The House Gun

Peter Kurth reviews Nadine Gordimer's novel "The House Gun".

Published January 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Why do my eyes glaze over when I see the words "Nadine Gordimer"? Here's a brilliant and accomplished writer, internationally acclaimed -- Gordimer won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1991 -- on the right side of every social cause that matters and, moreover, female, with a woman's moral authority and a sensitivity to the shades and nuances of actual human experience. You'd think I'd be crazy about a writer like this, but I'm not. Gordimer bores me. She bores me silly.

I know -- I ought to be ashamed of myself. Gordimer's courageous opposition to apartheid in her native South Africa remains among the most inspiring stances on the modern literary record. Since April 1994, when South Africa held its first free elections in many years, she has turned her eye and her acute sensibilities to a variety of other ills and social injustices: the threat of nuclear proliferation; the problem of world poverty; the question of Jerusalem; the menace of AIDS. "In art begins responsibility," Gordimer says, "and with human responsibility, justice and peace have a chance." She is so right-minded I feel like a squeaky idiot for criticizing her at all. But having finished "The House Gun," Gordimer's 12th novel, my pupils feel as if they've been dilated for an eye exam and my brain as if it's been rubbed with sandpaper.

"The House Gun" is the disquieting, discordant, hallucinatory tale of a well-to-do South African family -- an insurance executive, Harald, a doctor, Claudia, and their enigmatic son, Duncan -- whose lives fall apart when Duncan is accused of murder. Duncan is, in fact, guilty as hell, and it's Harald and Claudia's challenge to reconcile his deed with the son they raised and the love they feel for him. In the end, in spite of their own refinement and continuing privilege in post-apartheid South Africa, they must face the fact that Duncan is guilty and that believing in him, unfortunately, is not the same as believing a word he says.

So far as I can tell, that's all there is to it. "Out of something terrible, something new," Gordimer writes, "to be lived with in a different way, surely, than life was before?" Her text is willfully disjointed, dissociative and opaque, and it's
peppered with questions, "He/She" ruminations, endless ambiguities and
hyphens run amok in the European manner. It's all "writing," anyhow, tailor-made for the deconstructionists, among whom Gordimer is already a hero thanks to her well-known "distrust" of conventional narrative: " -- Unfortunately. Unfortunately -- I have to tell you, when he (a wide gesture) when he opens up, when he begins to co-operate with me -- that is when he and I will have to tackle what there is to face. -- " And later: "Duncan's manner stopped their mouths against any concern about how the ordeal under scrutiny among the schizophrenics and demented had passed." That sentence had me thinking some schizophrenic thoughts of my own, and left me not caring a hoot whether Duncan hanged or his parents adjusted or not. Doubtless I'm too superficial for a writer as important as this. But for my money, if you want Moral Dilemmas, read Muriel Spark, who deals with the same sort of subject with a light and heartless hand and whose own Nobel -- you heard it here first -- is way overdue.

By Peter Kurth

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

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