Down and out

July 24, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

Got No Secrets. Danila Botha; $18.95 paper 978-1-926639-08-6, 144 pp., Tightrope Books.

Johannesburg-born author Danila Botha’s debut collection is the latest in a line of books by writers such as Heather O’Neill, Zoe Whittall, and Stacey May Fowles that centre on the existential anxiety of young women as filtered through their characters’ experiences with drugs, sex, and urban anomie. Not surprisingly, Botha claims both O’Neill and Whittall as influences. Equally unsurprising, Botha evinces both the best and the worst tendencies of the writers with whom she has cast her lot: on the plus side, a willingness to plumb the depths of undeniably dark material, and on the minus side, a postmodern subjectivity that veers too often into solipsism, coupled with a technique that is unrefined and choppy.

The stories in Got No Secrets cover a great deal of geographical territory – from South Africa to Toronto – but the emotional territory of the book is more proscribed. The collection’s dozen stories mostly focus on young women who attempt to escape the malaise of their lives by taking refuge in drugs or boys or television, or some combination of all three. In “My So-Called Date,” a young woman who has been raped by her ex-boyfriend tries to find a more loving relationship with a screenwriter in Toronto. “Smacked” features an advertising copywriter in New York who graduates from relatively mild drugs like MDMA to dangerous experiences with cocaine and heroin. The two roommates in “Paradox” turn their backs on school and work in favour of anonymous hook-ups and a spiralling descent into drug addiction.

“Paradox,” which opens the collection, takes its title from the first-person narrator’s tenth grade definition of the word: “every day of our lives we are one step closer to death.” This is one of the few acknowledgments of mortality in the book; more often, Botha’s characters are plagued by anxiety or panic at their situations and a yearning to escape into a better set of circumstances. The last line of “A Tiny Thud” – “I guess I have to start moving” – is emblematic of the realization that Botha’s luckier protagonists manage to work themselves up to: a recognition of the fact that a life centred around heroin and endless episodes of The Simpsons is ultimately insufficient to combat the pain and heartache that is an essential part of the human condition.

But this revelation is not itself particularly enlightening; the ground that Botha covers has been well trod by writers as diverse as Irvine Welsh, Joel Thomas Hynes, Jay McInerney, and Denis Johnson. Botha’s distaff take on the material doesn’t really add anything in the way of understanding, and too often tossed-off references to Black Flag or Family Guy are made to stand in for character development. There is an undeniable sameness to most of these stories: with the exception of the final two – “A Pregnant Man,” about a woman undergoing hormone therapy preparatory to having sex reassignment surgery who decides that her final act as a woman will be to give birth, and “Just Friends,” the only story in the collection narrated by a man – all of these stories feel as though they are being told by the same person, from the same perspective, and focusing on the same set of anxieties and dilemmas. Moreover, many of the stories are underdeveloped and consequently don’t carry the necessary force. A story like “Lucky,” which runs to a scant seven pages, feels thin on the ground, and as a result its climactic violence seems unearned.

On the level of technique, the material suffers from prose that relies too heavily on clichéd phrases and constructions. On the first page, we are told that the sun “is beating down”; several pages later, the narrator muses that if she passes a test she wrote while hung over it will be “a small miracle.” A ringing telephone beats at her brain “like a jackhammer,” and her friend Tina is described as “a speed demon.” In another story, the narrator gets so angry she “can’t see,” and in yet another the narrator imagines the way a man would “wrap his arms around [her] waist and sweep [her] up,” how she would “feel all the tension draining out of [her] body.” Elsewhere, careless writing denudes the impact of Botha’s sentences; in “The Pregnant Man,” for instance, the narrator listens as the boys in her school “talk about wanting to bang girls with envy.” (Most boys of that age would want to bang girls with vigour or with gusto, not with envy.)

Still, Botha’s evident empathy for marginalized and underclass characters does lend her stories moments of poignancy. But these moments are undercut by a succession of first-person narrators who are too self-absorbed to realize that they are the authors of their own dilemmas.


4 Responses to “Down and out”
  1. Laura says:

    Interesting that all the writers you compare Botha’s subject matter with are men (“well trod by writers as diverse as Irvine Welsh, Joel Thomas Hynes, Jay McInerney, and Denis Johnson”), whereas you introduce her as being a contemporary of Heather O’Neill, Zoe Whittall, and Stacey May Fowles. Does this mean that she succeeds as a female writer, but cannot attain the heights of those male writers?

  2. Dear Laura, relax says:

    Beattie is an articulate guy: I’m pretty sure if that is what Steven meant he would have said so, and he didn’t. Relax. Re-read the article. He said SHE cites O’Neil and Whitall as influences, and then he compares her to dwellers in the down-and-out lit., other than those two, possibly to avoid repetition, or, to make a better comparison. She IS more like Hynes than O’Neill, if you’ve read al lthree authors. If someone compared me to a female writer, like Lisa Moore, I’d be thrilled. What I wouldn’t do: Ask if he meant I am not as a good as a male writer.

  3. August says:

    Haven’t read the book, but I think that (given that “A Pregnant Man” is apparently about gender reassignment), your last example of careless writing is probably more about bad grammar than the wrong adjective. It probably should be something like “listens with envy as the boys in her school talk about banging girls”.

    Also, Laura, I’m going to have agree with the other commenter; it’s not the fiddly bits between their legs that makes a given group of writers diverse (qua writers), it’s properties of their writing.

  4. August says:

    Or is that bad syntax?