Book Review: Ride the Tortoise (Liesl Jobson)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

American writers may know Liesl Jobson as a poet. South African writers probably think of her as a flash fiction writer. With the publication of Ride the Tortoise, however, she stakes a very definite claim as a short story writer. The skills that Jobson displayed in 100 Papers, the debut collection of flash fiction that won her South Africaís Ernst van Heerden Award, are honed and expanded upon in Ride the Tortoise (Jacana Media, 2013)

"We are surrounded by natural patterns usually unrecognized, unsuspected. Sensuous, irregular configurations occur in and relate to the arts, the humanities, and the social sciences," a mathematics professor beings in her explanation of fractals at the opening of Jobsonís story "Tease." "We see traces of complex dynamic patterns self organizing into familiar natural shapes." Such a description might not only characterize the structure of that specific story, but also Ride the Tortoise as a whole. As one reads the stories in the variety of South African landscapes this collection portrays, patterns emerge. The women are all writers, artists or musicians. They all have trouble with relationships and most would qualify as being under psychological duress. Those who are mothers, have ambivalent relationships with their children. As with fractals in nature, peering at these lives on a higher magnification leads not to linear solutions, but simply to a deeper level of recursive patterns. It is no help to these women that the men in their lives, when physically present, seem to be direct descendents of Australopithecus africanus.

As a writer with her roots in poetry and flash fiction, Jobson is well situated to the work of imposing structure on seeming discontinuities or, conversely, taking what we agree to call one personís life revealing it as a series of discontinuities. Jobson takes this latter approach in "You Pay for the View: Twenty Tips for Super Pics." As one might guess from the title, the story is structured as a series of instructions for photography, beginning with the protagonists receipt of her first Brownie camera at eight years old and proceeding through her career as a professional photographer well into adulthood. Like a series of snapshots in an album, the sections of the story are discrete chronological scenes that are tied together by the viewer who is made a participant in the construction of the narration by filling in what is missing. There is a tension between the progress the narrator makes as a skilled photographer (and observer of life) and the complete unraveling of relationships in the life (and roles of mother and wife) in which she is actually involved. The story "Postcards from November" employs similar techniques.

A second technique Jobson uses is illustrated by "Tease." The title applies not just to the characters in the story but to what Jobson is doing to her readers as well. Looking visually, like "You Pay for the View," a series of scenes with titles provided, "Tease" actually operates quite differently. Continuity can be maintained neither through a linear connection of events nor through the return of the same characters or settings. What the reader might at first suspect will be an interweaving of several narratives turns out not to be at all. The "sensuous, irregular configurations" in "Tease" might better be called sensual, irregular configurations, for it is the strains of physical, sexual desire running through all of the vignettes in the story that bind them together.

Jobson has no aesthetic axe to grind, and she is too skilled a writer to be content using the same format in story after story, so the more formal structures that mark out the disjointed nature of the story just mentioned account for just a portion of the way she sets her stories up. "Snap," for example, also involves photography (and, once again, a title with double meaning). The nameless narrator, on furlough for the day from a mental health institution, is visiting her dying grandmother in the hospital. As anyone who has visited a verbally non-reponsive person in a hospice situation knows, finding ways to talk can be a challenge. The narrator brings with her a series of photographs as props. The pictures are of the outings she takes and various aspects of her life in the institution. As she provides the linkages between the pictures that gives them meaning, she establishes her connection with her grandmother and reveals things about herself.

There are photos to make of the lost and found, of containers and holding places. Iím preparing a portfolio for my next exhibition. I prefer the viewfinder even though the digital camera has a viewing window that displays a bigger version of what youíre looking at. Itís simpler looking at the world in a limited way.

"Snap" is a complex story on many levels, but one of the things that it does is explore what it is that drives young women to end up in mental institutions. Jobsonís attempt to understand what it is that makes life so tortuous for some women that they end up in institutions like the one depicted in "Snap," is perhaps the salient feature, even the project, of Ride the Tortoise. The attempt at understanding is not an analytical one, but an effort to recreate something of the experience.

As already alluded to above, one of the problems they face is trying to cope with the men in their lives. In the title story, the (once again) nameless narrator is driving with her husband, daughter and infant through the Namibian desert.

