Clelland’s novel warrants stronger engagement

EVENT: James Clelland: Deeper than Colour (Friday, 23 September; Townhouse Imbizo)



James Clelland, author of Deeper than Colour, talks to Mervyn Sloman.

A colleague recently remarked – certainly with a conspiratorial thrum – on a wish fulfillment fantasy in local fiction: white men, he suggested, are anguishing over their personal problems and projecting them as national. The logic, presumably, is to mark themselves as “fucked up”; as possessing a historically rotted interior that licenses to them the moaning rights of their more materially dispossessed black counterparts. It’s a controversial thesis, but no more controversial than James Clelland’s Deeper than Colour, which seethes with misogyny, racism and anomie. Strange, then, that interlocutor Mervyn Sloman’s line of questioning only ever skirts this danger, and is more concerned with literary-formal matters than the sociopolitical.

Clelland’s debut was the recipient of the 2010 EU Literary Award, whose stated project is to promote “fresh South African literature that speaks, not only to South Africans, but also to an international audience”. Its critical reception in South Africa has not quite reached the same crescendos, but critics have been arrested by its anger – thwarted, misdirected – which is its dominant mode of expression. One might reach for Carl Jung to describe its central thematic: “modern man in search of a soul.” But this particular modern man is curiously constituted. He is a PTSD-sufferer and a veteran of the Namibia/Angola border wars. It is strange that Clelland names this wound – it is explicit, medical: post-traumatic stress disorder. Because his character exhibits the qualities not simply of the scarred leftovers of combat, but, possessed of neurosis, hypocrisy, contradiction, he urges us toward global conditions of masculinity, of a patriarchy that can no longer support its premises. His corrosive anger is overdetermined, and one would imagine that its constitutive factors are far more diffuse and even opaque.

To the nine-strong crowd of attendees (six of whom are women), Clelland quotes Damon Galgut in relation to his novel – “memory as fiction”. “It’s a wonderful quote,” says Clelland, “because memory does warp and twist.” The relevance is to the novel’s perspectival structure – narration by Angus Smith, his wife, his mother, his therapist – which allows multiple vantage points on its protagonist. Clelland tells the audience, “Everyone is living their own fiction, so you’re never quite sure who to believe.” Life as a kind of fiction, a free-flowing film without break or suspension, is deployed by another strong narrative device in the work. Smith, in a gesture of caricatural 21st-century solipsism decides to film his entire domestic life. He mounts disguised surveillance equipment in his rooms, and then retreats to his study at night to observe and obsess over his existence. It’s both a fascinating and banal pursuit, of a man trying to escape his history, trying to find a present tense of existence in which he isn’t already determined, guided. I am reminded of French philosopher Henri Bergson’s quotation that “the pure present is the ungraspable advance of the past devouring the future”. In this sense the work has a parallel to Double Negative, in which Ivan Vladislavic more artistically renders the problem, writing beautifully: “I lay in the dark with the bitter knowledge that I had unlearned the art of getting lost.”

The path of the questions travels through the relationship between writer and character. “There are certain elements of anger shared between Angus and me,” says Clelland. “But I feel I’m more passionate than angry. His anger is not focused; it’s directed at everything.”  Elsewhere, Clelland is passionately opposed to the pharmaceutical industry, when he diatribes against its “drugs as commerce” policy. He borrows from psychiatrist/poet R.D. Laing, who described his job as “drugging those who see life differently to make the ‘normal’ ones seem more calm”. And later he speaks of his research for the novel, including interviewing a crackpot ex-military neighbour: “I rented a flat to a gentleman once who used to sit up all night with a gun, hoping someone would steal his car so he could kill them.”

The questions are conversational and easy – Sloman admits several times to an admiration for the novel – but it occurs on a terrain very different from where the real conflict is happening. Masculinity is hardly mentioned. Racism and race relations are altogether absent. When Clelland is asked about the title, he says, “The first title was ‘Trying Not to Fall’ [an allusion to J.M. Coetzee]. There’s been a lot of comment from people who think [the title] might have something to do with the colour problem in this country, which is interesting because I’d never thought of that.” This is a perplexing confession, because the title has been overwhelmingly received as having a racial dimension. Clelland’s novel is strongly-written and relevant, but also controversial and contradictory. It requires a stronger critical engagement than was exhibited during this discourse to explode its themes and consequences for our society. And the gulf between the aesthetic sympathies of the EU adjudicators and our own critics certainly warrants exploration.