The following review of Jason Staggie's debut novel, Risk, was written as part of the Contemporary Literary Practice (CLP) module* in the English Honours degree at Stellenbosch University, under the tutorship of Leon de Kock. Publisher Umuzi kindly provided the final proofs of the novel shortly before its publication.
Risk by Jason Staggie, Umuzi, 2013.
Read Risk, the debut novel by South African writer, Jason Staggie, at your own risk! Risk is not for the fainthearted. This novel is a compelling but unsettling read. The voice of Nelson, the novel’s central character, exposes the reader to a dark and dangerous side of Cape Town’s society. Risk bravely engages with topics that are taboo in the “new” South Africa. Undoubtedly, the raw, crude language is a challenge. However, the narrator’s honest, reflective, and at times philosophical voice counterbalances the gratuitous, drug-induced, violent sex scenes. The reader will grapple with a myriad of issues: race, identity, whiteness, belonging, hybridity, the objectification of women, poverty, unemployment, crime, drugs, promiscuity and HIV/AIDS. All these themes can be exhumed from under the sex motif that weaves its way throughout the novel.
Set in Cape Town, Risk is a novel that fits into the genre of the Bildungsroman. It is a story about Nelson, a young black University of Cape Town student on a journey of self- discovery. Nelson spends most of his time drinking, taking drugs, and having sex with his white girlfriend Tiffany, his black girlfriend Nomsa or any available female. His parents, who named him Nelson after Nelson Mandela, have no idea that their son is an “almost” college dropout. Nelson is overwhelmed by the burden of this historical “duty” and thinks it is impossible to try and live up to his name, so he chooses a life of debauchery. It is his Aunt who discovers his drug habit and takes him to a sangoma to have the “darkness” (53) cleansed out of him. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes apparent that purging Nelson off drugs has to be Nelson’s own quest.
Nelson’s friends are an interesting mix. Troy is a coloured college drop-out said to be living in the sphere of contradiction: a promiscuous social play-maker who writes the most beautiful poetry, does every drug imaginable, will literally spit and piss on you if you anger him, yet every Sunday you will find him at an orphanage doing volunteer work (9).
Troy’s inner conflict is evident when he forms “The Movement” in order to incite social change in what, according to him, is a “fucking confused country and an extremely fucking confused continent” (94). Troy intends to unite all Africans in a bid to make them aware that the continent’s confusion is a result of being robbed of its resources. He intends to put up a fight against international conglomerates, the perpetrators of Africa’s social ills. But the methods that Troy employs are questionable, as they include the rape of high profile politicians. The reader has to question whether “The Movement”, as a counter-subculture, succeeds in its political aims or if its members are merely bored, angry college dropouts looking for fun.
Nelson’s other ally Jeff, is a white dreadlocked former philosophy student who lives off his parents. He attributes their generosity to “parental guilt” (9) due to a messy divorce and sending him to boarding school for thirteen years. Jeff does not mind extorting money from his parents to pay his rent and to buy his food, alcohol and drugs. Despite their diverse backgrounds, the three troubled young adults get along famously but behave in a way that shows how they struggle with belonging in post-apartheid South Africa. The new South Africa has displaced the status quo, and in the new social hierarchy Jeff’s being white no longer guarantees him a place at the top. Being caught somewhere between black and white manifests in anger for Troy. Nelson struggles to come to terms with the new South Africa where things come too easily for blacks like him.
Nelson’s black girlfriend Nomsa is convinced that the colonial legacy has left South African blacks with the desire to be “more white than white” (18). She berates Nelson for having a “trophy” (18) white girlfriend. Nomsa advises Nelson to enlighten himself by reading Frantz Fanon’s thoughts on decolonisation. According to Nomsa, black men suffer from “lactification” (18), an inferiority complex which makes them want to date white women. She maintains that “it doesn’t matter how ugly that white bitch is, she will always find a willing man in a black man!” (18). If the reader manages to get past the offensive language, this incident in Risk looks at the complexities of interracial relationships. Nomsa cannot accept that Nelson likes his white girlfriend Tiffany for who she is. Instead, she sees it as his desire for whiteness.
