Friday, October 31, 2008

Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

I have suddenly become obsessed with the fact that there is no "The" in the title of this novel. It would be a natural for a "The"...but no. And Coetzee's deliberate enough that it can't be a mistake... I suppose it de-emphasizes the fact that the life and times are Michael K's...

Anyway... I see this novel by one of my favorite writers as an evolutionary step between Kosinski's Being There and McCarthy's The Road, and of the three I like it best. There are echoes of the childlike gardener Chauncey Gardiner in Michael K (who is, unsurprisingly, also Kafkaesque), and there are echoes of Michael K's attempts to evade notice as he tries to return to his mother's home in the post-apocalyptic journey of the father and son in The Road. But the thing that has always bugged me a little about The Road is how easy it is to leave out all the details of the apocalypse and what happened to the mother and what the heck is going on. I liked The Road well enough and am not saying it was easy to write, but it's easy to get readers to feel sorry for a boy who has a dead mother, a shell-shocked father, no home and a bunch of faceless cannibals behind every bush, and no other defining traits. And it's easy in Being There to make it funny when people mistake the mentally challenged Chauncey for a political genius. But it's harder, in my opinion, to do what Coetzee does. Michael K has a cleft palate, is seriously undersocialized, and is insanely unwilling to accept help from the few who offer it as he escapes one refugee camp (govt run outdoor prisons, more like) after another; yet Coetzee makes him both sympathetic and intelligent enough to be compelling without turning him into an idiot-genius (as in so dumb he's way wiser than the rest of us--I've never bought into that whole better-to-be-stupid idea).

During much of the novel Michael K is alone, either walking the land or trying to farm it (yes, he like Chauncey is a gardener) and though Coetzee's use of internal monologue or free, indirect style is minimal, Michael K seems both sympathetic and intelligent precisely because of his skills with the land. This is different than making him a noble savage (better off because of his lack of so-called culture); it makes him expert in something that is useful and honorable. It drives me nuts when I am supposed to admire a character (like the movie version of Forest Gump) just because he's too innocent to be corrupt--but I'm very interested in a character who is innocent in the manner of a child, but who tries to determine what is right (Michael K thinks "right" is to go to his mother's home, where she wished to be buried, and grow fruit and vegetables) and tries to do right but faces constant obstacles. That formation allows a simple-minded character to engage in a complex plot.

And, of course, Coetzee makes it all a larger story--there is government corruption, overzealous do-gooders, and society's desire to turn the poor and oppressed into performing puppets who tell their stories on command and allow the do-gooders to ooh and ahh at their misfortune without actually solving the causes. In a lot of ways it's a novel about being a refugee and feels even more--or at least just as-- relevant now than when it was published in 1983.

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