Looking at SA’s bloom and gloom


Following the success of his prize-winning fifth novel Life Underwater and the many other literary achievements for which he has been awarded, Ken Barris has released a collection of short stories titled The Life of Worm & Other Misconceptions (2017).

The 14 short stories, written over a period of time that stretches back to 1988, are varied in content, strength and style. They are not presented consecutively. There is no overriding theme. And yet there are at least three stories that will appeal to anyone who has experienced the struggle that is writing.

Barris’s clever use of inserts and quotations inspired me to incorporate some of my favourite lines from three of his stories about writing.

In the first story, To See the Mountain, he describes the skill of people carrying produce on their heads in a marketplace in Molyko and asks of himself and his life as a writer: “Can I achieve such careless balance?” In The Grand Parade he asks: “And why would anyone write if not to learn and change?”

In The Quick Brown Fox, the character Jay Barrell wrote: “‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’. It was a whole alphabet in a 35-letter sentence”.

I cannot help but appreciate the beauty of such fine sentence construction and his vulnerability in exposing some of his writing process.

These quotes also highlight the variation in Barris’s storytelling, which is one of the collection’s high points. The poetic prose and incisive description are two others. His imagination is something to be celebrated.

But Barris does not create likeable characters and there is not one story in which the characters seem to like each other very much. The most refreshing and surprising stories branch into the realms of magic and fantasy, where a baboon can talk and pterodactyls are secretly not extinct.

Anyone who likes animals might be offended at the rate at which they die in these stories. The title story, The Life of Worm, is no exception. But it is still an excellent piece about a dog named Worm and some of the problems of everyday life in South Africa.

Many of the stories confront the more depressing realities of living in South Africa, such as power cuts, poverty, crime and a number of other horrific abnormalities set in motion by apartheid. That is not to say Barris does not celebrate the beauty and diversity of South Africa too, because he does, in abundance.

This book provides an opportunity to visit different parts of the country, from the very familiar to the lesser known, favouring the Cape slightly more than other places, probably because this is where he is based.

The pages are soaked in cynicism, saved occasionally by wit and a dark sense of humour, the absurd and fantastical. The book is beautifully written, accessible and easy to read.

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