I got an early look in at Apocalypse Now Now as Charlie Human’s supervisor in his MA in Creative Writing. I don’t normally take on students, but I was so impressed with Charlie’s short story that he entered for the Moxyland shorts competition that I commissioned him to write a guest chapter for Zoo City (one of three in the extra materials chapters, including the prison diaries by Sam Wilson and the Credo interview by Evan Milton) – and he used the opportunity to undermine my entire universe with an abstract from a psychology paper that posited that being animalled and the horror of the Undertow was all in my characters’ heads.
He’s a subversive bastard and he’s turned into a fine writer. Apocalypse Now Now is demented and wonderful and unlike any other South African fiction you’ve read. I’ll let Charlie tell you about where it came from himself.
The Spark: Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human
Tabloids made me do it. No, not smoke tik and call up demons, or capture a tokoloshe, eat dog flesh, or any other normal tabloid-sanctioned activity. Tabloids made me write a novel. Screw you tabloids.
It was the headlines that did, really. Walking to work I’d see them plastered to lampposts and realised that they were the best writing flashcards ever. They gleefully keep up a surreal running commentary on the supernatural underbelly of Cape Town that doesn’t exist. Or does it? I thought it’d be a fun question to ask and answer with Apocalypse Now Now.
Baby-snatching tokoloshes, fire demons, snake men of the Cape Flats, zombie strippers; that’s the kind of bizarre urban folklore that someone, a Chosen One blessed with years of B-grade movie watching experience and unencumbered by refined literary sensibilities, could really have fun with. *Pulls sword from stone*
Of course a novel needs a protagonist and who better than a Machiavellian porn-dealing teenager with a magical Boer heritage and some serious unresolved psychological issues. Write what you know and all that.
Baxter Zevcenko is a manipulative, cocky little schoolyard Rasputin who thinks emotions are for stupid people. Well, until his girlfriend is kidnapped and he’s forced to recognise the tree-hugging, crystal-wearing part of himself that’s just a junkie for love. The heart wants what the heart wants and Baxter’s heart wants to rescue Esmé and then rip out the heart of whoever took her.
Unfortunately there are supernatural forces at work so Baxter is forced to consult with Cape Town’s first and only Supernatural Bounty Hunter Jackson ‘Jackie’ Ronin. Ronin is an alcoholic Border War veteran with a shotgun, a mojo bag, and a degree in Dwarven style kung-fu ass kicking.
Together they set off into Cape Town’s eldritch underworld and discover a little bit about themselves, the nature of friendship, and the piloting of giant inter-dimensional mecha prisons of elder gods in the process. I’m waiting for Disney to buy the film rights. Any day now.
Baxter also originated in newspaper headlines. He came from a series of moral panic headlines about the teenagers of Cape Town being hostages to the terrible societal forces of drugs, pornography and the increasingly connected society we live in.
The thing is I was a teenager once and I distinctly remember bad things not just happening randomly by themselves. Someone has to do them. Someone chooses to distribute drugs or sell porn or bully some poor kid because he plays the tuba. I wanted Baxter to be that someone.
“Oh, a flawed antihero with a dark past?” I hear you say. “Those are so hawt right now.” Well yes, but I wanted that for a specific reason. No, really. Adolescence, that hormonally-charged liminal space, is all about those horrific, stupid, ridiculous choices and I wanted Baxter’s choices, good and bad, to come from him.
Sure, he’s an egotistical asshole but he’s trying really hard to be slightly less of an egotistical asshole. Which is a struggle I think most of us can relate to. Universal appeal!
Apocalypse Now Now is not a very deep book. WARNING: THERE ARE NO GRAND METAPHORS ABOUT SOUTH AFRICA HERE. It’s dipped in hyperactivity, deep-fried in pop culture, laced with B- grade movie bravado, and all rolled up in a satisfactorily ridiculous premise. So, you know, if you like that sort of thing…
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