Seeking meaning in a world coming undone

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December 11, 2005|By JOAN MELLEN | JOAN MELLEN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Get A Life: A Novel

Nadine Gordimer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux / 187 pages

The people in Get A Life, Nadine Gordimer's 14th novel, are ecologists, lawyers, businessmen and advertising executives. The setting is South Africa, the Southern Hemisphere, planet Earth, the universe. At stake is the future of an imperiled world. In the dry, ironic tones of a Cassandra, in an essay-like novel, Gordimer proposes that urgent attention be paid to how human greed has erected its last stand against nature, while personal and planetary survival hang in the balance.

Like her fellow Nobel laureate, J.M. Coetzee, Gordimer has defied the assumption that with the dismantling of apartheid the subject matter of South African literature has been depleted. Get A Life asserts that the struggles of her homeland have barely begun.

At its center is Paul, an ecologist, messianic in his determination to prevent an Australian mining company from decimating the environment in its quest for titanium, a project that includes the construction of a toll road that would wreak havoc on nature. When the novel opens, Paul, recovering from radiation treatment for cancer, in a science-fictional premise emits radioactive energy to others. Forced into quarantine from his wife and son, he becomes a living symbol of the planet in distress.

Change substitutes for dramatized action in Gordimer, whose subject is mutability. Personal life is about negotiating change for the good of more than one, and so is politics. Get A Life is peppered with Gordimer's observations of how social life in South Africa has been transmuted by the demise of apartheid, as Paul's mother, Lyndsay, decides to adopt a black child, a rape victim afflicted with AIDS, an act unthinkable under the "old regime."

The equalities gained with the fall of apartheid are tenuous and fragile, however; harmony between black and white is as susceptible to annihilation as the planet itself, a danger epitomized by the nuclear reactor awaiting construction in the background of the novel. One man recovering from cancer becomes the story of the fate of the environment, as the personal cannot be imagined, Gordimer insists, apart from history's mandates. Love is defined as "commitment to the fulfillment of the loved one." What binds human beings to others bespeaks health; what isolates, the "dislocations of human existence," are its peril.

People, for Gordimer, derive their sense of well-being not so much from the personal as from their active involvement as citizens in the affairs of state. Lyndsay is most herself as a constitutional lawyer, and then a judge, battling government corruption. Paul's life is most meaningful through his efforts to safeguard the land in jeopardy. Everything is connected, and Paul's quarantine is an emblem of the segregation of apartheid. Paul's irradiation no less evokes for Gordimer the deformed children born after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Victories are difficult to come by. Lyndsay was fortunate that her legal work opposing the old regime came at a moment when there was "world support" for the liberation movement, for sanctions. No less is Lyndsay navigating the shoals of the post-feminist woman, rich in career and the freedom to finance her "atavism." Her love affair endangers the fabric of her marriage, and while there is seeming "truth and reconciliation" with her husband, Adrian, as there was between whites and blacks after apartheid, a devastating price awaits payment. Lyndsay discovers that the affair was an interruption of her selfhood rather than an expression of freedom.

"Everyone, like it or not, admit it or not, acts upon the world in some way," Gordimer asserts, even as the world spins away into suicide bombings, deadly viruses, and nuclear capability so that "success" becomes "a disaster put on hold." She chastises the U.S., "the power with a foot on everyone's doorstep," and decries that country for its resistance to nuclear non-proliferation. She believes that the life best lived involves commitment to what links a person with history.

Evoking "the end of poverty," she does not evade the reality that "black empowerment" in her country has been co-opted by the corporations that continued to dominate the new South Africa. It's a heady set of ideas that Gordimer sets before us, disguised as a novel. Here, there are none of the easy, vicarious pleasures of reader identification with characters. Defying its eccentric title, Get A Life is an important, challenging contribution to a much-needed contemporary discourse.

Joan Mellen's "A Farewell to Justice: Jim Garrison, JFK's Assassination and The Case That Should Have Changed History" has just been published by Potomac Books. She teaches in the graduate program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia.

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