Scattered Thoughts on Michael K. and Others

Early this week, I thought I'd write a little post about J.M. Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K, since I just got finished teaching it in my Outsider course and wanted to preserve a few of the things I'd thought about -- each reading experience of the novel has been, for me, quite different. But then I got to thinking about futurist fiction in South Africa before the end of apartheid, since I had started doing some research on the subject recently (mostly spurred on by a footnote in David Attwell's J.M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing), digging up out-of-the-way articles and out-of-print books, and I thought, Well, I can put some of that into the post, since it's interesting, but I wanted to do more research before saying anything in public, but I didn't have time, and, well ... here we are. No post all week. But lemme tell ya, the one in my head, WOW! It's a doozy, you betcha!

I do plan on writing an essay about such futurist South African fiction as Karel Schoeman's Promised Land, Nadine Gordimer's July's People and A Sport of Nature, Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, and Mongane Serote's To Every Birth Its Blood ... but I need to read them all first.

Until then, some humble and probably obvious notes on Michael K....

When Coetzee is at his best as a novelist -- Barbarians, Michael K., Disgrace, Elizabeth Costello -- there is simply no other living writer I would rather read. All of his other books at the very least reward the time spent reading them (I'm quite fond, too, of his memoirs, Boyhood and Youth). As I read Michael K. this time, I tried to think about what it is in Coetzee's work that so appeals to me. It's no individual quality, really, because there are people who have particular skills that exceed Coetzee's. There are many writers who are more eloquent, writers with more complex and evocative structures, writers of greater imagination.

And then I realized that I was marking up my teaching copy of Michael K. as if I were marking up a poem. I looked, then, at my teaching copy of Disgrace, from when I used it in a class a few years ago. The same thing. Lots of circled words, lots of "cf."s referring me to words and phrases in other parts of the book. Lots of sounds building on sounds, rhythms on rhythms in a way that isn't particularly meaningful in itself, but that contributes to an overall tone-structure, a scaffold of utterance to hold up the shifting meanings of the story and characters.

The other writers I think of as doing this sort of thing -- Gaddis, DeLillo, and Pynchon come to mind, though more as 2nd-cousins than twin brothers -- do so on a larger, more baroque scale. Coetzee is closer to Beckett, but more concrete (less dense than early Beckett, less ethereal than later). The biggest influences on Coetzee, it seems from some of his interviews and essays, have been Kafka and Beckett, and if forced to say which writers of the last 100 years matter the most to me right now, I'd say, myself, Kafka and Beckett, with Coetzee somewhere close behind them, hand-in-hand with Paul Bowles, Virginia Woolf, and maybe a couple of others, depending on my mood. This says less about literature than it does about me, about what it is I look for in fiction -- there is a bleakness of vision to most of these writers, often a fierce anti-sentimentality (which, in their best works, does not preclude humanity or descend to the converse of sentimentality, macho frigidity), and a great depth of language within relatively compressed fictional forms. My love for this sort of writing is also my limitation as a reader; I am, I think, capable of appreciating the DeLillos, Gaddises, and Pynchons of the world, but I am not someone who can truly love their work. (Instead, I end up loving them for certain sentences and paragraphs. There are passages in Mason & Dixon, Underworld, and The Recognitions that reach toward the height of human accomplishment with language -- perhaps these are simply feasts too rich for my metabolism.) Similarly, many more lush or emotive writers are capable of effects I can notice and see as skillful, but ultimately they ... well, they make me gag.

Once I got past obsessing over why a book like Michael K. appeals to me so deeply, I was able to focus on other things. My students struggled with matching their expectations for what a novel should be and do to what this novel is and does, and much of our time in class was spent on finding patterns -- patterns create meaning, I told them, and so when you get stuck, look for patterns. I had them find passages in the novel having to do with time, fertility, authority, children, communication (speech, words), and places where characters talked about the meaning of things, or where they assigned meaning to things. I made them search through the book as if on a scavenger hunt (which proved difficult for most because they had read quickly and hadn't written anything in their texts, but working in groups they stumbled along). As they talked amongst each other, sharing discoveries, they found that the novel was not the amorphous, "pointless" thing they had perceived it as, but rather a web of repetitions and reiterations. If I'd truly been prepared, I would have then given them some words of Barry Lopez from the introduction to About This Life:
Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives.
Among other things, what we find in the patterns floating around the character of Michael K. are questions about what it even means to say "the character of Michael K.", because the story we are told (or, more accurately, stories) is one in which people impose meanings onto him and he resists them. As readers, our instincts encourage us to find meanings and apply them just as much as the other characters in the book do -- we want to sum him up in the mostly simplistically Freudian ways we can, which is how we read most narratives these days -- what motivates the characters, what secrets need to be revealed for them to overcome the obstacles in their lives, how can they come to peace with their childhoods, etc. We've been fed this predictable sort of psychodrama for at least a century now, and it fuels not just morning soap operas on tv, but most of the bourgeois literature of our era and many earlier eras (more often than not, good books are good in spite of their psychologizing).

