Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human, Umuzi, 2013.
Charlie Human’s debut novel, Apocolypse Now Now (2013), is a carnival of the dark, sordid realities of being young in a place that forces one to grow up faster than adults would readily acknowledge. Baxter Zevencko, the champion of Human’s novel, is similar to the stereotypical teenager; except, he is not stereotypical at all.
Zevencko and his friends are part of a gang named “The Spider”, which comprises one element of a trio of criminal activity loosely based on the school grounds of Westridge, an affluent high school located in the “leafy Southern Suburbs” (16). In a place where “lush school grounds, sophisticated labs that were out of date as soon as they were installed, a debating team, a competitive rugby team, and gangs, drugs, bulimia, depression and bullying” (16) are seemingly the norm, Zevencko and his adolescent cronies make their money and define their name within the world of creature pornography.
Except, this is not really the case, as much of the novel is not what it seems. Zevencko wakes one morning and lazily heads to school only to find that his girlfriend, Esme, is missing, and he becomes the main suspect in the investigation of her disappearance. He meets Jackie Ronin, a bounty hunter, and the two explore the underbelly of Cape Town in all its fantastic, mythical and morally repugnant forms. Zevencko and Ronin navigate backstreets and alleys, warehouses and abandoned homes, encountering a vast array of magical images and people who are able to offer snippets of information and clues as to what exactly is happening with Zevencko’s girlfriend, and the novel as a whole.
Human’s narrative blends forms of magical realism and post-modern elements to create an amalgamation of reality in an illustration of a Cape Town that does not necessarily understand its own identity. During their journey, Zevencko and Ronin meet with terrifying winged-creatures, shamans, elementals, sprites and a myriad of other individuals who derive their powers from within, deep below what is visible on the surface. As the two characters voyage through the limits of this seedy world, Zevencko struggles to find strength within and is forced to abandon older notions of what is real and what is not in order to arrive at the truth, situated somewhere between fact and fiction.
One of the most interesting aspects of Apocalypse Now Now is Zevencko’s relationship with his older brother, Rafe. Developmentally challenged, Rafe constantly antagonises Zevencko with drawings and an impressive collection of history books. Their relationship draws strength from South Africa’s past; Rafe is obsessed with Afrikaner history, a noticeably uncomfortable topic for Zevencko who seems to discard that epoch with as much ease as the cigarettes he tosses into the gutters of Cape Town. Through Zevencko and Rafe, Human highlights the obviously poignant connection between the past, present and future of Cape Town and South Africa at large, which does not seem to understand what it is, or what it wants to be.
One of Zevencko’s abilities, and that which makes him exceptional, are his powers as a Siener, allowing him to gain access to a realm of unconscious being in which the pillars of identity are seemingly challenged, and primarily formed. “Siener” is a term from Afrikaans folklore, and as the novel progresses, the reader becomes more aware of how Zevencko became one. As a result of this power, he is able to engage with the supernatural realms of Cape Town in ways that accentuate the squalid images and conflicts he and Ronin take on. As a Siener, Zevencko connects with his past in a way that seems authentic and not cauterised by the pens of historians and the intelligentsia. Many of the external conflicts Zevencko is forced to deal with stem from his inability to reconcile the quarrels, both conscious and unconscious, brewing internally. In order to find Esme, he has to engage with his abilities as a Siener in an attempt to understand where he has come from, and where he is going. Ultimately, Zevencko has to confront the blurred lines and words of history so he can situate himself in a temporally dislocated environment, the likes of which Human exaggerates – hyperbolically at times – so as to emphasise the madness and hectic undertones shifting within the heart of the narrative.
Through its focus on Zevencko’s reluctance to confront the origins of his ability as a Siener, the novel aptly demonstrates the inconsistencies associated with the formation of individual and collective identities. Much of the narrative’s humour is associated with the stereotypes and catch-all terms utilised in the construction of identity. Zevencko’s struggle to understand his place in the present and the expectations he has for the future are ultimately rooted in his past, which is, as a temporal aspect of the narrative, not necessarily his; rather it is a shared experience and process that Ronin seems to undergo too, as he is forced to confront his behaviour in the events prior to meeting Zevencko.
Human uses the metaphor established by the development of Zevencko as a Siener to connect the reader with historical elements and myths specific to South Africa. This fact, however, is where the book loses a bit of traction, especially outside of the borders of South Africa. Much of the humour and wit is derived from precise examples of stereotypes associated with a place like Cape Town. There are snippets of essential information required by the reader in order to understand some of the whimsical quips Human beautifully writes.
Although the narrative seems too ambitious at times, the images in the novel present a confusing mosaic of the real and the imagined. In a country like South Africa, in which the lines between fact and fiction have become increasingly blurred, Apocalypse Now Now succeeds in amplifying this ambiguity in narrative form. The novel is an impressive debut for a new writer, expanding the field of "post-apocalyptic" writing in South Africa. Apocalypse Now Now is a book that will leave the reader laughing, confused, happy and sad; but these terms seem inadequate in describing the beauty and charm of the novel, especially when considering Zevencko’s inability to define himself in a world of empty, overused terms. In reading this novel, Human takes the reader on a journey into the colourful, bewildering setting that is Cape Town. Do yourself a favour and take the plunge.