Nations and Storytelling: Ivan Vladislavić’s The Folly and 101 Detectives

In a handful of years, readers in the United States have been given the opportunity to become very familiar with the work of South Africa’s Ivan Vladislavić. His novels, The Restless Supermarket and Double Negative, have both been released by And Other Stories, the latter of which featured a glowing introduction from Teju Cole, with whom Vladislavić shares a fondness for the incorporation of visual elements into certain narratives. (Both Cole and Vladislavić were also among the winners of the 2015 Windham-Campbell Literature Prize for Fiction.) The novels explored different facets of life in South Africa: in Double Negative, this came via following its central character, a white South African, across several decades, as his views on politics, art, and privilege shift over time. The Restless Supermarket took a more satirical approach; protagonist Aubrey Tearle was reactionary in his politics, straddling the line between the comically curmudgeonly, and acting as a personification of the anxieties and prejudices of a particular group within a larger society. The result has been memorable work that never underplays the unpleasant societal tensions that lie below the surface. This summer brings with it American editions of two more of Vladislavić’s books, one very new, and one that offers a glimpse as to the genesis of much of his fiction. The Folly was Vladislavić’s first novel; 101 Detectives is his most recent book, a collection of short stories showcasing his stylistic range. Taken together, they offer a fuller picture of his skills as a writer.

In a 2012 interview with The White Review, Vladislavić commented, “I’m interested in the layering of memory and place.” That layering is made literal in The Folly, Vladislavić’s first novel, which plays out like a berserk blend of fairy tales, the plays of Samuel Beckett, and the films of Jacques Tati. Initially, this novel reads like a much more grounded satire, a sort of predecessor to what Vladislavić would go on to do in The Restless Supermarket. (When I interviewed Vladislavić last year, he mentioned that work had begun on The Restless Supermarket in 1994.) Two of the novel’s three primary characters the Malgas family, a pair of white South Africans filled with anxiety coinciding with the end of apartheid. And, if this novel had focused solely on them, that would probably be an accurate description for the book as a whole. Instead, the novel rapidly turns into something much more surreal via a third character, Nieuwenhuizen, who shows up on land beside the Malgas home, pitches a tent, and plans to build a house. And, in fact, his name, roughly translated from Afrikaans, seems to be “new house”–a move that’s both literal and almost mythical.

Nieuwenhuizen is a sort of trickster figure: his arrival on the scene, which opens the novel, finds him eyeing his plot of land, and then standing atop an anthill to survey the area. And archetypes abound in the book: the Malgases refer to each other as “Mr.” and “Mrs.”–an endearing touch that one might expect from a couple of a certain generation and age. More striking, perhaps, is Mrs. Malgas’s refusal to use Nieuwenhuizen’s name, referring to him only as “Him.” This in turn imbues him with a sense of divinity; passages like this, devoid of any context, could be taken from a more avant-garde work: “It was clear to Mrs. that He was avoiding Mr.,” for instance. There’s also a reference late in the book to Nieuwenhuizen being a kind of environmental contagion. “It’s not healthy to be near Him, to breathe His emanations,” Mrs. Malgas says–but at this point, the novel has journeyed past the realistic, if it was ever there to begin with.

As tends to happen with books with a triangle of characters at the center, The Folly charts a number of shifts in the power dynamic within that triangle. The terse conflicts and camaraderie that arise from their interactions–Mr. Malgas and Nieuwenhuizen soon bond–are magnified in the reading experience due to the general absence of any other characters. Aside from a taxi driver who drops Nieuwenhuizen off at the start of the book, the trio of central characters are, for all intents and purposes, the only people who exist in the novel’s universe until very late in the book.

As the novel reaches its halfway point and Nieuwenhuizen envelops Mr. Malgas into his plan to build his home, the prose gradually moves from rapid-fire to more languorous. And slowly, Nieuwenhuizen demarcates the boundaries of his house, and Mr. Malgas begins to see it. (Strangely, this kind of infectious dream is also an idea that suffuses Lauren Beukes’s recent Broken Monsters, a hallucinatory crime novel set in present-day Detroit. Other than the fact that Beukes and Vladislavić are both acclaimed South African novelists, there doesn’t seem to be much to connect them–but it’s fascinating to see the radically different ways in which they handle this concept: horrific in one case, nerve-wrackingly comic in the other.) Reality has forsaken at least one member of the Malgas family, and Nieuwenhuizen becomes even more abstract–a passage late in the book finds him surrounded by “a cloud of dust and typography.” Much as Nieuwenhuizen gradually beckons the Malgases into his strange and dreamlike world, Vladislavić ushers the reader into a strange and liminal space, and leaves a number of mysteries unanswered.

Stylistically, many of the stories in the collection 101 Detectives are more grounded. There’s a brief return to the world depicted in Double Negative; there are scenes of corporate satire and linguistic confusion–a character in “Report on a Convention” mishears “Bhuti” and wonders why nearly everyone is being addressed as “Booty,” for instance. After reading a few of these stories, one is left noticing the way in which they’ve been organized: though the stylistic range on display is vast, Vladislavić finds points of connection between this disparate group of works.

Make no mistake, these stories do shift wildly in tone, both from story to story and sometimes within the same story itself. At first, “The Reading” seems like a satirical take on literary culture, as Akello, the author of a memoir about unspeakable trauma is asked to read it in the language in which it was written, which no one else in the room happens to speak. Out of these beginnings, Vladislavić moves on to explore questions of connection, ending on a haunting and moving image even as the more free-associative sections earlier in the same work memorably capture a number of characters’ quirks, obsessions, and distractions. There’s room enough for a knowing image, such as “[f]our of the page-counters estimated that Akello had reached the halfway mark,” without losing the power of the story’s conclusion.

Corporate satire plays a part in several of these stories; for all that Vladislavić can understandably be compared to the likes of Teju Cole and Edward St. Aubyn, stories like “Exit Strategy,” whose main character is referred to as “the corporate storyteller,” and “Industrial Theater” call to mind the likes of Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island and David Foster Wallace’s “Mister Squishy.” Even the title story explores ideas of archetypes and employment, as a detective as a conference attempts to figure out just what sort of detective he happens to be. While the range of work on display in 101 Detectives is impressive, not all of the stories land with the same emotional impact. “The Reading” does a fine job of interrogating the humanity of a broad selection of characters; others don’t resonate quite as much. In The Restless Supermarket, Vladislavić was able to make Aubrey Tearle, a character who might be despicable on paper, more fully-formed. It’s one of Vladislavić’s great skills as a writer: even the sometimes hapless Malgases in The Folly come off as fully human, despite the surreal and satirical world around them. 101 Detectives does feature these moments of humanity, but it also showcases a bleaker side of Vladislavić’s fictional vision.

The Folly

by Ivan Vladislavic

101 Detectives

by Ivan Vladislavic

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