A Review of Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup

Nadine Gordimer has written over 25 books, and has won the Booker and Nobel Prizes. The Pickup is her 13th novel, and perhaps, at 77 years of age, she no longer feels the need to pander to an audience. The Pickup certainly raises questions that are not answered. Who picks up whom? Who uses whom? Who leaves whom? What are Julie and Ibrahim really looking for? What do they find? Do either of them love the other? They are interesting questions, and Gordimer raises them deftly, and even hints at some of the answers in her East/West theme.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Pickup
By Nadine Gordimer
ISBN: 0747556342
Australian Price (Incl GST): $29.95
November 2001
Bloomsbury United Kingdom

The Pickup takes a little getting used to. Gordimer’s narrative voice is unusual, and the plot sparse. However, once you come to terms with the dry, ironic, very visible, but detached narrative voice, and begin working slowly past the stilted story to a deeper understanding of the book, the reading improves dramatically. Julie Summers’ car breaks down in the heavily populated, but dangerous South African city, ostensibly Johannesberg, where she lives. Obtaining help from the young mechanic at a nearby garage proves to be the kind of serendipitous encounters which Julie has been trying to leave herself open to, and which ultimately changes her life. The story raises a number of complicated questions about privilege, and privation, about love, and longing, and ultimately about the nature and quest for home – that mythical Ithica or sense of belonging for which man has been searching, long before Odysseus tied himself to the mast.

Julie Summers is the daughter of a wealthy investment banker. She is also a refugee from her family, and Northern suburbs background, and lives in relative squalor in a poor part of town, “sufficiently removed from The Suburb ostentation to meet their standards of leaving home behind”, and meets with her like minded trendy and liberal friends in the El-Ay or LA Café in downtown Johannesberg. Julie finds her parents embarrassing, and avoids contacting either her father, who has remarried a young and beautiful socialite, or her mother, who is living with a younger Casino Owner, “her latest husband” in California. The mechanic, initially called Abdu, and later revealed as Ibrahim ibn Musa, comes from an unnamed Arab country by the Sahara desert, ostensibly Tunesia, and is working illegally on an expired visa, desperate for permanent residency, either in South Africa, or anywhere else other than his home country, back to which he is ultimately deported.

The tone and conflicts in the book are set out clearly by the narrator in the first chapter. The reader is distanced from the action and characterisation by direct narrative address such as “You’re not there; I’m not there: to see”. There are hints at the outcome, and even early analyses of the characters, before the reader has had a chance to get to know them: “There follows a space of time that she, and perhaps he, are going to return to in examination – now remembering this aspect of it, then that, for the past has no wholeness, it has been etiolated by revised explanations of it, trampled over by hindsight – all their lives.” (33) The narrator has a cold irony towards the characters, painting Julie as naïve, and childlike in her liberal idealism, and Ibrahim as calculating, obsessive, and loveless. The narrator reminds us that these characters are not real, not here, as she builds them up for the reader: “And now’s the time: there has been no description of this Julie, little indication of what she looks like, unless an individual’s actions and words conjure a face and body. There is, anyway, no description that is the description.” (93).

The Pickup could be called a love story, as Abdu becomes Ibrahim, and Julie becomes accustomed to life in a remote Islamic village, so far removed from her own background and the conveniences she is accustomed to. It is an odd love story though, and one feels that the characters are looking for something other than the romantic love they appear to be building their world around. Julie “often has the sense that he is not looking at her when his regard is on her; it is she who is looking for herself reflected in those eye.” By shifting person, without any indication that this is what is happening, the narrator allows us into each’s thought process, and their continual misunderstandings of one another, and of themselves. Julie’s self image: “the image of herself she believes to be her true self”, is built on her “liberal” views; the slightly phony politics of her priviledged class, and generation. Ibrahim seems this, and considers her spoiled, and playing at adventure with him. He expects her to walk away from him at any moment; to pack her elegant suitcase and fly home to the El-AY Café and her equally priviledged friends who are merely “slumming it”. One could imagine that Julie is using Ibrahim, her “oriental prince”, to validate her liberality; and justify her rejection of her parents. We can also see how Ibrahim attempts to use Julie’s influential parents to obtain a visa. His admiration of her father, and his friends surprises Julie, as her steadfast affection, adaptability, and displays of what appear to be perverse stubbornness surprises Ibrahim. Neither really understands the desperation the other feels to escape their past, nor do they understand what exactly the other character wants or needs. Ibrahim’s desperation becomes obsession as he spends all of his hours attempting to escape from the home he is sent back to, and Julie’s terror of going to her mother’s place: “some other country would have been a better idea, for me”, even for a short time, and fear of asking her father for help leads her into a world so different that she can only metamorphosise into a different person to accept it. Neither knows how the other perceives him/her, but the reader is able to hear Ibrahim’s thoughts on Julie’s naivity: “She’s a child, they’re all children, and what she wants to do now is not something for her, the living she’s totally innocent of, hasn’t any real idea of, innocence is ignorance, with them.” He feels her devotion and feels the obligation that it imposes upon him, and is tender to her. She feels his hunger and obligation, and his desire for the things she has, and his strangeness is attractive to her. They certainly feel lust, and tenderness towards one another at times, but love is something else. Something neither have words for. It isn’t Ibrahim that Julie was searching for, as her final, surprise decision indicates. It is this kind of spirituality which she gains from the desert: “nirvana – this place where we are, what there is here. A kind of proof.” Ibrahim can’t understand her, because he is slouching towards America, towards the kind of life she has left. She can’t understand him, because his obsession with the West makes no sense to her, as she reaches her Eastern conclusion.

