Jennifer Crocker’s Cape Times review of Imperfect Solo

 

Darkly funny, extraordinary tale about a South African living in LA who fears losing all that he loves

IMPERFECT SOLO Steven Boykey Sidley

Picador Africa

MEYER appears to have it all: an excellent job as a code writer, two nice kids, a good friend in Van (a trustafarian), an ironic shrink as a friend, two ex-wives who are pretty nice to him, an ability to lay down some mean saxophone notes and a nice house in Los Angeles.

However, he also has a bad case of dread.

His dread is all pervasive. Meyer fears illness, catastrophe, losing those he loves, he dreads his job, his fading musical abilities – the list is endless. In fact, to list his dreads is to miss the point of this quite extraordinary novel.

Sidley has written a metaphor for modern America, or for an ageing society clinging to its glories by its fingertips. And even though he is South African, albeit one who lived in Los Angeles, it’s about the slippage from grace in the post-post-modern world.

And, in a clever twist, his first wife’s name is Grace and their son is named Innocent. She’s Zimbabwean, but before you find yourself thinking that she must be black, think again: she’s the daughter of white farmers, and her and Meyer’s son is named Innocent in a sort of reverse irony.

It’s one example of how Sidley plays with parody, engaging his reader at a deep level, while frequently causing gales of laughter even amidst the saddest moments of Meyer’s life.

Meyer is a 40-year old man shadow boxing with his dread, which almost becomes a character in the book. It’s the low melody of the saxophone, the note of sadness and fear that comes for all of us when we are paying attention. Meyer hates the company he works for. He loathes the CEO and the managers and wishes that he could take something away from them, robbing them of something dear to them, all without satiating his fears with violence.

What he really wants is to draw those around him into his existential pit of despair.

He fears losing everything, and at first one is drawn into thinking that this could be a darkly funny book about a man who fears losing all he loves but instead turns out to be merely neurotic. That would be far too easy, though, because Meyer really does, like Job, have catastrophe rain down on his head.

As he tries to make sense of his life, to understand where he went wrong with his first wife Grace, to maintain his relationship with his daughter Isobel, and to limit the damage that he knows will come when he breaks up with his perfect “soon to be ex-girlfriend” things do indeed fall apart.

The dread that sidles up to him on waking every single day becomes manifest in a number of tragedies and degradations.

Sidley has transcended the trap of turning this into a bloke book by creating a cast of wonderful female characters. Grace, for instance, is hilariously funny in her observations about life. She understands Meyer and his sometimes pitiful attempts to understand why their young relationship failed, while he remains unenlightened.

In a conversation with Farzad, Meyer’s psychologist friend, the somewhat futile nature of Meyer’s attempt to understand it all plays out as Sidley demonstrates his dexterity in manipulating language and meaning. The circularity and slipperiness of understanding, is evident in this exchange between Meyer and Farzad:

“Farzad. I don’t understand women.”

“Of course you do not. Nobody understands women. Least of all psychologists. Especially male ones.”

“Bullshit. Do understand your wife?”

“Certainly – we have a simple understanding. I tell her what to do. This is built into my history and culture. Patriarchy is the only workable solution to the gender gap.”

“Does it work? Does she do what you tell her to?”

“Of course not. She is an American.”

“So what happened to your simple understanding?”

“It gets lost in the implementation.”

“So you don’t understand your wife?”

“Of course I do. We have a simple understanding.”

“Which gets lost in the implementation.”

“Exactly.”

Imperfect Solo is filled with gems of writing in the hardscrabble attempt to vocalise the dread that surrounds and becomes real in Meyer’s life.

The culmination of this book of post-post-modern, sometimes near-apocalyptic exculpation of the modern condition, plays out softly and gently: a search for grace, a sense for place and the inexplicable solitude of the journey.

Crocker is a former Cape Times books editor.