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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Double Negative

Ivan Vladislavić

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To purchase Double Negative

Title: Double Negative
Author: Ivan Vladislavić
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010
Length: 245 pages
Availability: Double Negative - US
Double Negative - UK
Double Negative - Canada
Double négatif - France
Doppia negazione - Italia
  • Originally published in an edition with photographs by David Goldblatt, TJ & Double Negative
  • With an Introduction by Teju Cole

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Our Assessment:

A- : remarkable portrait of character and time(s)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 8/11/2013 Patrick Flanery
The Independent A 15/11/2013 Neel Mukherjee
Mail & Guardian . 20/5/2011 Craig MacKenzie
The National . 31/10/2013 Noori Pasella
Publishers Weekly . 22/7/2013 .
TLS . 31/1/2014 Ted Hodgkinson

  From the Reviews:
  • "Vladislavić is sensitively attuned to the uncanny phenomena that explode from the social fault lines of his city, a flaneur aware of the dangers of looking, as well as the ethical perils of photographing strangers, and his protagonist seems to embody the changing gaze of white men in South Africa over the past 30 years: at first intrusive, more recently blind to those around them." - Patrick Flanery, The Guardian

  • "The moorings of Double Negative lie not in Forsterian plot but in its subtle internal dynamics: think of the structural design of themes, motifs and phrases in music, instead of cumbersome load-bearing structures such as plot and character. This book coheres resplendently by its metaphorical underpinnings, by something rare in the world of contemporary fiction: meaning. It asks big questions" - Neel Mukherjee, The Independent

  • "The effect of this cluster of devices in the book is to make the real unfamiliar and to invest the fantastical with the grit and texture of the real. (...) This is fertile Vladislavic ground: the odd, the piquant, the bizarre, the all-too-believable surreal." - Craig MacKenzie, Mail & Guardian

  • "As a novel, Double Negative is unfortunately struck with the same affliction that befalls its main character: that of a listless narrative and lack of purpose in storytelling." - Noori Pasella, The National

  • "Itís this ambivalence that makes Neville a frustrating character, although the author crafts the details of his life with a crystalline clarity." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Beneath every shimmering surface, the novel seems to suggest at times, lies not necessarily greater depth, but yet another surface. Vladislavićís prose has a flinty humour to it: the narrator continuously goads himself, and the authorís facility with metaphor nicely echoes Nevilleís obsession with surfaces" - Ted Hodgkinson, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Double Negative is narrated by Neville Lister. Near the end of the novel, in the near-present day, he describes his interaction with a blogger-journalist who wanted to write about him, and he reports to his wife:

