Second Novel Syndrome hits Liebenberg hard

The West Rand Jive Cats Boxing Club by Lauren Liebenberg. Virago Press, 2011.

Writing a second novel is a famously daunting experience, so much so that they’ve even named a syndrome after it — Second Novel Syndrome, or SNS. Audience expectations run high, especially when a writer is following up an outstanding debut. No wonder so many authors succumb to the pressure.

The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam was always going to be a tough act to follow. Lauren Liebenberg’s debut novel took critics and readers by storm, culminating in its shortlisting for the Orange Prize for New Writers in 2008. While it was praised as “full-flavoured” (Independent), “outstanding” (Daily Mail), “excellent and unsettling” (Guardian), the follow-up novel has garnered more guarded praise.

Liebenberg is developing a penchant for striking titles which seem, at first glance, impossible to remember. The West Rand Jive Cats Boxing Club is a mouthful. It is much more revealing about the novel’s content, though, than The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam. Set in the late 1950s poor-white mining compounds surrounding Johannesburg, The West Rand Jive Cats Boxing Club tells the story of Tommy and Chris, two friends entering the precarious period of puberty. To escape the harsh realities of their homes – Tommy’s psychopathic and abusive father, his neglectful mother, and Chris’s less violent but also overbearing father – the two youngsters roam the West Rand with their school friends in search of adventure.

Their passion is rock ’n roll and boxing, their heroes Elvis and Little Richard. Boxing coach Jock McGinty and his side-kick, Doc, are next in line for heroic status. When Tommy and Chris are not preparing for their first fight in the Southern Transvaal Junior Championship or the upcoming Krugersdorp Junior Jive Contest, for which Chris has entered on the spur of the moment, the boys test the limits of their courage. Of the two, Tommy seems tougher and more daring, always searching for yet another adrenaline kick. With a growing sense of apprehension Chris observes a dangerous recklessness creeping into Tommy’s behaviour as his father’s violence pushes him closer and closer to the edge.

On the night of the championship, which is also the night of the Junior Jive contest, Tommy’s little sister Cece vanishes. As a result, Chris and Tommy have to face entirely different rites of passage. A horrific chain of events alters their lives forever.

The West Rand Jive Cats Boxing Club is divided into two parts. The first takes us up to the events of that fateful night and its immediate aftermath. The second, more of an epilogue than a substantial part of the novel in its own right, narrates the long-term effects of the choices Tommy and Chris made in 1958. The book could have done without this awkward, gloomy anti-climax, which squeezes Chris’s life into a few paragraphs.

A large portion of the novel is told from Chris’s perspective. His tale is interspersed with a few short chapters narrated by Cece. These interludes, however, unnecessarily disrupt the flow of the novel and do very little for the overall structure.

The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam charmed readers with the irresistible innocence and authenticity of the sister duo – Nyree and Cia – at its centre. In spite of some plot echoes and similar character dynamics in the second book, these are qualities which The West Rand Jive Cats Boxing Club lacks. Both stories are recounted by children. Nyree, who is just nine years old, persuasively manages to convey the broader picture of her historical moment (the last throes of the Rhodesian Bush War), which is far beyond her own understanding, without losing the credibility of her young voice. But Cece, and especially Chris, who is older and thus potentially more aware of the circumstances, fail in this regard. We are confronted with exclamations such as the following, by Chris: “And I felt as if a shadow had fallen across the land. So much hatred had bled into the soil, I could feel it roiling beneath my feet with anger … or was it sorrow.” This right after his father rants “about sheltered employment for dim-witted in-breds”, and one of the other adult characters complains about the English having had “our balls chopped off, but we console ourselves that politics is a dirty game, particularly in a situation that demands the constant suppression of a swelling black population”.

The weaving of the intimately personal into the larger socio-political context, so seamless in the debut, becomes clumsy and stilted in The West Rand Jive Cats Boxing Club, lending the novel a disjointed feel. This failure might be due to the fact that Liebenberg, who grew up in the old Rhodesia of the 1970s, could draw on her own experience in the writing of her first novel, while she had to rely on other people’s stories and her own research for The West Rand Jive Cats Boxing Club.

The new novel takes place just ten years into apartheid, with the demise of the Union of South Africa around the corner; not only racial, but also English-Afrikaans tensions are rife throughout the country. Many descriptive passages and chunks of dialogue read like short, often stereotypical, essays on topics pertaining to this era, instead of being fully integrated parts of the narrative. Liebenberg actually returns to Rhodesia in the second part of The West Rand Jive Cats Boxing Club, almost as if running for safety, allowing her characters to migrate north. However, the sketchy nature of this move is not lively enough to secure a sense of necessity for this section of the novel.

The caricature-like portrayal of some of the interpersonal relationships is equally unconvincing. For example, the sadism of Tommy’s father, and his mother’s listlessness, are never truly explained, and the origins of their abnormal behaviour not even hinted at; Cece’s strange bond with the servant Vilikazi, too, verges on implausibility (it reads like a poor recreation of the connection between Nyree and Jobe in The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam).

What makes The West Rand Jive Cats Boxing Club worthwhile at times are the moments when Liebenberg returns to the stylistically impressive ease and freshness of her first novel to capture particular episodes in the second. Dancing and boxing are two spectacles which, in real life, rely on acoustic and visual effects for impact, and thus present a real challenge for fiction, if their specific dynamics are to be represented ‘only’ in words. Liebenberg succeeds, and this is where the novel shines most brightly:

I could hear feet thumping on the floorboards – the tremors were coursing right through my pelvis – and now I was revving up to gooi in some pata-pata. As I started grinding lower, I had a vague twinge of doubt, but the music was throbbing and I couldn’t help it: I was almost quivering. The thing that had taken hold of Dolly’s sax player had me in its grip – I was seething, my hips and shoulders and feet gelling with some secret lubricant.

However, these engaging passages are obscured by another stylistic feature – Liebenberg’s attempt to recreate the flavour of the South African vernacular of the time. The result is like reading a book in a foreign language of which one has only a relatively good grasp. Every few pages you find yourself groping for the extensive glossary at the back, hoping that halfway through the novel you will get the hang of the lingo. Unfortunately, it never sticks. The frustration is intensified by a sense of overdone cursing, with so many jisises, Christ’s sakes, and shits in the mix that it was difficult to take much more of it after a while.

If it’s true that one is only as good as one’s second novel, as Luke Leitch once proclaimed, then Liebenberg’s talent might be judged very harshly indeed. But based on the enormous promise of her debut, her third novel will still be eagerly awaited.