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Lauren Beukes

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Why Moxyland is not like Disgrace

WARNING: This post contains major spoilers about Moxyland, which is why the bulk of it is after the jump. If you haven’t read the book and plan to, avert your eyes.

I ran into Ashraf Jamal yesterday at the Booker shortlist party for Damon Galgut at the Book Lounge – and that charming, lovely man cut me deep.

We’ve never met before, although we have friends in common, and, even better, he was one of the many people whose support and encouragement was instrumental in making Moxyland – and thus my writing career – happen.

As the judge of SL’s short story competition years ago, he wrote some very nice things about my short story, “Branded*”, although even at the time he says, it felt more like a fragment of something bigger. He was right – the short story turned out to be the seedling for a novel, although I later changed the name from Branded to Moxyland. He was so complimentary about it, I later hit him up to write a supporting letter for my application for a National Arts Council Grant, which allowed me to take several months off to get deep into the writing of the thing.

Ashraf and I hit it off straight away, falling into a conversation about books and art and our kids – and then he said something terrible.

He said that Moxyland reminded him of Disgrace.


Specifically the ending, he said, which he found as negative and pessimistic as that devastating pastoral.

“Ouch!” I exclaimed, clutching my chest, staggering under the blow.

Now, most people wouldn’t object to having their book compared to a Nobel Laureate’s. But I really don’t like Disgrace. And specifically, I don’t like the ending.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved reading it. There’s a reason JM Coetzee won the Nobel. He’s a very good writer, it’s a brilliant book, austere and crisp as its Karoo setting. But it leaves a very, very nasty aftertaste.

Some people have said the same of Moxyland, it’s true. That it’s a tragedy, that the ending is a devastating and shocking punch to the intestines. I even received one anguished email from a reader demanding to know “How could you do that!”

The answer is because the story demanded it.

I never promised you a happily-ever-after and I think I left plenty of clues along the way that we were heading for bad ugliness. I didn’t mean to upset you, but c’mon, it couldn’t have gone any other way.

I agree with Ashraf that both Moxyland and Disgrace are bleak and nasty tragedies. But I vehemently disagree that Moxyland is pessimistic in the same way as Disgrace.

I hate what Disgrace says about South Africa, that the differences between us are irreconcilable, white people deserve to suffer for their decades of smug privilege and oppression, black people are inscrutable Other, we will never understand each other, we will never be able to reach across the chasm that separates us, and the only thing to do is surrender to history, to society’s failings, to personal failings. We are fallen. It’s over. There is no coming back. Try to find some kind of dignity in accepting the inevitable.

As Ashraf pointed out, Moxyland isn’t really about South Africa, it’s about the whole world, which he found all the more depressing. But Moxyland is a parable, an allegory, a warning not about where we are now, but where we’re potentially heading – towards a future where we’ve traded our rights for convenience and the illusion of safety and shiny consumer goods. It’s 1984 for 2010.

And Moxyland’s characters, for the most part, go out fighting, deluded maybe, disillusioned definitely, but they don’t just roll over and play dead like a mangy crippled cur. (Actually, that’s an insult to the mangy crippled cur, who was probably the most gutsy character in Disgrace).

[MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD]

In fact, the ending is purposefully ambiguous, purposefully open-ended, at least for one of the characters, who gets the final say in the novel, who has the key to everything in his hand. He could fix the world. Or doom it.  The interpretation – and thus the pessimism or optimism of the ending – is up to you.

To me, it boils down to this:

Disgrace’s ending says: “These characters are fucked because this country is fucked right now and I’m moving to Australia.”

Moxyland’s ending says: “These characters are fucked because their future world is fucked and I’m sticking around because we’re not there yet.”

(*To be republished in the Apex Book of World Science Fiction Vol 2, edited by Lavie Tidhar, coming out mid-2011)

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://www.jassymackenzie.com" rel="nofollow">Jassy</a>
    Jassy
    September 30th, 2010 @11:00 #
     
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    Really great post, Lauren. I love your comparison between the two endings.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    September 30th, 2010 @11:19 #
     
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    Do you think you'remore pessimistic about the country than you were two years ago, Lauren? I rememer an online discussion we had which really stuck with me: it was about that difference between fearing the future and embracing it. I can't find the link now but I actually copied the conversation at the time - I was planning to write an academic article about Moxyland, which happily for you, me and Moxy, I never got round to.

