by Nadine Gordimer; New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, 208 pages, $21
Dr. Balon is professor of psychiatry at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, Michigan.
This slight novel by the 1991 Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer starts with the son of the family, Paul, being diagnosed as having invasive thyroid cancer. After surgery and treatment with radioactive iodine, he needs to be isolated for several days because the radioactivity is dangerous to others. For practical reasons, he stays at his parents' house. He spends the long days of isolation in the garden, contemplating his life and his work as an ecologist. He becomes preoccupied by the plans to build a nuclear reactor nearby and to drain wetlands, plans he opposes.
Issues involving other members of this South African family are set in motion, maybe as a consequence of his life-threatening illness. Paul's father Adrian, a businessman who sacrificed his passion for archeology to support his family, wonders what has happened to his relationship with his wife. "Why did it have to be like this for him, so we could talk?" Adrian asks. "Why not before? What are we doing? Waited for this. What happened to us?" Paul's mother Lyn, a prominent civil rights lawyer, starts facing her past after talking with her son. Years ago she had an extramarital affair and feels guilty. Benni, Paul's wife and an ad agency executive, wants to have another child, to which Paul responds, "If you want another child you'll have to find another man."
After the end of Paul's isolation, his parents leave for Mexico to pursue Adrian's dreams of archeology. Lyn comes back after a while, and Adrian decides to stay in Mexico for a little longer. However, Adrian never comes back, because he falls in love with a Norwegian guide and moves to Norway with her. Lyn thinks, "All his life he had worked not grudgingly or unhappily, it appeared, with the satisfaction of doing what he had to do, conscientiously, in activity he wouldn't have chosen. The only culmination: retirement. The experience close to if not exactly fulfillment of his avocation, wasn't that enhanced by the realization that there is another avocation, to love again? They go together. The woman and the archeology. The lovemaking and the digs."
Yet things stay in motion: Lyn is in the process of adopting an HIV-positive child, dates a retired judge, and is appointed a judge herself. Benni becomes pregnant. A letter announcing Adrian's death arrives from Norway. And finally, Paul's second son is born.
In the final part of her novel, Gordimer draws a parallel between a new life in Paul's family and the repeated renewal of the famous Okavango Delta in Botswana, one of the ecological issues Paul and his coworkers are obsessed with. Paul's son is a new, healthy life, in spite of Paul' illness. "The sperm of the radiant progenitor-survivor has achieved no distorting or crippling of the creation." Life continues, gets renewed.
Get a Life is a story of human passions influenced by the past and seemingly set in motion by Paul's illness. But were the family affairs predetermined to happen? Is it just life being replaced by another cycle of life, like the Okavango Delta renewal? Gordimer cites W. H. Auden at the beginning of her book, "O what authority gives Existence its surprise?" It seems that Gordimer has given us another poetic opus, a stimulus to contemplate our lives.