The act of doing nothing is a difficult thing to write about, especially over the length of a novel, but Masande Ntshanga manages to do so brilliantly in his debut novel The Reactive. Three friends spend their days huffing glue, chewing khat, getting drunk, and otherwise nullifying their days. They have day-jobs but make most of their money re-selling anti-retroviral drugs to HIV patients. It’s a stultifying existence, but these are not your garden variety junkies and their fate is not necessarily what one would expect.
Set in Cape Town, South Africa in the late ’90s or early ’00s, there’s a dread and uncertainty which hangs like an environmental haze over this entire story. Remnants of the country’s apartheid past haunt these young people as they wander about the town. Lindanathi feels doomed because of his HIV-positive diagnosis, so rather than take care of himself, he falls in with Cecelia and Ruan, whom he meets at a patients’ support meeting. Days melt into one another as the three sit around messy apartments, nullifying their consciousness with various substances. All of them are educated and intelligent, yet they’ve chosen to give up. They philosophize rhapsodically about death in a way only the young can, but the morass they’ve fallen into allows them to avoid dealing with some very real problems.
Lindanathi is haunted by his betrayal of a brother back in the countryside he came from before arriving in the big city to get an education. Ancestral responsibilities clash with the more contemporary dreams within him. His uncle’s intermittent emails and texts—sent from a remote village made up of rusting freight containers converted into domiciles—are a nagging reminder of all that he isn’t doing but should be. His two comrades have their own family unpleasantnesses as well. Their solution is to huff glue until all their relations are but a faint apparition at the edges of their senses.
The one false note in the novel comes when a mysterious ugly masked man appears and offers to buy their entire stock of pills. This character seems like a cartoon villain inserted into a live-action movie. He’s more a plot device than an actual person, the way everyone else here is. Thankfully, Ntshanga doesn’t devote too many pages to him and after a time he disappears, cipher-like, as just another waft of the inhalants our heroes over-indulge in.
Lindanathi knows that the aimless interlude in the city must end and he has to go home to confront his past. The South Africa evoked in this book is in a state of painful transition. Ntshanga deftly illustrates the growing pains of a new country through three friends who seem intent on obliterating their minds, but who nevertheless cling to their dreams. Old and new worlds, both actual and virtual, clash before their eyes. What they do once they clear their heads and get up off the couch will determine the course of their lives, and perhaps even that of their nation.
by Masande Ntshanga
Two Dollar Radio; 212 p.