Saturday, January 26, 2013

Slow ManSlow Man by J.M. Coetzee

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I see this novel in three parts. Part one is an elegant meditation on the experience of sixtyish photographer Paul Rayment, whose leg has been amputated in the aftermath of an accident in which his bicycle is struck by a car. Paul's frustrations with his incapacities and the healthcare system, and his ruminations on what it means to exist on the edge of a watershed 'before and after' moment in his life are movingly rendered. Intimations of mortality are hinted at by the name of the accident site, Magill Rd., which if you've studied a little Russian you know means 'grave'. There is a section in which Paul considers the possibility that he may have actually crossed over to an afterlife: "If dying turns out to be nothing but a trick that might as well be a trick of words, if death is a mere hiccup in time after which life goes on as before, why all the fuss? Is one allowed to refuse it - refuse deathlessness, this puny fate? I want my own life back, the one that came to an end on Magill Road." (p. 123) But soon he is ushered back to earthly existence by a devoted Croatian caregiver named Marijana Jokic, a restorer of art by training and restorer of body and soul by profession. Paul is smitten. It's not hard to see why the 'cared for' would fall in love with their caregiver since the relationship is based on unique intimacies and vulnerabilities. How can you not love the person responsible for essentially bringing you back to the land of the living? Paul's problem now is what, if anything, to do about it, especially considering that Marijana is married with three children. The wheels start to come off, in a matter of speaking, when Elizabeth Costello enters the picture; thus begins the novel's second stage. Mrs Costello, is a well-known novelist who literally barges into Paul's life inexplicably knowing everything about him, including his past, the events surrounding the accident, his infatuation with Marijana, and the nature of his most innermost thoughts, feelings and sub-conscious motives. She seems to know everything except how Paul's story will end which is apparently what keeps her around, as much against her own will as her subject's. Fans of Coetzee will recognize the name Elizabeth Costello as the titular character from his 2003 novel. This shift in the story - one in which the challenges of Paul's physical rehabilitation are shunted aside - comes off blatantly as a device. Paul himself begins to see it this way, suspecting that he's being used as the model for a character in Costello's next novel. And so the story inside a story, the story about the nature of storytelling, the stories we tell ourselves etc. starts to nudge out the initial narrative. At this stage, I wanted to launch the book against the wall because I get annoyed with writers who play that game. To my mind it serves to distance the reader from the characters, and draws attention to the author's infatuation with his enterprise. But Coetzee being Coetzee, he knows how to keep the reader reading by gradually turning the plot screws, in this case stemming from two sources; Paul's offer to pay for Marijana's son Drago's private schooling and the way it rips her family asunder, and a second Marianna (said to be the one with two n's), a young blind woman with whom Paul has a kinky tryst arranged by Mrs Costello. As the novel moves into its final third Coetzee adds a few twists with a fall in the bathtub and his protege Drago apparently stealing from him, but by this time the author has let the tensions slacken and the narrative becomes spotty, interrupted by ponderous lengthy expositions by the Costello woman. Coetzee starts to emphasize themes related to displacement, (immigrant displacement, Paul's displaced love for Marijana, whether there is any such thing as authenticity in the world anymore). Near the end, Paul wonders again if he has passed through a portal into an afterlife, and the reader feels that sort of uncanniness and disconnection too, which, even if it is the author's goal, tends to undermine the story's emotional impact. The heartwarming ending flirts with something Disney-esque and isn't completely convincing. This novel was Coetzee's first after winning the Nobel Prize, and one senses, with all the wordplay and cleverness, he might have been a touch too distracted by expectations.

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