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A Will of His Own

Slow Man

by J.M. Coetzee
Viking, 265 pp., $24.95

It is hard to find an admirer of J.M. Coetzee’s work who does not think that his best book is Disgrace, one of the strongest novels of the last quarter-century and, among other things, a masterpiece of misdirection. It is easier to tell that the novel is a work of great force than it is to be precise about what exactly it is telling us. Disgrace‘s narrator, David Lurie, teaches Romantic poetry at the technical university of Cape Town, and dreams of sneaking away from his work to write an opera about Byron in Italy. He is cold and cultivated and solipsistic, and he is also a user of women.

When we first meet him he is paying for once-a-week sex with Soraya, a part-time prostitute whom he contacted through an escort agency. But one Saturday he bumps into her in the street with her children, and she stops agreeing to see him as a client. So he switches his attention to a student more than thirty years younger than himself, and begins—well, Lurie might call it an affair, but it is something colder and creepier than that. Even Lurie describes the sex as “not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core.” The student goes to the university authorities to complain about Lurie, and he loses his job in disgrace.

At this point, the novel seems to be about Lurie and his attitudes, with special reference to Romanticism, the life of the male mind, and its ability to coexist with utterly instrumental behavior toward women. But Disgrace takes a turn when Lurie goes to the country to stay with his lesbian daughter Lucy, who lives on a farm breeding dogs. South Africa is changing, and Lucy’s place in the bush is in no sense secure. Then the terrible thing at the heart of the story happens, and Lucy is raped by three black assailants. It seems that they may have been acting at the instigation, or at least with the collusion, of Petrus, the overseer of the farm. It turns out that Lucy is pregnant. She refuses to leave the farm or to have an abortion, and she is clearly in great danger. Petrus proposes a solution: he will marry Lucy and she will live under his protection—and the farm will legally be his. Meanwhile Lurie continues to meander along with his Byron opera, and finds a job helping a woman who runs a clinic where she euthanizes crippled dogs.

The shocking center of the book is Lucy’s rape and Petrus’s collusion in it, and use of it as a way of dispossessing her. There was a furor in Coetzee’s native South Africa over this, and the head of policy at the ANC attacked Disgrace. He claimed that the book “suggested it might be better that our white compatriots should emigrate because to be in post-apartheid South Africa is to be in ‘their territory,’ as a consequence of which whites will lose their [identity] cards, their weapons, their property, their rights, their dignity.” As a reading of the novel, this is about as sensational and misleading as it would be possible to imagine, but it does at least register the incendiary force of Disgrace. In 2002 Coetzee emigrated to South Australia, and in 2003 he won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Disgrace is a novel of great power but it is also easy to misunderstand. To see the ethical crux of the book as Lucy’s rape is to be misled, or misdirected. To understand the novel we have to take the full force of the revelation Lurie has as he works in the clinic where a woman kills dogs. Lurie finds it in himself to kill dogs caringly, with “all his attention on the animal…giving it what he no longer has difficulty in calling by its proper name: love.” As Coetzee’s subsequent books have made clear, his moral vision is increasingly concerned with man’s attitudes toward animals, and with the ideas about the primacy of reason and humanity which underlie those attitudes. In Youth, the fictionalized memoir he published in 2002, Coetzee gave an account of how his narrator and surrogate, working as a computer programmer in England in the early 1960s, gradually falls out of belief in logic and reason:

He is reading in the history of logic, pursuing an intuition that logic is a human invention, not part of the fabric of being, and therefore (there are many intermediate steps, he thinks, but he can fill them in later) that computers are simply toys invented by boys (led by Charles Babbage) for the amusement of other boys. There are many alternative logics, he is convinced (but how many?), each just as good as the logic of either-or, on which the digital computer is based. The threat of the toy by which he earns his living, the threat that makes it more than just a toy, is that it will burn either-or paths in the brains of its users and thus lock them irreversibly into its binary logic.

Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee’s next book, followed the thread of these ideas in, again, a provocative and incendiary direction. The central character is an Australian writer in her sixties who travels the world delivering lectures on, mainly, animal rights, arguing that

to me, a philosopher who says that the distinction between human and non-human depends on whether you have a white or a black skin, and a philosopher who says that the distinction between human and non-human depends on whether or not you know the difference between a subject and a predicate, are more alike than they are unalike.

Costello, as well as being a character in her own right, provides an effective, duplicitous, and subtle way of Coetzee’s advancing the arguments in the book while also setting himself at a slight distance from their most provocative assertions. “Let me say it openly,” says Costello—but is Coetzee saying it openly?—

we are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, live-stock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them.

We set ourselves above animals by saying that reason, narrowly defined, is the criterion for our special status; without reason, animals are lesser creatures than us, and we are free to do what we like to them. Costello wishes instead to insist on our feelings, our kindness to animals—“and here I use the word kindness in its full sense, as acceptance that we are all of one kind.”

This is the thread that runs through Coetzee’s recent work. It is close to being a mystical idea, about the primacy of feeling, of our basic impulses of empathy and sympathy and solidarity and, in Costello’s sense, kindness, over reason. And it is this which gives his recent books a particular tension. Coetzee’s work has always had an unusual quality of passionate coldness. His books are intensely thought and felt, while also being, in their affect, cool, detached, held back, and distanced. We see the characters struggle and writhe, and we might at times feel for them, but we would no more identify with them than we would with the characters in the works of, say, Sade. We see their pain but we are not supposed to feel it. It is not just the affect of the books that is distancing but their techniques, too: witness the masterly ethical misdirection of Disgrace I have referred to, or the use of fictional devices to frame the memoir Youth and the polemics in Elizabeth Costello. These chilly books are about the primacy, the all-consuming importance, of suffering, and what we should learn from it. This is the energizing tension of Coetzee’s recent writings, and it is both described and acted out in his new novel, Slow Man.

The novel takes us straight to the subject of suffering. Its protagonist, Paul Rayment, a sixty-year-old photographer, is hit by a car while riding his bicycle in Adelaide. His leg is badly damaged, and has to be amputated, above the knee. The doctors want him to have a prosthesis, but Rayment—whose name perhaps hints at the idea that the human body can be seen as a raiment, a garment worn by something else—disagrees. He tells the doctors that he doesn’t want a prosthesis. He wants to be as he is. The medical profession makes no attempt to understand that. He is a mere patient, a unit, rather than a person. There is a basic failure of feeling:

The nurses are good, they are kind and cheery, but beneath their brisk efficiency he can detect—he is not wrong, he has seen it too often in the past—a final indifference to their fate, his and his companion’s. From young Dr Hansen he feels, beneath the kindly concern, the same indifference. It is as though at some unconscious level these young people who have been assigned to care for them know they have nothing left to give to the tribe and therefore do not count. So young and yet so heartless! he cries to himself. How did I come to fall into their hands? Better for the old to tend the old, the dying the dying! And what folly to be so alone in the world!

That is the nub of the problem, or one of the nubs. Rayment is “unmarried, single, solitary, alone.” He has no one to look after him: “no one who will conceive it as his or her Confucian duty to devote himself or herself to caring for his wants, his cooking and cleaning and so forth.” He has friends, but no one he can rely on to help him, and in any case he doesn’t want people to see him in his crippled condition. So he has to hire a nurse to tend his wound and help him begin to adjust. The first specialist in “frail care,” though, is a disaster. “She calls the bedpan the potty; she calls his penis his willie.” She lasts for a single week, and sacking her costs two months’ pay. Rayment gives in to gloom. Here, again, Coetzee insists on the primacy of feeling:

Why should he not settle for a modestly circumscribed life in a city that is not inhospitable to the frail aged? He cannot give answers to questions like these. He cannot give answers because he is not in the mood for answers. That is what it means to be gloomy: at a level far below the play and flicker of the intellect (Why not this? Why not that?) he, he, the he he calls sometimes you, sometimes I, is all too ready to embrace darkness, stillness, extinction. He: not the one whose mind used to dart this way and that but the one who aches all night.

