13 September 2005

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee

I had been awaiting J.M. Coetzee's new novel, Slow Man, with both excitement and dread. It is his first novel to be published since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003 (his previous book, Elizabeth Costello, came out just before the announcement, if I remember correctly), and oftentimes the books that Nobel winners publish after they have been enlaureated are, well, feeble.

Slow Man is not feeble, and it is likely to find mildly passionate admirers and fiercely passionate detractors -- in fact, among reviewers, it already has done so, as shown by the roundup of reviews at The Complete Review. Coetzee has often been controversial, and even his best novels -- which I would say are Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K, and Disgrace -- have been seen by some readers as awkward, excessively abstract, schematic, racist, sexist, too political, not political enough, etc. Slow Man will not win over anyone who has disliked Coetzee's work previously, and it's also likely to annoy plenty of people who did admire the best of his earlier novels.

I should not have dreaded that the book would be an ordinary disappointment, however, because Coetzee is too stubborn and singular a writer to do anything that is not somehow surprising and odd. This is after all, the man who delivered perhaps the strangest Nobel lecture in the history of the award, and who shunned as much of the publicity around it as possible (he gave only two print interviews when in Sweden -- and one of them was to Djurens Ratt [Animal Rights].)

Slow Man is, indeed, surprising and odd. It is not nearly as odd as Elizabeth Costello, but it does seem to follow directly from that book, and not merely because the character of Elizabeth Costello herself appears a third of the way in and refuses to go away. Where previously the character of Elizabeth Costello seemed to be struggling with the usefulness of being a writer, now the novel itself embodies that struggle. Up to page 79, when Costello appears, Slow Man is a compelling Coetzee story, similar in many ways to Disgrace. The main character, a 60-year-old photographer named Paul Rayment, is in a bicycle accident, his leg is amputated in the hospital, he refuses to use a prosthesis (throughout the book he stubbornly resists anything he considers fake or artificial), he goes through a couple of annoying or incompetent nurses at home, until finally he gains an excellent nurse and falls in love with her (though not she with him). This nurse, Marijana Jokic, is Croatian. Aha! we think, Coetzee is once again writing about power and brutality! Croatia, how suggestive! Domestic totalitarianism, immigration and alienation, class, paralysis -- oh, the possibilities! The description of the accident and Paul's reaction to it is vivid, sharp, and discomforting; with Paul's adjustment to life at home, he begins to seem to be the sort of flawed, pitiful, stubborn character that David was in Disgrace. Coetzee, though, might as well quote Prufrock at this point: "That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all."

Because here the novel that any aware reader is expecting ends. Elizabeth Costello comes in and hints to Paul Rayment that he is a character she has dreamed up, and that he is allowing his story to become dull. They spend the rest of the book arguing with each other, provoking each other, abandoning each other. Costello can never seem to come to grips with the world she is a part of, and that she wants to escape from. Paul begins to adapt to his world, for better or worse, but also brings plenty of humiliations upon himself. He misreads many of his circumstances, just as Costello seems to misimagine them. The one sensation that stayed with me throughout the book was of loneliness, and the desperate, painful fight against it when it seems to be your fate. Neither writing nor life can assuage the pain of dying alone; and yet, isn't that everyone's lot?

Images and vocabulary of religion fill the book -- at first, Costello seems to be a kind of author-god, an omniscient character, someone with knowledge and control. She comes to seem, though, more and more limited, more and more human, as if she is her own Nietzsche. Characters try to find meaning in life and death, they cling to whatever faith they can. They cling to memories, to stories, to whatever they can grasp onto as somehow being real and authentic.

It's interesting to look at the reviews and see how the first readers of the book have approached it, because it's not the sort of novel that can be absorbed quickly and then tossed aside. Faced with such a book, reviewers often fall back on their favorite tricks: summaries of the plot and facile biographical guesses about how the book is a reflection of the author's own life.

The Village Voice has a review that is pretty worthless as criticism (it's a shallow biographical reading of the book -- the last paragraphs reading to me like a parody of the whole genre), though I did chuckle at the description the writer offers of Coetzee's early novels:
Each of these books imagines the dissolution of power in a plainly colonial but nevertheless ahistorical setting. Were it not for the absence of spaceships and tentacled extraterrestrials, these novels, with their highly specialized circumstances, might even be called science fiction.
The review in The Age, by Kerryn Goldsworthy, is a good attempt, but the last paragraph is revealing:
Novels like this are a reviewer's nightmare. You know before you start that no description or summary will be adequate, and superlatives seem both impertinent and unnecessary.
To read the reviews so far, this seems to be true. I've only found two reviews that are satisfyingly thoughtful: one is negative, one positive about the book. The Complete Review's own review (scroll down) is a fine exploration of how Slow Man suggests ideas of creation and connection, and it's really a model of what a review can accomplish in a short space. (I'd excerpt it, but I think it works best as a whole.)

Benjamin Markovits's review for The New Statesman is quite negative about the book, but is nonetheless thoughtful and perceptive. For instance:
Few books have time to say how being hopeless feels. Slow Man is no exception; but Elizabeth's interference is an attempt, at least, to make an issue of that failure. Novelists depend on plots; plots depend on actions. People, however, rarely act out their frustrations in linear progression. A realist will find it difficult to give narrative shape to misery: none of the books, after all, "have time", literally. It's the being stuck in time that is so hard for fiction to capture, and so important to the feeling of hopelessness. By introducing the novelist to the story, Coetzee can discuss the shortcomings in his account of a man trapped in a body and life that no longer give him pleasure.

Still, I'm not sure that Coetzee's experiment with Elizabeth is worth the obvious absurdities into which it forces him.
I think Markovits is trying to make the novel fit into a template the book itself works against -- that of the conventional novel of psychological realism -- but he admits his approach is open to contradictions, and he clearly shows that he spent time and thought on what Coetzee wrote, which is more than can be said for many of the positive reviews, plenty of which could have been written without the reviewer having read anything more than the press release that accompanied the book. In fact, the front flap of the dustjacket, which seems to be trying to convince us that this is an Important Book, offers more to think about than most of the reviews do:
Paul Rayment's accident changes his perspective on life, and as a result he begins to address the kinds of universal concerns that define us all: What does it mean to do good? What in our lives is ultimately meaningful? Is it more important to be loved or to be cared for? How do we define the place we call "home"?
Slow Man is certainly not Coetzee's best work, and it's frustrating at times, but it is seldom less than compelling, seldom less than intelligent, even as it is beguiling.

No comments:

Post a Comment