Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee was born in South Africa and educated there, in England, and at the University of Texas in Austin. He taught at SUNY Buffalo for three years, but when he was denied permanent residency status, he returned to South Africa. He continued to teach all around the US, and in 2002 he immigrated to Australia. He now holds a position at the University of Adelaide. For further information, see the Nobel Prize website for an extensive biography: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2003/coetzee-bio.html

Slow Man details the story of Paul Rayment, a retired photographer, who is severely injured when an auto strikes him while he is riding his bicycle. He has a succession of caregivers, until he develops an attachment to one, Marijana. Then Coetzee’s novel veers into postmodernism when Elizabeth Costello appears at his door, and forces herself on him. Elizabeth, the title character of an earlier Coetzee novel, is a writer, and she knows all about Paul’s life, loves, hopes, dreams, and failures.

Paul refuses a prosthesis which will give him a measure of self-sufficiency, and as he reflects on his life, Elizabeth explains his feelings and prompts his future actions. Her strange role in the novel appears to be that of Coetzee’s alter ego. She engages Paul in a series of exasperating discussions after leaving her home in Melbourne to live on the streets of Adelaide.

Coetzee seems to be examining the role of the writer in creating a character, and the way a character takes on a life of his or her own. Often writers, when explaining their process will say “characters or stories write themselves.” Here Coetzee struggles with a character and situation which is not to his liking. Perhaps he is showing how a writer handles this struggle.

If this all sounds confusing, do not let it deter any reader from tackling this novel. Coetzee’s prose is absorbing, and it will create many reactions in the reader. I found myself thinking on more than one occasion that Paul should take, or not take, some course of action. Sometimes I agreed with Elizabeth’s advice to Paul, but curiously, in the end, even Elizabeth regrets one piece of advice she gave. Maybe Coetzee wants his readers to join in the creation of Paul’s story. Or maybe not.

Four stars only because I am not sure I completely understand this novel. I think I will create a new shelf in my library called, "Needs Another Read."

--Chiron, 6/30/08

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