You might have certain expectations for "The Reactive." The author, Masande Ntshanga, certainly expects as much. After all, it's a novel with an HIV-positive protagonist living in South Africa in the 1990s.

You might have certain expectations for "The Reactive." The author, Masande Ntshanga, certainly expects as much. After all, it's a novel with an HIV-positive protagonist living in South Africa in the 1990s.

But to read the slim, 161-page work from local publisher Two Dollar Radio is akin to gazing into one of the abstract Mark Rothko paintings that continually pop up in the book. In other words, there's much more to it than what might initially appear.

"That was something I wanted the book to have," Ntshanga said. "The closer you look at it, the closer you read it, the more things you start to discover. But at the same time, you can look at it from a distance and notice a symmetry and beauty with it."

Take, for instance, the book's drug use, which is simultaneously a means of escape, a door to intimacy and a protest against the country's inequality.

"Though [the characters] might seem incredibly inactive, it's kind of a moral decision," Ntshanga said. "They're trying to abstain from acting because they don't know whether the consequences will result in the subjugation of someone else."

"The Reactive" is, essentially, a coming-of-age story about Lindanathi, a middle-class South African who's not exactly in a hurry to, well, come of age. (His name literally means "wait with me.")

Following his little brother's death - a fate he feels responsible for - Nathi drops out of college and becomes infected with HIV. He spends his days with his two friends, Cecilia and Ruan. Together they're either selling his antiretroviral (ARV) drugs, which haven't been widely distributed yet, or huffing glue, smoking joints and drifting in and out of parties and consciousness.

Comedowns are harsh, so the friends always stay afloat. As a result, time moves slowly for Nathi. ("My hours," he says at one point, "have become something foreign to me.") Days and nights seep into each other, becoming almost like one long, woozy and confusing trip.

Until, that is, the novel lurches forward with the appearance of a mysterious masked man who offers to buy Nathi's entire stock of ARVs. Nathi, suddenly, is forced to confront his past and the future he's been putting off for so long.

In writing "The Reactive," Ntshanga said he wanted to explore mortality, but he also "wanted to write what felt like a modern novel, something that kind of interrogated modernity in South Africa."

The South Africa of "The Reactive" is deeply broken, cramped and rife with inequality. One rural neighborhood comprises endless rows of shipping containers used as homes, while the apartments in the city where the three friends spend most of their time contain cracked, stained walls, broken floor tiles and pipe-rusted water.

Violence buzzes in the background, though it's mostly unnoticed by the characters, in the same way that, over time, you can learn to ignore the train that passes behind your house. Seen from above, Ntshanga notes, South African fields look like honeycombs because they're dotted with so many empty graves. Cecilia, for one, isn't disturbed by the gunshots so much as the lack of sirens that follow. Nathi tries to justify the brutality around him.

"This isn't so much killing as it is cleaning up a mess," he says. "These kids, all of them, they're already dead."

Masande Ntshanga will discuss "The Reactive" and more throughout Columbus this week, starting with a noon appearance Wednesday, Sept. 21 at Capital University. At 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 22, he'll speak at CCAD as part of the college's Visiting Scholar Series, and on Friday, Sept. 23, he'll appear on WOSU Radio as part of the station's books roundtable with Christopher Purdy.