On the very first page, the reader is plunged into the strangeness that is Nathan Lucius, the main protagonist of this brilliantly conceived novel. Nine bullet points list the characteristics that Nathan regards as representing who he is. They are both obscure and illuminating. Each chapter’s title is a phrase from the opening sentence of that chapter; some of these titles can be misleading without context; this almost mirrors the fragmented mind of Nathan.
The first person perspective means that only Nathan’s thoughts, opinions and narration of the facts is presented. Furthermore, the novel is written using short sentences and is almost entirely in the present tense. This staccato style conveys immediacy as if the action is unfolding as you read. The tone is matter-of-fact so even when something startling happens, there is a sense that Nathan is detached emotionally.Who he is now, at the age of 31, has no context. He narrates his life almost as if he were born at this age.
I love the internal commentary on various things from the lack of news to his opinion on his next door neighbor, Adele du Toit, and his dislike for Dino, journo and boyfriend to his boss, Sonia. It is through this internal commentary that it becomes clear that Nathan is cynical, demotivated, almost nihilistic and decidedly odd. Sonia has to tell him to shower because of the smell, “of booze and feet and bum”; this after three days of not showering. While she lectures him he is distracted by her long, angry nipples (imagine nipples being angry) which are giving him a hard-on. Nathan often gets hard-ons in the most unlikely circumstances. He thinks to himself that her nipples are like “cocktail viennas” and wonders “if they’ll tear holes in Sonia’s T-shirt.“
Another thing Nathan has is a “library of faces” that he adopts at appropriate moments. “Or maybe it’s a wardrobe. Or a closet. Whatever you call that place where you keep your faces.” On the one hand, as a reader, you nod knowingly because we all have masks but on the other hand, you realise that it is not usually such a conscious, deliberate act as seems to be the case with Nathan. There are hints that he is in a precarious position in the workplace where his job is selling ad space for a newspaper.
Nathan is also friendly with an elderly woman who owns a pseudo-antique shop. She has cancer and will be dead soon. He buys old family photograph albums from her and arranges them into a family tree on the wall in his flat. This way he says he can have a new family whenever he wishes. He says nothing of his actual family. He is a loner and never allows anyone into his flat.
Sometimes the action leaps from the previous evening when he leaves Eric’s, the drinking hole where he often drinks with colleagues, to his awakening the next day. These gaps in the narrative might equate to gaps in his consciousness or is he simply leaving things out? This makes him a distinctly unreliable narrator as we have no other perspective that divulges information. It adds to the mystery that is Nathan, a man who seems to have no past and is not that interested in his future. He does not have a car because “cars are for people who want to go somewhere”.
One day Madge asks him to euthanize her, to murder her because her life is a living death, she is in pain and constant struggle. This throws him into turmoil because he really likes her. At the same time he is having wild, drunken sex with the older woman next door “doing things that can’t be legal”. He does not like it when Mrs du Toit (he still thinks of her this way despite having sex with her) wants to find out more about him. He explains,
“Imagine standing in a big bucket. Every time you tell somebody something about yourself you’re pouring a spadeful of concrete into the bucket. Soon enough it sets. You can’t move.”
He wants to forget as much as possible. Yet he finds it hard to forget, much as he tries.Just as he thinks he is mastering forgetting, memories creep in and catch him off-guard. This is one of the few allusions to his past. He is in a quandary about Madge, his drunken pill-popping episodes with Mrs du Toit make him late for work so Sonia is furious with him and there are blanks in his memory. Everything escalates and comes to an end until there is a blank.
I cannot explain one more thing. You have to read it and find out for yourself. The discovery of the outcome is like watching a scene in a movie where the elements are familiar but together they do not make sense; time is thrown out of kilter but one by one as the elements come into sharp relief, understanding dawns.
Wasted is brilliantly conceived and written. Nathan Lucius with his idiosyncrasies is a masterful work of the imagination; you may not like him, he may disturb you but you will never forget him. When you discover what has made him who he is, you will be jarred and jolted. You will then want to read the book again.