Nelson’s friend Stephen, neither believes in the rainbow nation, nor is he an Africanist. He plans to leave Africa for greener pastures to pursue a life where “true civilisation started [and] ancient cultures [...] are still holding their beliefs today” (31). His friends think he is a “sad pessimistic fuck” (32) who is emulating many South Africans deserting the country for places like the United Kingdom and Australia. Nelson asserts that South Africans should unite, and that leaving is an act of cowardice. This angers Stephen who sees no place in the new democracy for his coloured people. According to Stephen, he is still a second-class citizen and that “all that has changed is the pecking order. We used to be second to the whites, now we’re second to the blacks” (32). Stephen is disillusioned and views affirmative action as advantageous to black men only. He tells his friends that the “new” South Africa is a lie and that for coloureds it is “all just déjà vu” (32). One can see how the narrative confronts problems of race and unemployment; and exposes the dilemma faced by some sectors of South African society.
Earlier on I mentioned the distress that will be experienced by some readers due to the graphic sexual scenes that pervade the novel. Strong feelings will be evoked when confronted by the scene where Troy has unprotected sex with a girl of fifteen. The reader has to overlook the crudity of the language in order to face an issue that has caused uproar in our society. The problem is that of men having sex with virgins in the belief that they do not have HIV/AIDS or that sleeping with a virgin will cure them. In dealing with this matter Staggie “pushes the envelope”, because such behaviour is alive and well in our communities although it is hardly acknowledged. The novel reveals how young girls are sex objects whose lives are at risk. The young girl that Troy has sex with is treated like a “thing” that is good for nothing but sex. Nelson describes Troy as walking into the living room “with his arm around a pretty young blond thing” (29). Troy boasts that he has already had three virgins that week and that he has not used a condom, making him the first one to “plant the flag” (29). Despite Troy being aware of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, his drug-fuelled lifestyle causes him to take risks, and in all likelihood spread the disease.
Being high and staying high is the one thing that Nelson and his friends do with great abandon. Nelson relates his meeting with Sharla, an asylum seeker from Eritrea waiting to be granted refugee status. In minute detail he explains how she prepares crack for smoking, marvelling at her technique, which he has never seen before. In my view, this scene will definitely make some readers apprehensive and indeed question if it is necessary to provide such dangerous information. One wonders, if at times, the novel is merely a sex and drug user’s manual. I believe this is caused by the insufficient critical distance between the narrator and the narration. Irony and/or satire could have been employed as a narrative device, to show up the behaviour described as socially and humanly destructive. At times it almost seems as if the narrator is valorising the drug-taking; as if he is describing his own experience with bravado, which makes for a naïve piece of fiction. The only redeeming feature in this chapter is Nelson’s empathy for immigrants, which is revealed, unfortunately, through the sharing of drugs. However, I question whether Nelson relapses due to lack of self discipline. The narrator says Nelson cannot win against “peer pressure [the] bitch that is perpetually giving out” (57). Is it justified to suggest that Nelson’s struggle to give up drugs is due to the social injustices he sees around him?
As someone who has lived in Cape Town for just over three years, I read Risk from the perspective of an outsider looking in. I find the novel very informative regarding the darker side of Cape Town society. Even though I am averse to the pornographic nature of the book, I think it is necessary to be aware of the prevalence of crime and under what social conditions it takes place. If one removes the offensive language, one sees how the novel addresses very pertinent societal issues.
Some young adults will find the novel captivating due to Staggie’s familiar register, especially his use of tsotsitaal and slang. Staggie uses original metaphors that bring in much-needed humour. His characters are real people, with real struggles. Personally I find the character of Troy engaging and fascinating, although he evoked mixed feelings in me. On the whole, Risk is a social commentary that will shock the reader. One is forced to have a good look at the problems that have emanated from the painful apartheid past. If you have an open mind, are curious and not squeamish, take a risk and read Risk.
*The CLP module covers the politics of literary prestige inherent in literary prizes and other acts of cultural consecration; the ethics and practice of literary reviewing in contemporary South Africa; local plagiarism “scandals”; the Digital Humanities; the sociology of cultural rituals such as literary festivals and book launches; literary journalism as a practice; literary translation; and creative writing in workshop conditions (both as practice and as a pedagogic issue).