The House Gun

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Although the author claims that this is not a detective novel, it has many of the appeals of a conventional “whodunit,” particularly in the search for a reason why Duncan Lingard killed his friend, Carl Jespersen.

Duncan’s parents spend much of the novel in recollection and introspection, trying to discover some clue from the past that could explain their son’s crime. Their agonies of self-doubt, the challenges to their hitherto safe beliefs, the shifts in perception that result from Duncan’s action form much of the material of the book. However, it is the black lawyer, Hamilton Motsamai, who discovers the circumstances and events that led to the shooting: Duncan’s brief homosexual affair with Jespersen; his desperate love for Natalie, a girl he saved from suicide; his finding Natalie and Jespersen having sex. Unfortunately, these circumstances shed no light on the mystery; they only deepen it.

In their search for causes, the Lingards confront the possible effects of South Africa’s violent history, Duncan’s mental instability, the politics of race, and perhaps above all, the easy availability of firearms. The intersection of the personal and the political has always been a part of Nadine Gordimer’s fiction, but in THE HOUSE GUN it takes a new and more subtle twist. The apolitical Lingards, formerly safe in their upper middle class comfort, are forced to see the world, the news, the justice system, and the meaning of guilt and innocence in wholly new ways.

The novel provides no easy answers to the questions and dilemmas it poses, but the similarities between South Africa and America make this book compelling. Moreover, at the core of this complex but highly readable novel is the subject of much great fiction: the mysteries of the human heart, particularly the forces that drive civilized people to violence. For reasons Duncan himself cannot fully comprehend, “Violence is a repetition we don’t seem able to break....”

Sources for Further Study

Artforum. XXXVI, March, 1998, p. S21.

Booklist. XCIV, October 15, 1997, p. 362.

Library Journal. CXXII, November 1, 1997, p. 115.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 18, 1998, p. 2.

The Nation. CCLXVI, March 2, 1998, p. 25.

The New York Review of Books. XLV, May 14, 1998, p. 42.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, February 1, 1998, p. 10.

Partisan Review. LXV, Spring, 1998, p. 259.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, October 20, 1997, p. 52.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, February 8, 1998, p. 15.

The House Gun

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

“This is not a detective story” says the narrator of Nadine Gordimer’s latest novel. If by that she means that The House Gun is not a conventional “whodunit,” she is correct, but in a deeper sense, the book is indeed a detective novel. The question, however, is not who committed the crime; readers know almost from the first page of the novel that Duncan Lingard shot and killed his roommate and former lover, Carl Jespersen. What readers do not know, and what Duncan’s parents cannot comprehend, is how a young man of Duncan’s upbringing and constitution could possibly have committed such a crime. Deepening the mystery is that Duncan did not act in a fit of rage when he found his girlfriend Natalie having sex with Carl, with whom he had once had a brief homosexual affair; rather, he waited twenty-four hours and then, apparently cooly, shot his friend through the head.

What unravels as the novel progresses is the circumstances that led Duncan to commit this terrible crime. As any parents would, the Lingards search their memories for any incidents or clues that could possibly explain how Duncan could commit the crime he has confessed. The only incident they can point to, and it seems of no help at all, is the suicide of one of Duncan’s boarding- school classmates. Yet this leads nowhere. Rather, like sidekicks of Perry Mason, the Lingards can only watch as Hamilton Motsamai slowly uncovers aspects of Duncan’s life that even they did not know. Also in good Perry Mason fashion, the most significant clues come out during the lawyer’s cross-examination of Duncan’s friends, especially Natalie.

What the Lingards learn is not that there is some monstrously dark side to their son’s character. Natalie claims that Duncan was almost pathologically controlling, that after saving her from a suicide attempt, he tried to direct her life, as if by saving her he had made it his own. Natalie’s charges, though, are exposed by Motsamai as essentially untrue: Duncan cared about her and, in spite of her infidelities, continued to love her. The greatest shock they receive is to learn that Duncan had a brief homosexual affair with Jespersen. When he came upon the two of them, therefore, he discovered his former homosexual lover with his current heterosexual one. The shock and strain, Motsamai argues, tipped an otherwise decent, nonviolent young man over the edge. The problem with this explanation is that Duncan waited almost a full day before killing Jespersen. Does this not make his crime, as the prosecutor claims, one of cold premeditation?

Such revelations and conundrums are indeed the stuff of conventional detective novels, and Gordimer exploits these devices brilliantly, especially in taut scenes of courtroom drama. Yet ultimately, as she claims, this is not a detective novel because the central mystery is never really solved. Like the Lingards, and indeed like Motsamai himself, readers never fully understand what drove Duncan to murder Jespersen. In part, this is a function of the novel’s point of view, which, while technically omniscient, seldom takes readers inside Duncan’s mind. The brief periods during which Duncan does speak in his own voice are too brief or ambiguous to supply anything like an answer. The words of explanation he utters while on the witness stand—that he shot Jespersen in order to silence his babble—have only the ring of partial truth about them.

For much of the novel, readers see events through the eyes of the perplexed Lingards. Claudia, the atheistic humanist who works part-time in a clinic for the poor, can find nothing in her medical training to explain her son’s behavior. Perhaps Gordimer made her a physician to emphasize that probing within the body, knowing the human being as a biological mechanism, leads to no wisdom about an individual’s character and motives. That Claudia is also his mother only deepens the helplessness of her art in the face of this inexplicable act.

Duncan’s father, by contrast, is an avid and serious reader as well as a...

(The entire section is 1657 words.)