There is something about a debut novel that excites beyond the ordinary experience of opening a new book by a familiar author. You have no way of knowing what to expect. When starting Marcus Low’s Asylum, I certainly did not anticipate that the novel would hold me captive for several hours. I read it in one go, even though I only intended to dip into it on the morning before its launch at the Book Lounge last month. A friend of mine was interviewing the author at the event and I meant to go to support my friend. By the time I arrived at the bookshop, however, I was there to cheer on everybody involved. Marcus Low has got himself a fan.
Asylum tells the story of Barry Wilbert James. He is locked up under quarantine in the titular asylum. The facility is located in the unforgiving nothingness of the Karoo. The time is the not too distant future (the twenties of our present century) after pulmonary nodulosis – a lethal illness – had affected vast numbers of the population: “We are sick and therefore we are isolated, locked up. We must wait out our days here, and then die – so that the healthy ones, the ones we have forgotten about, may live.”
There is no cure. Admitted to the asylum a couple of years ago in 2019, Barry spends most of his time contemplating his lot and dreaming of distant, frozen landscapes. He avoids other detainees – a “flock of coughing corpses”. To deal with their suffering, they are mostly drugged. Remembering loved ones is devastating. Thinking of the outside world is torture, especially since its state is uncertain. Violence erupts in the midst of the hopelessness the men face. Dreams “are the only way out of here – in those dreams anything is possible, any horror, any one, any thing, even snow.” In Barry’s dreams, some people speak Polish, men in tuxedos dance at masked balls, and there is a threatening presence, but also a white pill which promises relief. And there is consolation: “For it seems to me that even in the most bleak of worlds we’ll find something to hold on to…even if that is something as impossible as snow in this godforsaken landscape.”
After a suicide attempt, a psychologist is assigned to Barry to help him cope with his situation. She advises that he keep a journal. His notebooks form the core of Asylum. It is after they are discovered and stored in the Museum of the Plague in Beaufort West in 2026 that we learn about Barry’s life in the asylum and what led him to implicate himself in some of the other patients’ plans to escape. The eight recovered notebooks – incomplete and intriguingly unreliable – are accompanied by varied notes trying to make sense of the entries and to establish a “plausible chronology”.
Low’s handling of the narrative technique is extremely deft. The lyrical meditative passages of the notebooks are interspersed with fragments, marginalia, poems, and terse academic commentary, which offers factual, but not always enlightening data. The effect is striking. What we get is a version of the story, which might or might not be true, and it is up to the readers to piece it all together in their heads. We know about the documents. We are told that they were found by one of the asylum’s doctors and passed on to the psychologist, who, in turn, donated them to the museum. We are also informed that the body of another inmate, Jonathan Fox, “was found in a shallow grave” near the asylum and that the find corresponds with Barry’s account of the man’s death.
Marcus Low used to be the policy director of the Treatment Action Campaign. At the launch of the book, he mentioned that he is gradually losing his eyesight. Both of these real-life experiences allow him a unique insight into the reality of illness and what it takes to lead a fulfilled life beyond frightening medical diagnoses. His portrayals of Barry’s daily struggles with depression, delusions and his inevitably impending death are heart-wrenching. They provide not only an incisive take on incurable illnesses, but also policymaking in such institutions as health-care facilities or old-age homes.
Asylum explores how one can deviate from a predestined plot by dreaming, or telling stories. The strategy not only applies to fiction, but also life. In the novel, an academic studying Barry’s journals in the museum suggests that the texts show Barry “preoccupied with colour and light.” Barry realises: “I started imagining that someone would one day read all this…That is why I could keep on with it, why it became an obsession, why I’m sitting here now, months later, filling page after page of this notebook.”
Speculative, post-apocalyptic fiction has now firmly established itself in contemporary South African literature. Marcus Low’s Asylum is a remarkable addition to the genre. I am not the only one who found it unputdownable. Friends report similar experiences. Thought-provoking, alluring and sensitively written, it is a mesmerising novel which announces a new thrilling talent on the local literary scene.
by Marcus Low
Picador Africa, 2017
Review first published in the Cape Times on 12 May 2017.