Got No Secrets
Tightrope Books (2010), 141 pages, $18.95
Some writers are comfortable in a style the way that certain people are comfortable in their clothes. This is not to say that the chosen style is superior; rather, these writers wear their style without self-consciousness or preening. Their work is generally successful because it know its mind.
Danila Botha, author of the appropriately titled Got No Secrets, is one of those writers. With a ferocious punk energy, this first story collection turns over the secret soil of its characters’ hearts: young women struggling with drug habits, abusive relationships, and a tendency toward masochism and other compulsive behaviors. Punk rock haircuts, tattoos, and sexual promiscuity abound.
Here’s a sample passage:
I get that apartment and share it with Tina. I don’t officially drop out, I just stop going to class. I do it until I flunk out, and no one’s around to make me feel guilty. Tina’s strung out so often it’s like living alone. I look at her: bone thin where she once had boobs and hips, black mascara running down her face, her once perfect hair peroxide blond with roots. I wonder if she knows she’s a junkie. She has all these sexy clothes, but she doesn’t even get dressed anymore. She just uses and poses for our webcam. She inserts anything. I once saw her stick a stiletto heel up there.
A big part of readability is rhythm. Botha has a natural sense of rhythm’s nuances – when to linger on a detail or scene and when to breeze past in explication. Couple that with prose that doesn’t call attention to itself – either with self-consciously quirky detail (McSweeney’s), precocious and precious word choice (Nabokov), syntactical clutter (Pynchon), or affected lack of affect (Carver) – and you’ve got stories that, excuse the personification, read themselves. Though I am a painfully slow reader, I finished these twenty-pagers in the time it took to drink a cup of coffee.
At times the language is flat, but you barely notice. “Bone thin” and “peroxide blonde” in the above passage feel stock. Similarly, I wonder why a writer so interested in rubbing our faces in the dirt would employ a euphemism like “up there.” After watching this story’s narrator puke, use ecstasy, have sex with a stranger, and expose herself on webcam, this delicacy about genitalia feels prissy. But under the spell of Botha’s self-assuredness, we read right past it. It is only the critic in me that notices, and only then out of a sense of occupational duty.
Botha is a Canadian by way of South Africa, and she is at her most successful – for this American reader, at least – when she explores her South African roots. Here’s another passage, from the collection’s most successful piece, “Heroin Heights:”
The streets are lined with one-star hotels, street meat vendors, and magoshas getting ready to hlahla any guy desperate enough to pay them. Our apartment is on Claim Street, near Kotze, across the street from the infamous Protea Hotel. It’s legendary for the number of jijis, underage girls, that are there all the time…They all wear the same gold or purple eyeshadow, red lipstick, and black fishnets or torn tights…When they bend over you can see everything. No underwear.
This passage maintains the same naturalness of phrasing as the first. But it is superior in its specificity and rhetorical relationship to the reader. Perhaps the details would seem overly familiar if I were South African, but I am not, and I am guessing most of Botha’s audience is not either. Additionally, the narrator of this story is a young girl with kidney disease, and as we watch her mother struggle to pay for her daughter’s dialysis, our sympathy swells more easily than it does for the more self-afflicted characters of the other pieces. One of this collection’s biggest flaws, its lack of perspective and authorial distance, is absent here. I have no idea how autobiographical these stories are, but all but one are narrated by young females who live in either Canada or South Africa, and Botha seems to expect us to take their plights as seriously as they do. This is noble, but a little distancing irony – or at least some sense of how these women’s parents and boyfriends view them – might have gone a long way. “Heroin Heights” achieves this distance by situating its narrator in the larger social struggles of Johannesburg.
But this lack of distance is also the collection’s strength, a result of its stylistic ingenuousness. If at times this leads to repetitiveness (most of these stories are not just in first person, but also in present tense), a lack of structure (stories seem to begin and end without reason), or a borderline melodrama (nurses who cut themselves, women who can’t get over boyfriends of years prior), it also makes for an immersive read. Botha does well to sink us in subjectivity, but if she can offer a more objective look at that subjectivity’s context, while not losing sight of her essential Botha-ness, her stories will resonate more full and wide.