I cast around for a story, some credible version of myself to impart, but I couldn't find one.
       The novel is a triptych: dipping into Neville's life in Johannesburg, South Africa, at three different periods, each separated by a decade or more, it is decidedly not a neatly unspooled life-story. "My own story was full of holes", he acknowledges, and they are all the more noticeable for the big leaps he takes from one section of the novel to the next.
       The first section of Double Negative is set in 1982, a young Neville just having dropped out of university. His father makes arrangements for him to spend the day with a well-known photographer, Saul Auerbach, and they are joined by a foreign journalist. The second part finds Neville back in South Africa as apartheid has come to an end, after a decade or so he spent in England, having (eventually) found his vocation there -- photographer ("fairly independent, strictly commercial"). Here he visits a house they had meant to photograph on the outing in 1982 but didn't get around to. Finally, the last section is set in 2009 Johannesburg. Neville is married and now also receiving some attention as an artist (as opposed to just as a commercial photographer), with a show of his work coming up.
       Much of the description -- the bulk of the novel, one could say, is of the everyday and casual -- the final section is even titled 'Small Talk' -- as Neville describes just a select few days from his life across these years in some detail. There's reflection, and he fills in background as he goes along, but the focus is on a limited number of encounters and exchanges. Nevertheless, it's not really snapshots of his life that he's offering but rather process: the book seems more a presentation of the development process -- the emerging of a picture, rather than simply that clean print in its final, fixed state.
       For Neville there are few obvious simple snapshot moments; instead, he tries to shape specific experiences and memories to get some kind of hold or understanding on their lingering influence, to figure them out and how to build on them.
       His professional nickname is 'Mr Frosty'; he's known: "in the industry as the frozen moment guy", someone who still tries to capture the real in an age where technology obviates the need for that:
Capturing it in the real world is no longer a job for a photographer. Anyone can freeze an instant digitally and tinker with it and thaw it out again. You can take a slice of life and poke holes in it, change its colour, put bits in and take bits out until the cows come home. The results might be spectacular, but the magic is second-rate. We've all got the same smoke and mirrors.
       Neville seeks the authentic and the immediate (as in -- to suggest a double negative -- the not disintermediated), without a precise idea of exactly what it is he wants.
       Among his projects at the end is trying to decide how to deal with an old batch of dead letters -- once undeliverable mail, pieces of personal history ripped out of time (letters which, typically, he has also left unopened: as he notes in a different context: "I can't go poking around in the pitiful contents of strangers' lives"). He remains wary of personal engagement, even as he understands how lives and society are interconnected (and that even more so in a South Africa where society has undergone such incredible change over these decades), and even as he is drawn to it -- letting himself be interviewed, seeking out the person living in the house they passed over a decade after he was there with Auerbach, seeking out Auerbach again. At the same time, he also maintains:
I'm not a storyteller. I wish I was interested in stories, other people's especially, but I'm not.
       Among the amusing exchanges he has with his wife, summing him up (almost too) nicely, is:
     'I haven't written back, I don't want to encourage her. Next thing she'll ask me to friend her on Facebook.'
     'So ?'
     'It makes me think of lonely children with imaginary friends.'
     'You should talk.'
       Neville also feels overwhelmed by events and history. At one point he imagines:
History would break over me like a wave that had already swept through the manor house and bear me off in a jumble of picture frames and paper plates.
       Neville is aware of what is significant, whether entirely personally -- the lingering echoes of his day accompanying Auerbach, which obviously resonate even decades later -- or in much larger senses -- the South African shift to a post-apartheid world -- but feels overwhelmed. Double Negative can feel like a grasping at straws, but despite Neville's apparent indecisiveness and uncertainty -- he seems constantly to be flailing, for words and hold -- his method is effective. The result isn't a crisp, clear, simple snapshot -- as Auerbach is able to reduce the moment and the subject to -- but a different way of capturing and presenting something.
       A photographic negative depicts exactly the same scene as a print made from it, but even as it is understood to be simply an inverted version is perceived very differently -- it looks like something else entirely. Vladislavić goes another step with his 'double negative' -- which, instead of merely leading full-circle, shifts perceptions once again. Negation of negation should equal affirmation -- a roundabout way of getting there that might seem both unnecessary and twice as complicated, but Vladislavić suggests there's something to be gained this way; his protagonist certainly tends not to choose the simple, direct route.
       Vladislavić's narrator claims not to be interested: "in stories, other people's especially", which might be taken as a warning of his own narrative approach. Indeed, Neville has an avoidance strategy for even learning about other people's stories, going out of his way not to pry (and refraining even from opening those dead letters, tempted though he sometimes is). His concern, however, seems as much with the form of telling as the stories themselves. Whereas Auerbach knows exactly what he wants and how to go about it, Neville remains hesitant, unsure of how expression -- photographic or verbal -- might be reduced to convey the essence. He understands that much can easily be achieved by manipulation -- technical manipulation of images, or the manipulation words allow for -- but that's not for him: it misses the essential part of what he wants to capture.
       Double Negative is, in much of its presentation, a deceptively simple novel. Much might seem mundane or almost trivial, yet there is also constant allusion to the biggest themes -- of identity, art, society, personal fulfillment, history. Neville carefully doses the South African politics, even as its effects reverberate throughout the narrative. And he wonders:
How much past can the present bear ? There was already talk of a Truth Commission. But people are constitutionally unmade for the truth. Good, reliable fictions, that's what the doctor ordered.
       With his unmoored protagonist Vladislavić can not offer a reliable fiction, but then Double Negative is meant to be anything but. Double Negative may frustrate (so the sense from some of the early reviews, anyway) with its central character who comes across as so adrift, but it's wrong to demand the arc of a Bildungsroman from it, just because it starts off with a young protagonist unsure of his way in the world. Time, and its passing -- often in huge leaps -- are, if not incidental, certainly secondary here; Neville recognizes that even in the present-day there is an overlap with not just one but many pasts.
       It's no surprise, either, then that the book closes with a childhood memory, and the recognition back then of the loss of a particular kind of innocence -- something Neville unlearned, as he nicely puts it.
       Beautifully wrought, Double Negative is a clever and original piece of work, impressively structured and layered. It's engagingly and sharply written, too, and though it might not seem so at first, there's a lot of story to it too.
       A very strong piece of work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 November 2013

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Double Negative: Reviews: Ivan Vladislavić: Other books by Ivan Vladislavić under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and about Africa

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About the Author:

       South African author Ivan Vladislavić was born in 1957.

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© 2013-2021 the complete review

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