B is just trying to catch a break. He has yet to be published, though his latest manuscript is in his editor’s hands. His marriage is rocky as he grows distant from his wife, and feels unable to provide for her. In haste, he decides to take a reporting job in the south, commenting on the lives of oil rig workers. He leaves his wife behind, only able to communicate with her through an archaic and labyrinthine email delivery system involving a flash drive, which he promptly gives up on. He grows increasingly isolated as he doesn’t really know what he’s supposed to be doing on the rig. But someone, somewhere on the rig does and they are doing everything they can to either let him know of the plan, or shutter whatever goals he might develop. It could be management, any of the workers, or even the assistant cook. B becomes paranoid and paralyzed, losing trust in everyone and everything including time itself.
South, by Babok Lakghomi, is a fever dream of a novella that follows one man’s descent into a totalitarian nightmare. I picked it up on a whim because of its gorgeous cover art, and haunting synopsis. I stayed for the alienation depicted on every page and B’s world expands and contracts with each breath, waking or sleeping.
South is written with cold detached language that can barely keep track of B’s thoughts and whereabouts. The reader’s only understanding of events is filtered through B’s increasingly paranoid and unfiltered subjectivity. Thoughts ramble on without boundaries. People pass in and out of his life without question or detail. He’s trapped within his room on the rig with nothing to do but ponder what the hell is going on, and why is he there. B seems to survive without reason.
B’s telling of his story makes no sense, even in hindsight. It captures the feeling of a dream that felt so vivid in the moment only to defy reason and analysis upon waking. Everything has a purpose as it’s occurring, only to become a single ripple from a stone thrown on the other side of the pond. There is a horror lurking on every page, an intense droning kind that never gets a chance to rear its ugly head. Everytime B seems to get a grasp on his next survival strategy, the floor shifts beneath him. Lakghomi heightens this constant dissociation by denying both the reader, and B any sense of catharsis. There is only the moment in South, and it’s filled with anxiety. Plans become meaningless as B gets lost in his own head. He is alienated by the world he sets out to observe, and instead of breaking through, he digs in and bunkers down. He can only ask questions, and even those are only half finished. How can one man stand against such an assault on his being?
Lakghomi’s choice to follow Camus’ detached narration is perfect for this kind of story. It heightens the dread, making everything mundane, and making the mundane a threat. B is paralyzed by his fear, unable to make any sorts of choices. This is not the story of a hero triumphing against a shadowy system, it’s of a bug being ground underneath a boot heel. The narration captures the fleeting emotions with ease, but not detail; making the reader feel like they are being lied to.
However, this everpresent surreality comes with a price. I often was not sure of where the novel was going, or what Lakghomi was trying to explore. I found parts of the short work a little stagnant when it felt like it lingered in one place a little too long. A quick change in B’s perspective often brought a reinvigorating jolt, which may have been the point. The exhausting tediousness of constantly feeling like you’re being watched paired with the exhausting tediousness of having nothing of import to do. Lakghomi succeeds at capturing that banality, but after a while it gets a little boring, especially when B never seems to want to act. I understood he couldn’t, but he comes off as a man destined to let the world go by, unable to even describe it as it passes in the night. Maybe if he had pushed against the boundaries a little more it would have made for a more interesting experience to me.
The story’s ending was the real decider though, as is often the case for me with surreal stories. Though I found parts of the story a drag, Lakghomi nails the ending. It’s a slow burn of a silent fire that isn’t even bright enough to be seen in the night. If that sounds perfectly depressing and surreal to you, then South should be on your list. It’s a book that overwhelms the reader with a detached and surreal paranoia, built on a foundation of half truths, and questionable lies. It can be bumpy, and your mileage may vary, but I found the time reading it far from wasted. I just wish there was a little more to chew on.
Rating: South 7.0/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.