a businessman and not be a finagler, not be corrupt, not compromise your principles. Tell that to the average Russian and he’ll gulp and blink his eyes: “You mean there’s a place where I can start my own business and still be honest, and not pay bribes?” This is not to say that if you want to go where the big, big money is made in the U.S. that you can remain uncorrupted. Doubtful. Corruption goes hand in hand with big money. But through merit, brains and sheer hard work you can make a life for yourself. That’s why so many people from all over the world want to come to America. Though tarnished, The American Dream is still alive, and we’re still far from “the harshest country in the world.”

Beyond the bounds of the book, therefore, Abdu has a chance. Furthermore, he need not find success—as Julie fears—by becoming another hardline capitalist like Nigel Summers. Above I have questioned reasons why Archie Summers appears in this book, since the character and his story seem not to belong here. But then, maybe Archie, model human, is here to show an alternate future for Abdu. He doesn’t have to go to America and become another Nigel; he can advance through brains and merit, and he has the option of becoming a man steeped in rectitude: another Archibald Summers.

What about Julie beyond the bounds of the book? I suppose that if you’re an optimist, and, especially, if you find believable her epiphany of the desert, you may assume that she will remain in that little desert village for the rest of her life, taking solace in the Emptiness all around her. My assumption is more mundane: eventually, sooner rather than later, she’ll give up on this desert dream and return to South Africa, where she will live out her life in Liminality, never making it into genuine Being. But then again, isn’t the overriding message of this novel that none of us ever make it totally into the Safe Haven we’re all seeking?


Postscript: A Note on the Style

In 1991 Nadine Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Pickup is a work written some ten years after that award, rather late in her career, which means that she had had much previous experience and much practice in writing fiction. Then why does the book teem with awkwardness in style, with passages so badly written that they are sometimes hard to understand? What follows are a few examples, with my comments in brackets.

Here’s Abdu, who visits Julie in her little cottage: “His occasional presence in this dwelling-place moved further into the nature of its containment of herself.” [Huh?]

“Her breasts are rising and falling under the sweater and the nostrils of her fine nose (he has never thought her beautiful but has always, since the first day when he came out from under a car, thought it so) are stiffened and flared.” [How about a recasting of that sentence? Thought what so?]

Standing in line at the American Consulate: “And even when she took herself off to live in the doll’s house, the only queue she might stand in with the mates from The Table was to gain entry to a cinema. That’s it, for her; in the press of supplicant applicants, she slid her hand behind her to take the hand of hers, among them.” [Did this book have an editor? Did he/she read some of the passages aloud? If so, the “supplicant applicants” would not have passed muster and the rest of that sentence would have been rendered comprehensible.]

The family celebrates Abdu’s good fortune (his imminent departure for America, ostensibly along with Julie): “The human cries in expression of their occasion [meaning, I assume, by way of expressing their joy in the good fortune of the couple] must have sounded out beyond the stump of last dwelling-place abandoned to the sand, wavered to be lost in the desert as the calls of the muezzin were and the cries that she had been told were a pack of jackals in expression of their occasions [I have no idea what this second awkward “expression of occasions” refers to] where they roved, far off, at night.”

“That night, after he had slipped from her body and rills left of her pleasure had ended, she spoke; but then sensed from the rhythm of his breathing that his silence did not mean he had heard what she feared and shamed herself with so that she could hardly goad herself to say what she had to say. He was asleep.” [Hmm. Just to think: a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature wrote that.]

U.R. Bowie, author of Here We Be, Where Be We?

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