Then hope arrives, in the form of his new nurse, Marijana. She is a Croatian-Australian, married and with three children, of great practical kindliness and instinctive sensitivity. She is good at understanding his need for privacy even in the actions of intimate medical care: “He is trying to remain a man, albeit a diminished man; and it could not be clearer that Marijana understands and sympathises.” She is skilled at the therapeutic massage he needs. “By intuition pure and simple she seems to know how he feels, how his body will respond.” And her ability to feel basic human sympathy touches something in Rayment, something which makes him feel his own lack of warmth. “He is not sure he has ever liked passion, or approved of it.” Even before the accident, he had given up his work as a photographer in favor of preserving pictures from the past, of which he has built up a considerable archive:

Does it say something about him, that native preference for black and white and shades of grey, that lack of interest in the new? Is that what women missed in him, his wife in particular: colour, openness?

Rayment, half-appalled at himself, finds that he is falling for Marijana. Abruptly and very much out of character, he declares his love to her. The declaration is accompanied by an offer which is both well-meant and partly a bribe: Rayment says that he is willing to pay her son Drago’s boarding school fees, to enable him to get away from the bad influence of his friends. But the declaration of love is a disaster. Marijana does not come in to work the next day, or the day after that. He sits down to write a letter to her, and as he is doing so, the doorbell rings. He has a new visitor, someone he has never met before but who seems to be determined, irrespective of what he wants, to move in with him: Elizabeth Costello. She seems to know a lot about him—she recites, for instance, the first words of the novel, and seems at other times privy to things he has told only himself—yet she at the same time is insistent that he has intruded on her, rather than the other way around:

You came to me,” she says. “In certain respects I am not in command of what comes to me. You came, along with the pallor and the stoop and the crutches and the flat that you hold on to so doggedly and the photograph collection and all the rest.”

Costello inserts herself in Rayment’s life. She makes an attempt at fixing him up with a woman he had seen at the hospital, Marianna, who has lost her sight and is now, according to Costello, “full of unhappy lust.” Costello’s idea is that Rayment and his needs will make a good fit with Marianna and hers. They meet and have sex—Rayment pays Marianna—and he begins to nurse a suspicion:

…might the Costello woman be writing two stories at once, stories about characters who suffer a loss (sight in the one case, ambulation in the other) which they must learn to live with; and, as an experiment or even as a kind of professional joke, might she have arranged for their two life-lines to intersect?

Rayment can’t work out what Costello is up to. It is not a straightforward question for the reader, either. She is clearly an author-surrogate, who has stepped into the fiction in which she is involved as a proxy for Coetzee. It is a moment we have encountered before in postmodern fiction, in which creator and creation share the same fictional space. Not that she is particularly happy about being in the story: “Four people in four corners, moping, like tramps in Beckett, and myself in the middle, wasting time, being wasted by time.”

When a writer turns up in his own fiction it is often to pose questions about the arbitrariness and artificiality of narrative. That doesn’t seem to be the main focus of Coetzee’s interest here. It is more, perhaps, a question of ethics, touching on the morality of making people up, and then devising trials and torments for them, designed to expose and test their deficiencies. Is there anything of ethical content to be said about the fortunes of these imaginary people? Does making things up have an effect on the maker, and on the reader? At one point in Elizabeth Costello, she speaks of the terrible effects books can have on their writers. (“Certain books are not good to read or to write.”)

This seems to be the concern Coetzee is continuing to investigate in Slow Man, which is a novel about the difficulty of writing novels, and especially about the peculiar sense in which the creatures in novels can be said to exist. A cartoon version of this would be to say that Coetzee has moved from a concern about human beings to a concern about animal beings to a concern about fictional beings. A reader who has followed Coetzee’s books since Disgrace, and followed the thread of ethical inquiry that runs through them, might pose Slow Man‘s central question differently: Why should we care about fictional characters when the world is so full of real suffering?

