Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee
JM Coetzee, winner of the Nobel prize for literature, is no longer in the running for his third Man Booker. He is perhaps a writer more respected than loved. His new novel Slow Man finds him in excellent, if contradictory and frustrating, form.
Paul Rayment, a collector of photographs, born in France, but long living in Adelaide, Australia, is, right at the beginning of our story, knocked off his bicycle. He wakes to find himself an amputee. Miserably, he muses on his now circumscribed life and is cared for by his Croatian nurse Marijana Jokic. He tries to cope without his leg and with his growing affection for Marijana and her children. A meditation follows on the nature of care, cure, love and lust.
Coetzee's prose is often matter-of-fact, almost rugged. His work is compelling nonetheless because of the way, in scenes like the awful and affecting rape in his Booker winning Disgrace, he investigates calamities and confrontations and our responses to them. Coetzee is an ethicist. We read him for his incisiveness. But a great writer - and Coetzee is such - also knows that pacing, narrative and form are vital parts of their work.
Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee's superb previous novel was, for many reviewers, marred by its didacticism. These lessons didn't constitute a novel, they argued, but rather a philosophical treatise of some sort. But they missed the point. Elizabeth Costello was quite as good as it was, not because it was a plausible rendering of real life, not because its characters were fully-rounded, but because of its rigour and its intelligence. The novel is a bastard form. It works when good writers wrestle with it, write against it.
A number of reviewers, as well as, apparently the Booker judges, have been disappointed that Coetzee's latest effort - playful, philosophical - suffers from his braininess. Instead of writing a nice, linear, nineteenth century novel, Coetzee has caught the postmodern virus and has started messing with narrative and form: in chapter 13 of Slow Man, Elizabeth Costello, turns up!
For Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello performs a vital function: a literary voice that isn't directly his, that can comment on literature for him, at one remove. And this is her role in Slow Man. Rayment isn't sure who she is, or why she has turned up, fearing sometimes that he has died, annoyed other times at Costello's nosiness and knowledge of his personal life and his past which he presumes she is using as fodder for her next book. As readers, we are in a more privileged position - as we always are - seeing in Costello the writer-god.
Coetzee's writing never dazzles: that is not his objective. Through fiction he is investigating what fiction can do. But he isn't wholly successful here. There is a fatigue to the writing: as Costello gets frustrated by Rayment, the commentary itself gets frustrating to read. Whilst it is understandable that Coetzee disrupts the narrative flow to accomplish what he wants, that doesn't mean the pacing should plod. Chapters pass and the quiet drama of Rayment's personal difficulties never fully engages.
Notwithstanding that, Slow Man is the work of a peerless writer working out via his writing the value of what he does. Writing is always a set of ethical choices. Choosing Coetzee means that we, as readers, need to involve ourselves in those difficult choices too.
[Originally slated to appear in the London Evening Standard 12.09.05]