Author: J. Coetzee
Original language: English
One day while cycling along the Magill road in Adelaide Paul Rayment is knocked down by a car, resulting in the amputation of his leg. Humiliated, he retreats to his flat and a succession of day-care nurses. After a series of carers who are either “unsuitable” or just temporary, he happens upon Marijana, with whom he has a European childhood in common: his in France, hers in Croatia. Marijana nurses him tactfully and efficiently, ministering to his new set of needs. His feelings for her soon become deeper and more complex. He attempts to fund her son Drago’s passage through college, a move which meets the refusal of her husband, causing a family rift. Drago moves in with Paul, but not before an entirely different complication steps in, in the form of celebrated Australian novelist Elizabeth Costello, who threatens to take over the direction of Paul’s life in ways he’s not entirely comfortable with.
Slow Man has to get the award for “hardest novel of the year to unwrap”, in that it’s actually more like three novels layered variously on top of each other, and all in a mere 263 pages! It is also, without doubt, the most challenging novel of the year. Coetzee having won the thing two times already and being a Nobel laureate, it never stood a chance getting to the Booker shortlist, but that doesn’t stop it being possibly the best novel of the year by miles.
The start is relatively easy to get to grips with: Paul is knocked from his bike, has his limb removed, and becomes one of those who must submit to being cared for. Just like David Lurie from his Booker-prize-winning Disgrace, Paul stubbornly refuses the aid which could make his life superficially normal, (an artificial limb,) and surrenders himself stubbornly to his incapacity. So begins a novel that seems to be concerning itself with an analysis of the spirit of care and the psychological effect any severe injury (or, symbolically, any obvious difference to others) has on a person when their life is “truncated” so. And it is a superb beginning, too. The first 100 pages are astounding, presented in Coetzee’s trademark analytical prose that manages to be both spare and yet busting with riches.
It’s complicated a little by the fact that Rayment is clearly a kind of semi alter-ego for Coetzee, who himself is reputed to be very keen on cycling the streets of Adelaide. Coetzee and his protagonist share a similar history, too: divorced Rayment grew up in France and now lives in a quiet lonely flat in Adelaide, where he feels out of place. He has never, he thinks, felt the sense of having a real “home” that many do. South-African born Coetzee’s early fiction focused much on the White “place” in South Africa; he escaped to London in his youth, he has since lived out extended Professorships in the USA, and is now based in Adelaide. Coetzee, too, feels this sense of unbelonging that is rife in Paul. Slow Man is almost claustrophobic in its sense of lives ending and purposes coming to a close: living in Australia and with South Africa mostly stable, Coetzee is having to look elsewhere for his fiction. And he seems to be turning the focus largely onto himself. His 2003 novel was a series of vignettes concerning Coetzee’s alter-ego, the famed but fictional elderly Australian novelist Elizabeth Costello.
When the woman in question knocks on Paul’s door, then, it becomes clear Coetzee has far more on his mind than a mere novel about growing old and out of place and cared for. There are potential problems with what Coetzee’s doing here: by self-consciously bringing Costello (himself) in, it can seem as if he doesn’t really know what to do with this fiction he’s making, doesn’t know where to go with it, so brings her in to play some nice metafictional tricks, to talk about writing and character and their relationship to the author (“you came to me”, Costello says to Paul.) instead of getting on with the real business at hand. She pushes Paul to become “more of a main character”, as if she’s uncertain about him but can’t entirely control him herself. (Though in the end we realise that everyone can be a main character, however dull they may seem. Because they are not.) It might also seem a little heavy-handed, an obvious and self-consciously clever trick. It might seem like these things, but for Coetzee’s absolute skill at weaving his narrative together seamlessly. Costello never does seem out of place, not really. There’s an air of mystery to her and her presence, some things that are never quite clear in the reader’s head, but Coetzee handles her appearance so smoothly it’s almost dreamlike. He stitches her into the book almost flawlessly. Not only that, but she becomes an entire character herself, rich with her own frailties and concerns. He’s got himself a brilliant set-up, then: like an illusion you can only fully glimpse the parts of separately, he’s managed to give himself a narrative where he give us a novel about Paul, himself, and the act of creating fictions, without any one getting in the way of another, and without the doing so seeming obvious or contrived. It’s a rather remarkable achievement.
Not that all this intelligent manipulation comes without problems. The fact that we have two versions (Paul and Elizabeth) of Coetzee almost set-up against one another allows him to explore lots of interesting philosophical problems, but he’s doing so much here that these questions often just end up going in circles and knocking off one another. The attrition between the two characters says something vaguely itchy about Coetzee’s own feelings about his acts of artistic creation, though the way the two finally seem to make peace with one another in the end is pleasingly conclusive in a novel where the other remaining aspects are resolved rather ambiguously.
Slow Man, his first book since winning the Nobel in 2003, is a novel that consists of a full internal novel and at least one full external one. Childless Paul’s legacy remains uncertain (where will his meddling with Marijana’s family get him? will he find an heir in Drago, if only symbolically?) but Coetzee’s is not: with his beautifully stark prose he has left us unnerving and important pictures of South Africa and what it means to be an outsider, and is now – perhaps uncertainly; it may be this tremulous uncertainty of purpose that is the only slight stain on Slow Man – moving on to new terrain. His body of work is one of the most impressive of any current writer in English. Anyone who wants to know just how much of a transcendent experience fiction can be needs to read his work.