Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee

I first read Nobel winner Coetzee when Waiting for the Barbarians was assigned in a freshman comparative literature class I took with Victor Brombert, who forever set in my mind a vision of the ideal scholar of literature (foreign-accented, dapper, bit old, erudite, charming, and very very smart--a vision neither I nor any scholar I know can match). And the fact of reading an author in a class like that--big lecture, serious books, serious treatment of those books--forever shades how you approach that author's work--with a bit of trembling and awe. But Coetzee seems compellingly human and flawed in this novel. Both Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello were novels I greatly admired in the way that you admire an idealized mentor (say Professor Brombert) but Slow Man is not quite so grand a work and yet a likeable effort--a weird experiment on the part of the great author (like Brombert in shorts, shall we say).

Slow Man starts off quite conventionally with a catastrophic event for the main character--amputation of one leg after a bicycle accident--but about a quarter of the way through Elizabeth Costello, the title character of Coetzee's previous novel who is widely believed to be a stand-in for Coetzee himself since she gives lectures he gave and espouses things he espouses, walks in, quite literarally, on the protagonist. And by all appearances she is the one actually writing his story (she quotes the opening lines to him). This prompted me to consider how when an author steps into their own work ironically they become the fantastic element. The fictional characters seem real and the author seems like a break from that reality. The protagonist, Rayment, seems quite believable and regular, and Costello is mystifying and strange. In the end, she seems to exist in the novel to demonstrate how much authors don't know about their own story. She prompts Rayment into actions, into scenes and confrontations, but then it is seemingly up to him and the other characters to determine the events and effects of those scenes. In this way, it seems to be a novel about the process of writing rather than the product--and how the process of writing--one of discovery--actually mirrors much of the process of life (we obviously live without knowing what the result will be). An interesting effort.

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