Saturday, June 23, 2012

The End is Where We Start From

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute in Zoë Wicomb’s Playing in the Light

Writers often struggle with endings.  Playing in the Light, Zoë Wicomb’s novel, ends with a whiplash that redirects the narrative. What should readers make of the turnabout in the last paragraphs of the book –– the short conversation that results in Marion pulling over and telling Brenda to get out of the car?

Marion swerves, pulls off the road. Her voice is cold with rage. So in the guise of a do-gooder, you went back to prise more out of a lonely, senile old man who was grateful for your visits? Sis. How dare you! Why don’t you write your own fucking story?
I know it’s a rhetorical question, but let me answer all the same. Writing my own story, I know, is what someone like me is supposed to do, what we all do, they say, whether we know it or not, but Christ, what story do I have to tell?
…Now your father, there’s a story, with his pale skin as capital, ripe for investment…
That’s enough. Get out. I know my father’s fucking story.
Actually, Brenda says, I suspect you don’t.
She keeps her eyes averted as she gets out. Her thumb flicks at the lock before she shuts the door with a quiet click.

The twist-in-the-tail ending, transforming what went before, is a classic feature of the short story, but is rarely used in novels. How well does the technique work here? Brilliantly.

And to make an end is to make a beginning.  So the novel begins with an ironic title, and with an oddly diffident central character.

“Playing in the Light” is a delightful phrase suggesting innocence. In fact, Zoë Wicomb’s novel of that name exposes the excruciatingly cautious and secretive lives of mixed race South Africans who passed for white under apartheid. 

From the beginning, Playing in the Light tells the story of Marion Campbell, an Afrikaner who runs a travel agency but hates to travel, an attractive middle-aged woman who lives alone, chary of romance and friendship. 

Wicomb’s publisher summarizes Marion’s story as follows: “Fresh off hiring her first black employee, Marion, usually not preoccupied with national politics, becomes entrenched in the happenings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings after a photo in a newspaper triggers a lost childhood memory. What she knows about herself and her family’s past all comes into question as she is forced to uncover the lies all too often told by families seeking to avoid the hardships of apartheid.”

Marion hires Brenda, a young colored woman who gradually, and disconcertingly, becomes a more and more significant presence in Marion’s life. Toward the story’s end, while Marion travels to London, Brenda visits, attends to, and interviews John, Marion’s father, an old man whose dementia has not completely destroyed his memories of life under apartheid.

The ending of Playing in the Light poses a challenge. Why does the novel end with Marion leaving Brenda by the side of the road? Marion virtually jettisons Brenda when she finds out that Brenda is writing a novel about her father, John. In leaving Brenda by the side of the road, Wicomb upends the reader, whose assumptions about the meaning of Marion’s story, and John’s, must now be reconsidered.

Within the world disclosed by the narrator, there is a double consciousness: that of Marion and, gaining momentum by the end, that of Brenda.

In the middle section of the book –– in which the author tells the stories of Marion’s mixed race parents, Helen and John – Wicomb prepares the reader in a subtle way for the abrupt shift that takes place in the novel’s final paragraphs. Wicomb does this by moving the story away from Marion, for while the lives of Helen and John are part of Marion’s story – and her discovery about herself – there are aspects of her parents’ lives under apartheid that Marion can neither imagine nor understand.

What we call the beginning is often the end. At the beginning of Playing in the Light, Brenda appears to play a supporting role in the tale of a white-identified colored woman who takes a journey into the heart of South African darkness, and learns to view the evils of apartheid from a new, informed perspective. Brenda, with her full-fledged colored identity, is introduced as a secondary character: Marion’s new hire, and the first colored worker at Marion’s travel agency. Brenda gradually becomes Marion’s friend – a simpatico adjunct much like the black friend or sidekick in so many American television dramas.

With its whiplash ending, the novel supplants Marion’s perspective with Brenda’s. As the author of John’s story, is Brenda to be identified with the author of Playing in the Light? Brenda becomes the writer of a novel within the novel, perhaps akin to the writer of the novel itself.

Wicomb highlights the authority of Marion’s and Brenda’s perspectives by describing one woman as Reader, the other as Writer.

Marion’s internal journey takes her to a place where she is just beginning to enjoy reading for pleasure. (The book she reads in her London hotel room, The Conservationist, is by Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel prize-winning white South African writer of English ancestry.) As a reader, Marion is baffled by the experience of identification with a book’s characters. She finds such identification, when it clicks, intense and emotionally wrenching. Yet Marion is just beginning to understand the process of identification with a literary character, and finds that there is not always a comfortable fit between her experience and that of the characters she reads about.

Brenda’s desire to write a novel is casually mentioned early on, so it is a surprise to learn that she is writing John’s story. Explaining her motivation as a writer in the novel’s final scene, Brenda tells Marion how her writing project came together, and why she believes John’s story is the one that should be told.

Even after an epiphany in her London hotel room, watching the play of light on the wall, Marion’s consciousness remains stunted. Back in Capetown, she imagines Brenda has stolen her man. As indeed she has. But it is not Geoff, Marion’s white corporate colleague and sometime boyfriend, whom Brenda has taken: it is John, Marion’s beloved, often forgetful father, who yet remembers his past. Has Brenda indeed inveigled her way into John’s life and opportunistically stolen his story? Or has she visited and comforted him in Marion’s absence, and been rewarded by the outpouring of his memories?

Marion rejects Brenda as the author of John’s story. Despite her journey toward self-awareness, Marion rejects the notion that her father’s story, and by implication her own, might be meaningful to a wider community. Like her mother Helen, Marion wants to keep the story of their family private.

Playing in the Light is not, after all, a linear narrative: a journey of self-discovery by the daughter of play-white parents. Marion’s consciousness, even after she opens up through travel and reading, is far too limited to comprehend the history of apartheid, and the complex identity of South Africa’s colored people before and after liberation. Unexpectedly, it is Brenda’s consciousness (from her sharp remarks about no one having voted for the Nationalist Party to her intimate knowledge of racism) that prevails. It is Brenda’s authenticity, grounded in her colored – as opposed to play-white – experience, that redirects our understanding of the novel. 


Unknown said...

Interesting implications on the issues of Memory and Identity. That inter-relationship was much played out and explored among the ancient Greeks, one of whose basic assumptions was that we mortals can become 'immortal' in only one way: by being remembered amongst future generations, and that future commemoration is, in a subtle way, what gives us Identity. If we give the future no reason, or indeed the means (if we just disappear, for example, shipwrecked at sea) to commemorate us in memory, it is as if we never existed, had 'identity'. We have to give, and leave behind us when we die, some kind of account of ourselves that projects safely into the future - without memorial there is no memory, and without memory there is neither identity nor history....

Unknown said...

This comment is very interesting in and of itself. In relation to Zoë Wicomb's novel, set in 1990s Cape Town, the operative phrase would be "We have to give and leave behind us when we die some kind of account of ourselves that projects safely into the future..." Marion sets out on her path of self-discovery against the background of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, instituted in 1995. For Marion growing up, nothing was safe; as the child of play white parents, every aspect of her social life had to be controlled. She is simply not ready for any account of her life that may have been wrested from the memory of her unsuspecting father. But Brenda, who is younger and has grown up on a clear side of the racial divide, is ready for this truth to come out. Here, though, there is no memorial, just the possibility of a clearer truth and perhaps,one day, reonciliation.