Slow Man by J. M. Coetzee
Coetzee continues to amaze me. This one is about a man in his sixties who was riding on his bicycle when he was hit by a car driven by Wayne Blight or Bright—his name is never clear inviting the reader to consider whether the accident was a tragedy or an opportunity—or both. As a result his leg has to be amputated. He refuses prosthesis, but discovers that it’s not all that easy to accommodate even his very restricted lifestyle to his disability. A man long divorced and a photographer by trade who’s evidently already retired, he lives in a fairly upscale but dullish condo (he’s never changed the furniture or put his stamp on his living quarters), Paul Rayment faces a crisis he doesn’t want to deal with. He has, it seems, practically no friends and doesn’t call on those for help. He’s visited by an old lover who finds him exasperating. There are a series of condescending nurses who treat him as a patient/child. Then Marijana Jokić becomes his nurse, and Paul evidently decides to deal with his problems by falling in love with the Croatian immigrant nurse who used to be a picture restorer—and with her whole family: husband Miroslav (called Mel in Australia) who’s an inventor turned mechanic, son Drago in whose life Paul quickly involves himself and daughters Blanka (a shoplifter) and Ljuba.
At that point, an uninvited guest drops in, a woman Paul knows by reputation only as a fairly well known Australian novelist named Elizabeth Costello. Readers of Coetzee’s previous novel—named Elizabeth Costello—take note. Evidently Paul is a character in her latest novel and he’s taken what seems to her a ridiculous turn so she’s come to straighten him out.
This sort of mixing of fiction and nonfiction, in which readers are made aware not only of the fiction they is reading but of the process by which fiction is made, is hardly new. It’s called “self conscientiousness” because the fiction seduces readers into a world of the imagination and simultaneously reminds them that it’s all, after all, just made up—sort of like when a character is a play or film turns and addresses the audience directly.
What’s different about Slow Man, though, is that there’s nothing gimmicky about Coetzee’s self-consciousness, even though we recognize from the novel Elizabeth Costello, in which ideas and even nonfiction writing of Coetzee’s is attributed to Elizabeth Costello, that’s she’s kind of a fictional alter ego for the author. It’s also fairly evident that Paul Rayment, a Frenchman who immigrated to
This may not be a completely successful novel, but it’s one which causes the reader to think pretty seriously, not only about the dilemma of a man approaching old age whose life becomes constricted and who reacts a little desperately, but about the dilemma of a novelist in the 21st century seeking a place for the novel in a world where the 19th century novel of character and plot and the 20th century post modern novel both seem to have run their course.