An ecologist battling a nuclear power plant becomes radioactive himself in Get a Life, Nadine Gordimer's 14th novel. Paul Bannerman, a 30-something South African, has undergone radiation treatment that makes him a danger to those around him. To protect his wife and young son, the "modern-day leper," as he calls himself, retreats to his parents' home, spending weeks in the garden he played in as a child. (Feel free to make comparisons to Eden; Gordimer certainly does.)
Paul, his wife, Benni, and his parents, Lyndsay and Adrian, are white, liberal, and upper-middle-class. Until his illness, Paul was never one for introspection, and the weeks of enforced inactivity lead him to some uncomfortable conclusions about his marriage. You see, Benni, an advertising executive, has accounts with the developers that Paul is fighting to stop. Somehow, this never bothered him before. Now, he contemplates divorce.
But midway through the novel, Gordimer drops that story line and switches to the marriage of Paul's parents. Lyndsay, the most fully realized character, is a civil rights lawyer who battled apartheid, à la Vera Stark in Gordimer's novel "None to Accompany Me." Also like Vera, she engaged in a long-ago affair, which she now characterizes as greedy and selfish: "a child gobbling a lollipop." Adrian, a lover of classical music and archaeology, has put his interests on hold while supporting his family. Now that he's retiring, he dreams of traveling the world. Lyndsay, however, isn't so sure she's ready to drop her career. Their first trip together to Mexico is an experimental foray with unintended (and unsurprising) consequences.
Gordimer, a Nobel Prize-winner, writes with choppy, impatient sentences. Verbs frequently have to be guessed at. While her earlier works didn't exactly tend to flowery excess, here she writes in a staccato so sharp it's almost Morse code. Sometimes the chasm is too great for a reader to leap with comfort. Her predilection for referring to "Berenice/Benni," for example, is meant to evoke the dual personality of the high-powered ad exec and the loving wife, but instead it makes her sound like a construct instead of a character. And a scene where Paul's toddler son has to have his fingers pried off a garden gate as he screams for his dad gets all the pathos beaten out of it by endless repetition. (Although that may have been her point: Gordimer pours derision on the "syrup of sympathy.")
The Bannermans' privileged lifestyle also adds to the novel's chilly remoteness: They just don't have the same worries as the vast majority of the population. For example, Paul is briefly concerned about how to pay the medical bills. Benni lands a major new client and, voilà, problem solved. Lyndsay decides to adopt a child, and the matter is resolved with an ease that would make even Angelina Jolie envious. Somehow, there are no concerns about Lyndsay being 59 and having a demanding career that keeps her away from home 10 to 12 hours a day. (In the US anyway, adoption agencies typically insist on at least one parent being younger than 50.)
"Get a Life" is most successful when it delves into the renewal of the parent/child relationship. Adrian and Lyndsay instantly volunteer to take Paul in, and they are assiduous in their efforts to create a "normal" existence, which means, of course, that they can't talk about his illness or anything related to why he's staying with them. "Adrian and Lyndsay, parents who are now also the new devout missionaries, no care possible for self, in this private place of asylum, taking care of the lit-up leper."
During Paul's weeks with his parents, he and Lyndsay reconnect in a way they haven't since he was a small boy, a fact that sets her sobbing in the middle of the night. "Why did it have to be like this for him, so we could talk. Talk. Why not before. Waited for this.... What's the matter with me so it couldn't be these years that've been going by so satisfied with what was supposed to be loving."
Gordimer weaves some intricate themes into her examination of the two marriages and the types of contradictions (hypocrisies?) that people build into both their personal and professional lives. But in the end, "Get a Life" is more for those who want to think about ideas than for people who love to read.
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.