I donít want to put the baby back in his car seat. Heíll wake because heís still hungry, and there isnít another car in sight. We havenít passed anything but stones on this ruler-straight road for two hours. My husband will insist though, telling me itís the rule of the road, the law. Heís the driver… I want him to stop the car so I can get out and return the baby to the car seat more easily, so I can get a drink from the cooler in the boot. If I ask, heíll say he doesnít want to stop unnecessarily, will demand to know why I canít just stretch through the seats.

The baby wakes a little later and his crying starts my milk again. I lift my shirt and a small spray escapes onto the dashboard. I cover the flow quickly, but it drips on the seat. My husband swerves to a stop, dabbing the dashboard with a handkerchief. "Get out," he says, "I donít want a sticky mess."

Itís hardly the prince that Snow White hoped to be awakened by. When not emotionally distant in the story, men are, more often than not, either physically distant or simply not there.

Even when men do appear, though, the issues they bring with them are not the whole story. In "Soda lakes," for example, men appear indirectly through a short discussion about a poetry workshop for rape victims that the unnamed narrator is running and again as minor characters, but the main thread of the story is taken with the nature of friendship. The narrator is trying to understand if she can call the woman that she practices rowing with a friend. She looks up the definition of friendship in a dictionary and comes up phrases such as "a person who gives assistance" or "someone who is not hostile," but these words do nothing to help answer the need that she has. She recognizes something missing from her life but does not know what. At one point she is out rowing by herself on the lake and says:

Watching the buoy, Iíd stopped minding my course. I didnít see the flamingos on the sandbank behind me until they were a vast pink flurry, neither cawing nor cackling, but a breathy beating of a hundred wings alighting and passing overhead. I wanted to weep at their beauty; afraid theyíd leave again, never to return. But before my tears could gather, the birds began their descent to the deserted beach in front of the old pump house.

As a writer, Jobson is neither a diagnostician nor a missionary. Her characters are too human to be easily dealt with. The main character in "Soda Lakes" hints of problems in the past when, describing her knee, she talks about "the old scar tissue refusing to give." When trying to row by herself, she constantly tips over and lands in the water, but when in the boat with Jan, she has difficulty keeping in rhythm. The closest she comes to a sense of peace in the story is when she says:

Having somebody watch you and help you fix a thing right there in the boat doesnít compare with trying to figure it out from a book. I feel a rush of gratitude every time she goes out in a boat with me. Could she be a friend?

As hinted above, in many of the stories and in the book as a whole, environment is a main character. As much as any of the other characters, physical surroundings insinuate themselves into the psyches of the women struggling to make sense of their lives. It is not only the Namibian desert, the salt lakes of Kenya or and mental institutions, but Johannesburg police stations, Afrikaner kitchens, and art classrooms. Ironically, the story in which the South African landscape looms largest is "The Exact Location of the Exit," a tale in which most of the events take place in Canada. Describing South Africa to her Canadian host the narrator says,

I canít stop speaking about cash-in-transit heists carried out with military precision, the ambushes on the highway, guards trapped in their armoured cars burning alive. I shouldnít be bad-mouthing my country, yet I canít stop talkingtalkingtalking about Aids orphans and child-headed households.

Canada, by contrast, is "the cleanest place on earth." She has come with the intention of leaving her old her life. "'Here, take the ocean view,' Ann's friend says to me as we are seated. It would be rude to refuse, but I prefer to see the door. Iím not acclimatised to the calm here yet, and I keep swivelling, seeking the exact location of the exit." Seeking the exact location of the exit is something that most of Jobsonís nameless protagonists seem to be doing.

In Haruki Murakamiís novel 1Q84, the main character, Aomame, inadvertently slips into a world physically identical to hers and identifiable only by a second moon in the sky. Itís a malevolent world in which normal logical does not maintain, where she is constantly seeking the location of the exit. In Ride the Tortoise, Liesl Jobson has created a similar world. Itís a world of fractals, inhabited by nameless South African women whose expectations of life simply do not apply. In Jobsoní world, however, there is no second moon to give them hope that this is not real or even that an exit exists.

Ride the Tortoise is a skillfully written collection of stories. It is also maddeningly insightful. While most Americans may associate South Africa with Nelson Mandela, soccer and Oscar Pistorius, Jobson gives us a very different picture. As she comments through one of her characters, "Twelve years after democracy we are still fat white babies, unable to swim. Our water wings have cracks where the rubber has perished." Her portrayal of women under mental duress is a significant contributution to the growing field of diability literature. Liesl Jobsonís work needs to be better known in the United States. Here's hoping Ride the Tortoise provides the entrance.