J.M. Coetzee: Slow Man

The collective aggrievement from critics that greeted Elizabeth Costello’s appearance in Slow Man was the sigh of the Nobel prize winner again not doing what he was supposed to do. Instead of writing another Disgrace, he brings back the consternating title character of his last book, this time in a metafictional conceit, as she proclaims herself the author of Slow Man.

I argued before that the critics mostly got Elizabeth Costello wrong, particularly in identifying Costello with Coetzee. Here again the reviews make a mishmash of this superficially simple book. John Lanchester makes the huge mistake of saying that the titular slow man, Paul Rayment, “will not act. He refuses to animate the narrative he is in.” A read of the book reveals this to be false: Rayment actually traces a traditional narrative arc through the book. After losing his leg in a bicycle accient, he entangles himself in the life his at-home nurse Marijana because he is attracted to her, and eventually comes to fund the education of her son, though not without some conflict with her husband. His actions with Marijana are impetuous and embarrassing, but the ultimate end is a happy one, perhaps the happiest ending Coetzee has ever committed to paper. The injury serves a higher purpose.

There is a post-colonial aspect to the narrative of a relatively poor Croatian immigrant acting as a nurse to an injured, privileged white man. The main difficulties in the narrative arise from the white man’s burden tactics Paul adopts to get closer to Marijana, and Marijana’s discomfort with them. Through seeing her son as a person, not a means to an end, Paul grows out of this type of relation, but the connections with earlier Coetzee works, particularly Foe and Disgrace, are inarguably present, if not blatant. Pankaj Mishra teases out some of these connections in his review, but falls short of fitting the pieces together.

But this time the postcolonial theorizing is fake, or at least highly artificial. For the first seventy pages, before Costello shows up, it is all in Paul’s mind. He has an accident, and he feels a bit of attraction to Marijana, but he doesn’t do anything about it. Every action he takes that moves the actual plot along is contrived or advocated by Costello. She arranges an affair that spurs Paul to make a move on Marijana, then either berates or flatters him into keeping it up despite Marijana’s clear disapproval. Without Costello’s intervention, it is clear, Paul would quite sensibly have never acted on his feelings for Marijana, and the story–the meat of the book–would not have taken place. Likewise, Costello provides Paul with impeccable facts about Marijana and her family that he could not otherwise find out and verify.

Costello’s presence illuminates exactly how unlikely Paul’s actions are and how contrived the circumstances must be for them to come about. Costello browbeats him: “Become major, Paul. Live like a hero. That is what the classics teach us. Be a main character. Otherwise what is life for?” And he does. But Costello’s aims are hardly virtuous. She is not as irritating as she was in Elizabeth Costello, but her irrationality and wildly inflated sense of herself are still plenty obnoxious. We are given some excerpts from her fiction this time, and they are not good:

It is old plasticine, from the last Christmas stocking. The pristine cakes of brick red, leaf green, sky blue have bled into each other by now and become a leaden purple. Why, he wonders–why does the bright grow dull and the dull never bright? What would it need to make the purple fade away and the red and blue and green emerge again, like chicks from a shell?

[This raises the point that Costello is not likely to be the author of the pristine, controlled prose of Slow Man.]

Costello is ultimately in search of a story and the machinations she sets in motion are necessary to obtain it. People have focused on the tricky relationship between Costello and her characters, but Coetzee is more significantly focused on the relationship between author and reader. To what extent, he asks, does the effectiveness of fiction rely on these sorts of manipulations remaining hidden from the reader? Slow Man attempts to show a novel from the side of creation rather from the side of consumption, and the subject of the novel–this postcolonial narrative–self-destructs as a result of the exposure. It specifically damages the very symbolism and allegorical resonances that underpinned Disgrace and Foe, because Paul’s reticence is forever separating him (in the Heideggerian sense of alienation) from being thrown into the narrative role that he does eventually play. Costello’s presence amplifies this dissonance beyond all else.

I believe that Slow Man is more than anything a critique of Disgrace and his other past works, a way of Coetzee undermining his past techniques and renouncing the artificial narrativity that Galen Strawson has so pungently described. Costello is not a surrogate for Coetzee, but rather an incarnation of any writer’s will and the desire to shape reality into pleasing novelistic shapes through unpleasant means. I had issues with Disgrace because I believed that the character’s acts and destinies were overdetermined by the historical context Coetzee was trying to convey. (James Wood makes similar points.) Slow Man appears to be Coetzee’s confession. Always very self-aware, Coetzee seems to have abandoned the neat psychological and sociopolitical structures of authors like Alberto Moravia and turned not against their methods, but against their certainty.

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