Despite their different background and cultures, and the misunderstandings and mis-readings there are many parallels between Julie and Ibrahim. Both are unable to go home, or stay home, in Ibrahim’s case, to mother. “the image of herself she believes to be her true self”. Both are running from their background, trying to reinvent themselves in some other image. She strives to escape her identity, while he has none, and “there is no future without an identity to claim it”. Both are looking for some sense of self, as they run from their homes. Both are in the process of remaking themselves, and paradoxically, remaking themselves in the other’ image. That is probably the attractiveness which initially holds them together. That each wants to be who the other is. Julie is surprised and disappointed that Ibrahim is attracted to the family she has rejected, and Ibrahim is surprised and disappointed that Julie is attracted to the family and home he has rejected.

It is hard to identify with the characters. We want to feel for Ibrahim; his desperation to get away from his home, his simultaneous fear of closeness, and his tenderness towards Julie, but we are privy to his unpleasant thoughts. His obsession with getting away from home, and his admiration of the superficial success and power of Julie’s family, coupled with his attitude towards Julie interferes with the reader’s sympathy. Julie’s sympathies, open mind, subtle mysticism, and her tenderness towards Ibrahim, make her interesting, but the narrative stance towards Julie’s slumming, the fulfilment Julie gets from teaching English, and her conversion by desert seems shallow. The reader is left wondering how she will be able to continue living Ibrahim’s life without him, or what the basis of her decisions are. The open ending makes the book more interesting, but perhaps, less powerful, and certainly less moving.

There are also the minor characters. Julie’s saintly gynaecological uncle – the man who “should have been her father”. The chapter related to him seems like an aside – unrelated to the story or the main plot. It wouldn’t have been too difficult for Gordimer to tie the stories together by parallelling the woman who brought charges against her uncle and Julie, or in some way to reveal Julie’s admiration as illusory in ways which mirrored her concepts of Ibrahim or his of her, but there are no parallels here, and the story seems odd and disjointed with the rest of the story. The significance of the elderly unpublished poet is also unclear. He hands Julie the poem which is also the books quote by William Plomer, “Let us go to another country”, and therefore has a moment of profundity, but other than that he says little, and what he does say is mainly unintelligible. The narrator is ironic towards him, as she is to every character in the book, and it is this irony which prevents the reader from becoming deeply involved. The touches of dialogue from other characters throughout the book lend colour, and authenticity, as they pick up the voices in the street when Julie’s car stalls, or the lingo at the El-Lay Café (its varied spelling also picking up the sound of its pronunciation), but are less effective at illuminating Ibrahim’s family.

Nadine Gordimer has written over 25 books, and has won the Booker and Nobel Prizes. The Pickup is her 13th novel, and perhaps, at 77 years of age, she no longer feels the need to pander to an audience. The Pickup certainly raises questions that are not answered. Who picks up whom? Who uses whom? Who leaves whom? What are Julie and Ibrahim really looking for? What do they find? Do either of them love the other? They are interesting questions, and Gordimer raises them deftly, and even hints at some of the answers in her East/West theme. The characters have flaws, but philosophically, the novel leaves the reader pondering, and ultimately, wondering about the nature of all relationships; about the nature of all sympathies, and about what we, the reader, are looking for; the human condition; its limitations and grandeur. There are also moments of beauty, even if those are tempered by Gordimer’s harsh narration, such as Julie’s epiphany in the desert: “The desert is mute; in the middle of the desert there is this, the infinite articulacy: pure sound.” (211) These moments are moving ones, even if the novel has basically philosophical, rather than emotive value. With her considerable experience and skill, Gordimer does some interesting things with this narrative, and raises some interesting, and complex questions that leave the reader re-tracing the path of the book.

For more information about The Pickup or to purchase a copy, visit:
The Pickup