    I suggested that in our novels, we had "very similar interests: what connects apparently disparate people against the backdrop of an random, inhumane world."

    And you replied: "Is the world random and inhumane? I'd like to think not. I'm surprised every day by people's capacity for inventiveness and creativity and whimsy, which sometimes almost seems to balance out (or at least counteract in some small way) the atrocities people visit on each other every day." In my utterly depressed state at the time this sounded to me like roses and delight, a wonderful way of seeing the future if you could. Now, reading it again, it doesn't seem that cheerful, but as I say it really hitched in my mind and I made an effort myself to be more optimistic.

    So, do you see the world, the country as more fucked than you did? How is the creativity and whimsy holding up in the battle?

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    September 30th, 2010 @11:23 #
     
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    PS, I'll have to go back to it, but I didn't see the ending of Moxyland as all that depressing (but probably because I was more depressed at the time than it could ever be - I was, like, nothing's a joking matter, or fodder for entertainment, it's all dire, okay).

    I thought Disgrace was brilliant, it communicated a certain view - not necessarily my view - with the requisite unemotional horror, with chilling, quiet detail that punched my guts in that awful cold-fisted way. Perfect, almost socipathic, feint and balance.

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  • <a href="http://www.moxyland.com" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    September 30th, 2010 @12:36 #
     
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    Sheesh, Louis, make it personal (although that'll serve me right for conflating the character's opinions with the author's).

    I don't think anything's changed. I'd qualify myself as pragmatic optimist-humanist. I'm still inspired by amazing things, still horrified by the things we do to each other, still generally positive about this country, although I do feel very bleak about the possibility of the Media Tribunal and the horrible implications, which seems straight out of Moxyland.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    September 30th, 2010 @12:43 #
     
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    Thanks, Lauren - I keep on making that mistake - author... fiction... author... fiction. Thanks for answering!

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    September 30th, 2010 @23:05 #
     
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    Have just climbed back onto my chair after swooning with horror at Ashraf Jamal's heretic comparison -- Moxyland is nothing like Disgrace. Your summing up of what Disgrace says about SA is absolutely on target. I'd add that it also implies that black men yearn vengefully to rape white women (you have NO idea how often I've had to debunk that one when teaching overseas), black women don't exist except to service white men's sexual needs (which, we are hastily told, isn't quite the same thing as rape), and white women should stoically accept (as punishment for the entire race) their post-apartheid role as sexual victims.

    Moxyland is hectic, engaged, up to its moxy messy elbows in dystopian horrors (as opposed to laying out dystopia with latex gloves and sterile probes), and open-ended. It leaps around with energy, it mixes cynicism and despair with creative juice, and above all, it doesn't assume that gender and racial roles are preordained. Clockwork Orange is a much better comparison.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    October 1st, 2010 @13:48 #
     
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    Hmm...
    I've read both.
    1. I'm still not sure what 'Disgrace' is saying. But I never got the feeling I was supposed to head off to Australia simply because the author did. My biggest question of the book, actually, is: what is it trying to say about women? That tripped me up more than anything else. But I digress.

    2. I would have been disappointed if 'Moxy' had ended cheery. I felt the book was showing the dangers of giving to much power to private interest. 'Moxy' seemed to spring from the likes of Klein's 'No Logo', Kingsnorth's 'One No, Many Yeses,' and Atwood's 'Oryx and Crake' (which I saw in 'O' was a book you love. Oh, and I like The Witches, too.) Thus, unlike 'Disgrace' which was reflecting on "this is where we are" yours seemed to show "this is the danger if we trust these corps too much." Which is much different than, "this IS our future." I felt the same about Atwood's.

    3. However, both books are set in SA and are dancing around similar issues. The more SA fiction I read, the more I am starting to understand how Jung came to his beliefs on collective thought.

    4. Is a negative ending pessimistic? The fact that your book begins in the future - a functioning future (I'm ignoring the obvious social problems etc in the book) - in SA was rather optimistic. That SA has a future with the global world. Which runs counter to many of the M&G comments you read.

    5. After reading Galgut's 'The Imposter' I find it amusing that the comment came from him. Very interesting.

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