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Narrative Trig

by Rachel Z. Arndt
Illustration by Kristen Radtke

Narrative Trig

Rachel Z. Arndt
1 Snaps

The word machine stands out each time it appears in Masande Ntshanga’s latest novel, Triangulum, suggesting the predestination that’s so inherent in novels—they’ve already been written; their endings are already determined—that mentioning it scans as pedantic. But what happens when the reader is aware of the book’s machinations, swept less into the molded narrative and more into the readymade task of piecing it all together?

Triangulum is a story of voids: a mother, an emotionally gaunt father, and narrative motives whose absence the reader must make peace with. The novel opens with a metafictional conceit: In the future present (2043), a retired South African professor and sci-fi writer named Dr. Naomi Buthelezi pores over half-century-old manuscripts and recordings, trying to figure out if and how they presage her present. These texts—including a teenage girl’s memoir about her search for her missing mother, and a work of dystopic autofiction that takes place in the decades after that search—form the book’s heart, functioning as both a coming-of-age story and a mystery rooted in a post-apartheid South Africa that is still overcoming the scars left by a discriminatory government. The memoir’s narrator wrestles with her sexuality and relationships in a racially stratified society; meanwhile, she’s beset by visions of an enigmatic machine that’s either a hallucination or a message from outer space. Years later, she traverses love affairs, underground political organizations, and ecoterrorist machinations in her work for a governmental data-mining operation. Opacity hangs over these events; along with Dr. Buthelezi, we wonder whether the manuscripts are stories or premonitions.

It’s said that the last sentence of a chapter often hangs as if from a cliff. If you know the height of that cliff and the angle from which you can see the next chapter, you can know where that chapter will begin. The sentences at the ends of Triangulum’s chapters do not hang. They curl and spiral, wrap up only to unravel, and only seem to hold stable meaning. Thinking of her recently deceased boss at a governmental organization, the mysterious narrator closes one chapter “imagining him like the rest of us, a configuration of chemicals and flesh burdened by consciousness—which I thought of as a vague collection of ideas, both cumulative and transient, running the motor of a warm and wet machine.” These sentences are in flux; they sink into their own beauty, the winding language harmonizing with narrative as if to resolve, only to end in a final hum of discord.

Throughout the novel, named after a constellation, Masande Ntshanga’s poetic language haunts. His characters speak in complete sentences, and their stylization disarms the reader. The narrative bounces between frenetic urgency and troubled recollection, from the present to the future. Or is it from the future to the present? The time frame also jumps around as the teen narrator and two of her friends chase after the reason for her mother’s disappearance. They cannot keep searching—or is it that they will not keep searching? The answer to this question marks the difference between free will and willpower.

Ntshanga’s narrative leaps across time and across piecemeal recollections. Its center is unclear for much of the book, burning far in the distance. Nested stories triangulate time and characters, if you let them. Why we must know the distance to anything we cannot reach is beyond me. But if this book proves anything, it’s that the machinations of mystery are strong, and that the weight we must bear most violently is that of knowing we think but knowing, too, that we cannot always adjust the cadence of our thoughts.

The brightest star of the Triangulum constellation is 127 light-years from Earth. That single star is actually composed of two stars circling a gravitational center, completing their path once an Earth-month. For its similarity to the letter delta, the Greeks called the constellation Triangulum Deltoton. It has long been described in terms of threes: past, present, and future. Ntshanga has crafted a novel that triangulates South Africa’s past, present, and future, using each to better surmise the nature of the others. 

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