It occurred to me last week that I’ve never posted on The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer. This was my third time reading this excellent book, and the reading experience reminded me of Nabokov’s quote about how we never really read a book, we can only re-read it. A first read is only an introduction, no matter how intense the experience, all subsequent reads push and then settle the acquaintance where it needs to go.
The Pickup is actually my very favorite Gordimer novel, which is saying something because I have high praise for each of her fourteen novels. But The Pickup is somehow a distillation of Gordimer’s style; it is both neat and untidy, both practical and reckless. The storyline repeats this dual tendency by being firmly contemporary yet at the same time a simple, traditional love story.
So let’s start with the story: The Pickup is the story of a relationship forged within the messiness of modern society. Julie meets Abdu when she takes her broken car into a garage in Johannesburg where he is working illegally. They begin an affair which becomes complicated when Abdu receives a deportation notice. Of course Julie wants him to stay, and of course Abdu does not want to return to his home country. They try various methods to keep him legally in South Africa and when everything fails, Julie shows up one evening with two tickets. She will go home with him. Home is an unnamed Muslim nation – the complete opposite from any life Julie has ever experienced.
The novel, as indicated by the title, flirts with the idea that one of these two has been a pickup for the other…Abdu needs residency, Julie needs adventure. Is one-half of this couple taking advantage of the other? Gordimer raises this question, yes, and in some ways, answers it, but this does not remain the central question. The Pickup goes on to explore the cultural and experiential differences between Julie and Abdu, and how they do find a connection. Julie’s integration into Abdu’s family home is a beautiful and respectful investigation of both sides of a huge cultural divide.
Finally, the ending…one of the most surprising endings I’ve ever read. And yet when you turn that last page, it isn’t really a surprise, it’s organic to the story and everything Gordimer has been revealing about Julie and Abdu. A surprise that is ultimately completely satisfying.
Stylistically, The Pickup is also my favorite. Mostly because of the omniscient narrator’s skill at personal and general revelation, but also because of the strange, slightly jarring way the narrator slips so casually in and out of Julie and Abdu’s (and several other characters’) minds. There isn’t a strong delineation between spoken word and thought, which creates an intense, contemplative atmosphere within the world of the novel. Delicately done. An excellent book.
Here is just a sample of the narrative style:
Not for her to speak those words; he heard them as she had heard them. Nothing for her to say; she knows nothing. That is true but he sees, feels, has revealed to him something he does not know: this foreign girl has for him – there are beautiful words for it coming to him in his mother tongue – devotion. How could anyone, man or woman, not want that? Devotion. Is it not natural to be loved? To accept a blessing. She knows something. Even if it comes out of ignorance, innocence of reality.