Of love, literature and beauty pageants

2008-10-02 08:05

Bridget McNulty is telling me about the time she entered the Miss South Africa pageant. McNulty, who grew up in Durban but is currently following a writing career in Cape Town, is bright and beautiful, but distinctly not in the 80's-glamour-model kind of way that continues to hold sway over the Miss South Africa aesthetic, and beauty pageants in general. Of this she is very aware - and probably quite grateful - but nevertheless, at the age of 23 she entered the competition, thinking of all the good she could do if she won. She did this with all seriousness, so convinced that she might be able to turn the whole thing around and conquer vapidity with compassion and intelligence, that she even refused to recruit a stylist.

When she finally took part in the first round of the competition, her beauty pageant ingenuousness was instantly shattered. The contestants didn't get to say a word. The judges just looked at them, and that was it. It was the archetypal cattle show.

While the anecdote reeks of misguided innocence, a more accurate reading would be that McNulty is possessed of an astounding sense of self-belief. It's not that she thought that she was the most beautiful girl in South Africa. It's more that she thought she could change the rules. But some things are written in stone.

McNulty, who is now 25, is a golden child. Not just figuratively. She literally shines. Overflowing with positivity, but never in any of the many clichéd senses of the word, she is almost too good to be true. She has two tattoos for example, but they are the most modest tattoos you've ever seen - they are clearly not for the viewer. The one is a tiny heart on her left hand to remind her to be always filled with love. The other is an only slightly larger shooting star on her right hand to remind her how fortunate she is.

It's this driving sense of self-belief that is the engine behind McNulty's first novel. And unlike the Miss South Africa episode, her brains and sass get to take centre stage. Set in the hottest summer Durban has ever endured, Strange Nervous Laughter chronicles the paths six disparate individuals take in their quests for love. Fuelled by an emotionally expressive magical realism, McNulty explores the web of connections and misconnections between her various characters with candour and an apparent sense of romance that is perpetually dashed against the rocks of black comedy.

Bridget is a friend of mine, so it is tempting to say that she has written a masterpiece. But that would be to damn her with false praise. Instead, I can say that Strange Nervous Laughter is a confident debut novel that suggests that McNulty might indeed one day produce a masterpiece. It contains a great deal of beautiful writing, is rich with moving imagery, and has a gentle but persistently driving plot. And despite the inherent smallness of its characters' lives, it is utterly gripping.

While she gives many of her characters an intensity of emotion that is self-consciously melodramatic in their construction of their romantic lives, she is skilled at conveying the real emotion that lies beneath through use of narrative and imagery. One of her characters, Beth, for example, is super-obsessed with finding the right man, and McNulty takes us into her thoughts, but her emotional state when high on love is most accurately expressed by the fact that she floats a few inches above the ground. Similarly, the iridescent pearls cried by another character, Aisha, whose dreams have overtaken her waking life, are movingly delicate expressions of sadness.

Other characters include Mdu, a former golden boy, who abandons the expectations of others to commune with whales. There is Harry, who lives on the edge of a dump, eats only green food for an extended period in order to get into the Guinness Book of Records, and exudes a smell that attracts all broken objects to him. Meryl is a bitter bisexual woman who has corseted herself up against a past laden with rejection, and Pravesh is a victim of mollycoddling parents, who can sense death in all its forms, and works in a funeral parlour. This motley crew are all tied together by a single event - an armed robbery that takes place in a local green grocer.

But while the book features contemporary characters in a contemporary setting, their concerns are not bound to this time and place but are far more universal. The great success of Strange Nervous Laughter is that its characters are timeless, and what begins in the intricate specificity of Durban and its 21st century surrounds, ends up taking on the dimensions of myth.

McNulty says that she wanted to write for people who normally wouldn't read, people like her best friend (a teacher and a former English student who doesn't read!). The reality is that most people don't buy books or read books, and McNulty would like them to do so, beginning with her effervescently readable debut. Having studied creative writing in America (on a full scholarship - another example of her profound determination reaping its rewards), rather than a degree in English, McNulty's focus is far more on the act of writing, than it is on the theory and history of literature. She is unashamed of the fact that she isn't fully versed in the literary canon, but instead reads what she wants to read. She stresses the importance of having a good editor, and of economy of words, and tells me - with only a hint of presumptuousness - that someone should tell Salman Rushdie that his books are great but overwritten and about a third too long.

McNulty says she hopes her publishers have destroyed her original draft, and gives much credit to Willemien de Villiers at Oshun (an imprint of Struik) for taking on the “formidable task of unmuddling my words”.

In an appended thank you sheet, which was inserted into my copy of the book, McNulty says that the book is dedicated to all those who know that only great love will do.

McNulty will soon be getting down to writing that difficult second novel, but before that she has other fish to fry. Or more accurately a cookie to bake.

Inspired by her character Harry's attempt to get into the Guinness Book of Records, McNulty has decided that she is going to bake the world's largest cupcake. She has contacted the Book of Records people, and no one has ever submitted a cupcake claim before but they are willing to create the category. And so, on the 15th of December, McNulty will officially be making the world's largest cupcake, giving all proceeds from the event to an orphanage.

The event will no doubt play out like a little one of the scenes from Strange Nervous Laughter. And by that, I don't mean that it will be filled with desperate misguided love. Instead, it will be tinged with the gently pulsing magic that fills both the book, and the life of Bridget McNulty.

•Strange Nervous Laughter is available at all good book stores.

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