THE thing that strikes one most with the two latest of Vincent Pienaar’s novels, is the joy. It’s something that he ascribes to and it works as you jump into what might not be an entirely happy premise and yet, you are taking off on an adventure. DIANE DE BEER gets some thoughts from the author and also speaks her mind:
It was as if even when dealing with serious issues in some instances, there’s always laughter bubbling just below the surface.
He has done it again in his latest book Limerence (Penguin Books), which is described as something that when you’ve got it, enjoy it. And advises you on the front cover, that if you don’t know what the title means, look it up!
As with the previous book, his first sentence immediately gets your attention: “Did you know that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil?”
And then he meanders on to tell you why.
But that is the interesting thing about Pienaar’s storytelling, he jumps into a place, drags you along and has you smiling (if sometimes unwillingly) on the ride.
This time it’s the story of a man whom women love to hate but can’t resist. They know he will get away with it over and over again, so when he approaches four women he was involved with, all with a similar proposition, they’re reluctant yet fall for his preposterous proposition – and only start breathing fire when they discover all four of them (yes, the ego always intercepts) have been handed the same will.
Pienaar explains that the story evolved bit by bit, as his stories always do.
“I was amused by the idea of a person giving different people identical last will and testaments.”
And then he allows us to see his wandering mind, to show the process: “Why would he do that? Because he’s not dead and he wants money. As simple as that? No. Greed may be a good enough reason in real life, but in fiction you need more motivation. So he’s in trouble. He needs money quickly. For what? Unpaid debt? Maybe, but not sexy enough. He must want to do it for somebody else. Enter Julie with her three children, enter Sabelo, enter Pieter, enter Mr Downey and on and on.”
That’s when the characters get up and running and sometimes it feels as though they’re dictating where he goes. “My characters never allow me to pull anything together. The women, all from different decades, presented the perfect platform to tell the story of Johannesburg (specifically Hillbrow and Melville and later Yeoville) from the 1970s to the present. But they are all strong, which made their backstories interesting, and how the story evolved is a matter of their making. I really liked the idea of a character sauntering in and out of Melville, infuriating the women endlessly.”
Talking about the title and the obvious delight he finds in words and writing, Pienaar confesses that he liked the idea of “finding your own voice”. But that’s easier said than done.
While you are trying to find and establish that, you are constantly being shoved into the grammar trap of do’s and don’ts. That he believes (and I agree) “smooths the peaks and valleys of the text onto a pothole-free highway of blandness”. It was a struggle, but having read both books, the Pienaar personality is unashamedly there and he’s having the best time. When an author does that, how can the reader resist?
But back to the title: he was almost finished with a book provisionally named I Love Crazy when a friend introduced him to the word “limerence” and voila, he had his title. “After I found out what it meant I worked it into the story.”
He also struggled to get a name for the main character, until a friend’s dog died. “The dog was named Scout and I decided my main guy would be Scout. This led to Scout (To Kill a Mockingbird), Holly (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Clarissa (Mrs Dalloway), Daisy (The Great Gatsby), etc. Even Ripley is from the movie.” And the games go on with or without the story, which is part of the fun.
Having published in both Afrikaans and English, he says: “I write competently in Afrikaans, but I write comfortably in English.”
Yert he still thinks his funniest work is Jo’burg die Blues en ŉ Swart Ford Thunderbird and he’s just completed an Afrikaans play inspired by the murder of Charl Kinnear.
But he admits that the voice he has found takes courage and he doesn’t yet have that in Afrikaans. “The Afrikaans grammar Nazis scare the shit out of me.”
If you’re wondering about writing in the time of Covid, “I didn’t want the book to become a dark tale of people darting about in the shadows, jealously guarding six packs of beer under dirty overcoats.” And with that line, he has a full explanation in the front of Limerence.
What he likes pushing to its limit is humour (not necessarily funny) in any work of fiction, no matter how bleak or dismal the story. “It’s what keeps the reader reading (or amused, if you like),” he believes.
I don’t totally agree with that premise, because there are many different things that keep me reading depending on the writing and the story being told. But I do like Pienaar’s intent and style. And I love the way he runs off in all kinds of directions to say something that he finds amusing and wants to include in his story.
He describes this penchant as a noble one.
“If you watch any of the movies in Nora Ephron’s trilogy (When Harry met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle), it’s all about the playfulness and not about laugh-out-loud funny.”
Pienaar is on a roll and while he feels he has almost stumbled on a style with Tsunami, the next book is provisionally called A Man, a Woman and a little White Dog named Floof. But don’t attach too much importance to the title, that might change, as Limerence reminds us.
He’s hoping because of the Ephron fan he is, these three might be considered a trilogy – perhaps an homage.