Monday, June 09, 2008

Foe by J.M. Coetzee

I have long said Toni Morrison was my favorite living writer, but reading this novel it occurred to me that the mantle might have passed to Coetzee. Not due to any diminished love for Ms. Morrison, but because he seems to still have great books in his future, and it's hard to believe that she does. So she transitions over to one of my favorite writers, and we'll switch the word living to working. Coetzee might be my favorite working writer. He's like Kundera but with plot. And he very consistently has major female characters, and he writes about race and politics and class all while being very meta-. And it probably doesn't hurt that his novels tend to be short. I enjoy a big fat read but when one has 765 books to read before she dies, well...

Anyway, Foe is described as a retelling of Robinson Crusoe but it's more like a retelling of the telling of Robinson Crusoe. In this novel, a woman lands on the island and lives with Crusoe and Friday for a year before they are all rescued. Crusoe dies before making it home, and so the woman and Friday are left to their own devices. And the woman ends up finding a writer (Foe) to write the story of their adventures on the island--which she finds she herself cannot write. And the implication seems to be that Foe wrote her out of the story and out of existence. But the novel's moral center is more on Friday--who is tongueless and ends the novel learning to write. And one of the things I like about Coetzee is he's not terribly subtle--I mean he symbolizes Friday's lack of a voice by giving him no voice--and yet he is quite complex. So you read his novels understanding exactly what is happening, but having to puzzle over what does it mean. This is more to my taste than writers who symbolize the complexities of life by leaving you without much of a clue as to what is literally going on. It seems to me the difference between confusion and ambiguity. Or maybe I just like a dark room better with a nightlight on.

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