Wednesday, April 18, 2007

the last book I read

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee.

Well now, here's an irony. Having if not damned with faint praise then certainly expressed distinctly lukewarm sentiments towards one author's (Kurt Vonnegut) experiments with metafiction, I find myself reading almost immediately afterwards a novel which dabbles in a very similar area, somewhat unexpectedly.

Let's go back a step. This is, ostensibly and initially at least, the story of sixtysomething Paul Rayment, French by birth but long-since Australian by residence, who gets knocked off his bike while riding around the suburbs of Adelaide, where he lives, and injured so badly that one of his legs has to be amputated above the knee. A formerly active (if reserved) man, he withdraws into himself after the accident, spurning the concern of his friends as well as the offer of a prosthetic limb to allow him to walk again. He engages the services of a Croatian nurse, Marijana, who he falls in love with (or imagines he does), but she has a husband and children already.

So far, so relatively normal, except: Rayment is a sixtysomething fitness enthusiast and cyclist, resident in Australia (and Adelaide, specifically) despite not being born there; Coetzee is a sixtysomething fitness enthusiast and cyclist, resident in Australia (and Adelaide, specifically) despite not being born there (he's South African). So is Rayment meant to be Coetzee?

About a third of the way through the book, Rayment is paid an unexpected visit by an elderly woman who announces herself to be Elizabeth Costello, an Australian novelist, and a woman who seems to know a lot about Rayment and his predicament. In fact she recites to him, as a way of demonstrating this, the first lines of the novel, verbatim. Weird, huh? Those who know a bit about Coetzee's other books will know at this point that his previous novel was called Elizabeth Costello, and featured the same character, and will be feeling the narrative rug being pulled out from under them. So is her appearance here a physical manifestation of the authorial voice? To put it another way, is Costello meant to be Coetzee?

The answers to the questions posed at the end of the previous two paragraphs are, respectively: erm, maybe and erm, maybe. Costello urges Rayment to come out of himself and engage with the world, Rayment resolutely refuses to do so, his fraught relationship with Marijana and her son Drago continues, there's a sub-plot involving the (possible) theft of some antique photographs, but not a huge amount actually happens. It's significant, perhaps, that the main piece of action in the book (Rayment's collision with the car) happens a fraction of a second before the book starts - the first line has him flying through the air. Nothing as dramatic actually occurs within the pages of the book.

So on one level it's a story about caring and being cared for, love, old age, the desire to leave a mark on the world after you've gone, etc....and on another level it's a story about the author's struggle with his characters, the struggle to have them behave in interesting yet authentic and recognisable ways.

I see all that. I see, also, that it's beautifully written in Coetzee's trademark spare and precise way, and I sped through it pretty quickly. But is it as good as Disgrace, which is much more orthodox in structure, equally beautifully written, and in which plenty of interesting stuff happens?

No. I'd start there if I were you.

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