Friday, 29 August 2014
Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human / review by Tim Atkinson
And Apocalypse Now Now (Century, pb), the debut novel by South African Charlie Human, exemplifies that shift. Cannily positioned on the cusp of YA and proper grown-up fantasy, it owes a sizeable debt to J.K. Rowling’s creation, even when it’s reacting against it. Indeed, much of its appeal comes from its simultaneous celebration and subversion of the usual teenage wish-fulfilment tropes against the colourful backdrop of Cape Town.
Its schoolboy protagonist, the spectacularly named Baxter Zevcenko, finds himself on a mission to rescue his girlfriend from forces unknown, acquiring plot tokens and magical powers on the way. So far, so Potter.
But his school – a pivotal and vividly described location for the novel’s early scenes – is no Hogwarts, reeling from the impact of gang warfare and the aftermath of a pupil’s murder. Baxter himself is thriving there, masterminding a porn distribution network with his friends and accomplices.
His Holden Caulfield-style first-person narration is one of Apocalypse’s triumphs. Despite his porn business and general air of superiority, Baxter’s funny, insightful and crucially, he’s likeable. He surprises himself as he discovers he’s willing to move heaven and earth for the people he cares about.
This is fortunate, because that’s exactly what he has to do.
Baxter’s school experience prepares him well for the only marginally more dangerous and Darwinian supernatural underworld of Cape Town to which his quest takes him. En route to finding his girlfriend, he meets African legends walking the earth, experiences psychic flashbacks to his Boer ancestors, tangles with occult Government operatives and parasitic spiders, and – as advertised in the title – finds himself staring the end of the world in the face.
Our hero’s adult guide through this world, Dr Jackie Ronin, is another of the book’s trump cards. An approximate hybrid of John McClane, Catweazle and Dr Gonzo, this special forces veteran and self-proclaimed occult detective is a great foil for Baxter and a confirmed scene-stealer.
Reviewing a first novel is essentially looking for promise – and there’s much promise to find in Apocalypse. It’s cute, fast-paced and offers an appealing mix of old, new, borrowed and blue (movies). And it’s always pleasing to encounter a modern-dressed fantasy not mining the exhausted seams of Norse or Greek mythology for inspiration.
But it’s not quite the complete package.
Structurally, considerable time is spent in the first few chapters introducing the school, the conflicts within it and Baxter’s gang of friends, only for all this to be sidelined for much of the kidnapping which starts fifty pages in. It isn’t a long book, but even so it feels like two plots – the home front and the quest – have been stitched together in a way that you can still see the joins.
Apocalypse’s brevity also exacerbates the sense that Baxter’s assumption of his ancestral powers hasn’t been properly earned. He doesn’t have to work for his magic, and even poster boys for wish fulfilment like our Harry have to do that. The final showdown manages to amplify this power-trip to ridiculous proportions while also being a tonal misstep into Michael Bay-does-giant-robots territory.
These slips, together with some plot contrivances that don’t bear too close investigation, bear out a sense that Human lacks full control of his material. Yet the quality of the narration, the novelty of the setting and the subversive homage of the premise combine to make Apocalypse a punchy read and an auspicious beginning.
Looking forward to reading the sequel? You bet.