Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavic

Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavic begins, a hapless 80s-era hipster in South Africa named Neville Lister is listing badly:

Just when I started to learn something, I dropped out of university, although this makes it sound more decisive than it was.

He works a brainless job, pretentiously puffs on a tobacco pipe, argues bitterly with his racist neighbors while they mouth off about blacks. Neville’s father happens to know a famous South African photographer named Saul Auerbach, and casually arranges for his son to spend a day on a photo shoot with him.

The day with Saul Auerbach mainly strikes young Neville Lister as pointless and inexplicable. Accompanied by a journalist friend of Saul Auerbach’s, the roving trio agrees to try an experiment with randomness in a poor and banal Johannesburg suburb. Each of the three picks a house at random, agreeing to knock on each door and try to find worthy subjects for the art of photography within. The degree to which they will succeed strikes the three men as a neat philosophical question.

Their luck is good as they strike gold in the first two houses, the ones chosen by the photographer and the journalist. The third house was the one selected by Neville Lister, though he had petulantly refused to play the game correctly when they chose the houses and simply selected the orange-roofed house next door to one of the other choices. Having now completed two unexpectedly rewarding photo sessions at the first two houses, the trio finds Neville’s chosen house dark. They are tired, and without mentioning it they agree to go home.

The irony of this empty moment of failed connection is that it ends up meaning everything to Neville Lister. We meet him again decades later, now a mature adult coping calmly with the vast social changes occurring in South Africa immediately after the end of apartheid.

Neville is now a professional photographer. The embarrassing fact that his entire life’s career was essentially chosen by his father on a whim is never mentioned. The embarrassing fact that the momentous day young Neville spent with Saul Auerbach was actually an awkward and inconclusive failure to connect is also never mentioned.

Neville Lister now returns to visit the third house that the trio of photographers failed to visit before, and finds in this house other locked doors and beguiling containers including a stash of dead letters similar to those a sad postman named Bartleby might have once collected in New York City in a Herman Melville tale. Years of reflecting upon the questionable significance of Saul Auerbach’s photography has left Lister newly aware of the reflections, refractions, surfaces, containers and empty spaces that constitute his lived-in world. He now sees every house or framed photograph or sealed envelope as a naturally occurring rhyme, and a koan,and a meditation upon the relationship between container and contained, as when the past story of a penniless immigrant’s arrival from Portugal is told by one inhabitant of a house:

“He arrived with a suitcase, and in it a suit. That’s all. I thought it was funny, but he didn’t see the joke.”

Much of Double Negative involves houses containing people, envelopes containing unread letters, statements spoken between friends or co-workers or lovers containing hidden expressions that will never be delivered. Neville sees himself as a mediocre container, an inferior copy of the great artist Saul Auerbach. Other types of containers briefly appear in his wandering narrative:

A young woman was being buried and the mourners were gathered around the open grave at the end of a row of new mounds. Just as the priest gave the sign for the coffin to be lowered, a phone began to ring softly, as if from the bottom of a handbag or deep in a jacket pocket. Cellphones were less common than they are now and the intrusion was jarring. The priest gave his flock an irritated look and a few people patted their packets. The phone went on ringing. It dawned on them that it was coming from under the ground: the phone was ringing in the grave next door. There was a deathly silence, the report said, the mourners passed and held their breath, waiting to hear whether someone would answer.

A tone of bemused artistic entrapment in random patterns permeates this wonderfully soft-spoken novel, which reminds me very much of the work of J. M. Coetzee, W. G. Sebald and P. Auster. Double Negative even feels slightly fresher than the recent publications from these three giants of quirky flat-voiced first-person narrative postmodernism. Ivan Vladislavic is not actually a new voice in fiction, it turns out — he’s been publishing novels for decades — but he was new to me when I picked up Double Negative, and this accessible novel may help him reach a larger audience.

Double Negative originated as a tribute to a real-world South African photographer named David Goldblatt, who Saul Auerbach is clearly based on, and the short novel may be found packaged with David Goldblatt’s photographs and an introduction by Teju Cole. I enjoyed the novel without delving first into either of those attenuations and found it entirely complete and satisfactory on its own.

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