Coetzee has never written a book that seems too long. Slow Man does not drag; but it is specialized in its interest, and a reader who is not interested in the problems of writing fiction may find the novel dry. Personally, I love novels about writers: Henry Bech, Nathan Zuckerman, and Elizabeth Costello find in me an entirely interested reader. There had been rumors, around the time of Coetzee’s Nobel laureateship in 2003, that he might be giving fiction up altogether. He hasn’t; but he is wrestling hard with his own basic impulse to write fiction, and Elizabeth Costello is the designated surrogate for these struggles. That makes her, almost despite herself, a figure of some drama.

The trouble with Slow Man, it seems to me, is less to do with its being a novel about the difficulty of novels as it is to do with Paul Rayment. The particular problem is his obdurate refusal to act in relation to any of Elizabeth Costello’s repeated promptings to act—not on his passion for Marijana, necessarily, but to do something, anything, to emerge from his tortoiseshell:

Remember, Paul, it is passion that makes the world go round. You are not analphabete, you must know that. In the absence of passion the world would still be void and without form. Think of Don Quixote. Don Quixote is not about a man sitting in a rocking chair bemoaning the dullness of La Mancha. It is about a man who claps a basin on his head and clambers onto the back of his faithful old plough-horse and sallies forth to do great deeds. Emma Rouault, Emma Bovary, goes out and buys fancy clothes even though she has no idea of how she is going to pay for them. We only live once, says Alonso, says Emma, so let’s give it a whirl! Give it a whirl, Paul. See what you can come up with.”

See what I can come up with so that you can put me in a book.”

So that someone, somewhere might put you in a book. So that someone might want to put you in a book. Someone, anyone—not just me. So that you may be worth putting in a book. Alongside Alonso and Emma. Become major, Paul. Live like a hero. That is that the classics teach us. Be a main character. Otherwise what is life for?”

But that is exactly the crux of it. Paul doesn’t want to be a main character. He doesn’t want to be a hero. This is in one sense an allegory of creative difficulty: Coetzee/Costello has been drawn to tell a story with a vivid central character, Rayment, and a vivid predicament, the loss of his leg, and then given the character and the predicament…well, then nothing, much. The story doesn’t go anywhere. Rayment has plonked himself down in the writer’s imagination, and refused to move.

Most novelists feel at some deep level that they don’t choose their subjects, but rather are chosen by them. This is the subject that has chosen Coetzee: a novel which doesn’t go anywhere. Rayment and his stalled relationship with Costello is a dramatization of that. The writer has had no choice but to write a book which he doesn’t want to write, about a man who doesn’t want to be a character in a story.

This makes Slow Man a frustrating book. It’s not just the writer who wills Rayment into action, and who grows tetchy at his refusal to change or move or act. The reader too grows irritated—and it is in this irritation that part of Coetzee’s intention is perhaps to be found. Slow Man is not content to be an allegory about what happens when a novel will not bend to its author’s wishes. It enacts the thing it describes. Rayment won’t chase after Marijana, or Marianna, or Margaret the all-too-available former lover, or Elizabeth Costello herself, who almost begs him to abandon his inertia and come to live with her.

From the reader’s point of view, we would be happy with all or any of these actions. Rayment, however, will not act. He refuses to animate the narrative he is in; and in that refusal takes on a paradoxical quality of life, because the refusal to cooperate shows that he has a will of his own. But only a being with an independent existence can assert a will of his own. By refusing, he shows that he is alive, that he exists in his own right. This cold, obstinate, withdrawn man puts up resistance to his creator, Coetzee, his surrogate creator, Costello, to all the char- acters in his fictional world who want him to change, and even to the reader, and in so doing achieves a strange and paradoxical presence. Rayment’s nonparticipation in Slow Man is a testament to the mysterious independent reality of fictional beings. We might conclude, therefore, that Rayment’s “no” in this particular story is Coetzee’s “yes” to the larger possibility of fiction. That makes Slow Man typical of this phase of Coetzee’s career. It is a book for the noncasual reader of his work; it is a book which, despite its transparent sentences, is designed to make the reader think hard; and for the reader who passes those two tests, it has a real emotional charge.

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