Some critics have faulted Michael K. for the second section, which, two-thirds of the way into the novel, stops everything and shifts the viewpoint. Suddenly we are outside K's point of view, looking at him through the notes of a doctor. When I first read the novel (ten years ago now), I, too, was thrown off by the second section, mostly because the first had so overwhelmed me with the vivid, visceral imagery created by perfectly ordinary words. The shift seemed like a cheat to me, as if Coetzee couldn't admit how powerful and evocative the first section was, or was afraid of it. Cynthia Ozick made a good case against it:
If ''Life & Times of Michael K'' has a flaw, it is in the last-minute imposition of an interior choral interpretation. In the final quarter we are removed, temporarily, from the plain seeing of Michael K to the self-indulgent diary of the prison doctor who struggles with the entanglements of an increasingly abusive regime. But the doctor's commentary is superfluous; he thickens the clear tongue of the novel by naming its ''message'' and thumping out ironies. For one thing, he spells out what we have long ago taken in with the immediacy of intuition and possession. He construes, he translates: Michael K is ''an original soul . . . untouched by doctrine, untouched by history . . . evading the peace and the war . . . drifting through time, observing the seasons, no more trying to change the course of history than a grain of sand does.'' All this is redundant. The sister- melons and the brother-pumpkins have already had their eloquent say. And the lip of the child kept from its mother's milk has had its say. And the man who grows strong and intelligent when he is at peace in his motherland has had his say.
Where I differ with Ozick now is that I don't think the doctor does understand K, and I don't think the explanation he offers is persuasive (it would be were K a relative of Forrest Gump, perhaps). The doctor ascribes a meaning to K based on his own desires and disappointments, and it is the process of meaning-making that we follow in the second section, and it is revelatory and chastening, because who among us has resisted the same urges while reading the first section? It's important that people have misnamed K by this point, calling him "Michaels". He cannot be bound up in a meaning anymore than he can be bound up in an internment camp, and they mistake his meaning as they mistake his name. We'll get no sustenance by cannibalizing him for our metaphysics; he's just skin and bones.

The last fifteen pages of the book return us to K's point of view and his peregrinations. Now we as readers are more prepared. We should know by now to be suspicious of our impulses, to know that what we want to do says more about us and our world than about K and his.

The movement of the novel is, broadly speaking, from city to countryside to city to countryside -- except the last movement to countryside is imagined. K lies on a pile of flattened cardboard boxes in the little closet room where his mother had lived in the city, and he's probably dying, and he thinks back to what has happened to him and where he has been, and he begins ascribing more meaning to himself than he ever has before, a meaning built from references to a life lived in cages and to gardening and staying close to the ground (shades of Being There, but with more complexity, sophistication, and depth). A motif of things underground fills the book -- sometimes from urges and ideas that are paranoid and crazy, sometimes from ones eminently practical -- and every reader sees all the attention given to seeds and growing things, to life that sprouts out of the ground. The symbolism is obvious, and I think Coetzee knows this, because it's not for us that he has created these particular symbols, but for the characters in the book (Michael K. particularly) who need something to grasp in their search for meaning.

On the penultimate page, K thinks in a parenthesized paragraph:
(Is that the moral of it all, he thought, the moral of the whole story: that there is time enough for everything? Is that how morals come, unbidden, in the course of events, when you least expect them?)
The tone is uncertain, and I think we should be wary of accepting the moral K thinks he has found. It may be one of the meanings available from this life, but even K's life is richer than to be summed up in a moral. We cheapen existence when we simplify it into morals and mottos and triangles. We need resonant imagery to replace our slogans, charts, and graphs -- and so Life and Times of Michael K ends with a beautiful and perplexing image: Michael imagines a companion (one that bears some similarity to the doctor's first impression of Michael himself), and he imagines the farm in the country, and he imagines a well and a teaspoon and just enough pure water to sustain life. There is meaning there, but it must be felt in the rhythms of the word and thought, it must be welcomed into the mind like a koan or a magical riddle that asks for no solution. As long as he keeps from solving the puzzle of himself, Michael K will live.

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