Search This Blog

Be a Member of this BLOG

Mar 21, 2013

Slow Man by JM Coetzee


Source: TOM Con
Reading Slow Man, one feels like a voyeuristic observer of another man’s existential breakdown. Further, I suspect this is JM Coetzee’s intention. Slow Man is an uncomfortable novel for a number of reasons.

The other day, I asked a group of learners to pick a character from one of their own stories and enter into a metafictional dialogue with them: ask them how they felt about the story, about the way they were treated in the story, what their ambitions and hopes were, how those were supported or frustrated by the progress of the story. I believe this is a good way for a writer to really delve into the characters he or she has created, to understand them, to make them real. I’ve done it myself, and my character has patiently and clearly explained to me what was wrong with my story and what needed to be done to remedy it. I see it as a wholly positive addition to the writing process.

Although Coetzee makes the same sort of authorial intervention into the lives of his characters in Slow Man, I am not convinced that his intention is equally positive. Coetzee has increasingly come to eschew the conventions of novelistic form and his later work appears to stand almost antipathetical towards them. And this certainly appears to be the subtext of Slow Man, in which Coetzee, in the form of Elizabeth Costello, a writer who also featured in Coetzee’s previous novel, becomes embroiled in the lives of the remaining characters. She is accused by Paul Rayment, the central character who has come to believe that she is using his life as material for her own novel, of treating people like puppets. “You make up stories and bully us into playing them out for you," he tells her. There is the uncomfortable sense of a novelist ill-at-ease with the novelistic process and questioning the nature of fiction itself as a mimetic means of understanding the wider concerns of real life.

The novel begins with a superb depiction of a late-middle-aged man, Rayment, being knocked off his bicycle in a traffic accident. The accident is so severe his leg must be amputated above the knee and Rayment, previously a fit and active individual, is suddenly thrust into a passive world of dependence and invalidity. He does not respond well. He becomes embittered and reluctant to take steps to help himself: he stubbornly refuses a prosthetic leg and does not get on with various nurses sent to help him. Then the agency send a new nurse, Marijana, a Croatian immigrant, to care for him and his life begins to change. Gradually, he falls in love with Marijana, building a wholly unrealistic vision of a future in which they can share. 

His intentions are honourable, so far as he or we can establish, but nonetheless they sound dubious. Marijana’s son, Drago, is in danger of getting into trouble and Rayment offers to pay for him to attend a private school. Not unnaturally, Marijana’s husband is deeply suspicious of his intentions. It is around now that Elizabeth Costello arrives, unexpected and unannounced, and imposes herself on Rayment’s existence. She is a mysterious individual: the reader, of course, knows her from Coetzee’s previous novel bearing her name, and is aware that she is a world-famous author with a philosophical bent. Rayment, however, is perplexed and increasingly irritated by her insistent presence. She arranges a blind date for him – literally so, the woman whom he meets is blind and he himself is temporarily blinded by a flour and water paste for the duration of their encounter. Elizabeth tries to advise him on how to deal with the fall-out of his offer to Marijana. She even moves into his flat for a period.

Through all of this, the novel becomes increasingly metafictional, and the author’s presence looms ever greater over it. It is a claustrophobic experience. Coetzee systematically dismantles the apparatus of the novel, laying bare the edifices on which it is built, the manipulations of character and event which writers impose on their work to give it coherence. It is a riveting read, multi-faceted and complex. It is almost a novel and a how-to guide to creative writing rolled into one. 

As I asked my learners to do with their characters, Coetzee/Costello interrogates Rayment: "You came to me, that is all I can say. You occurred to me, a man with a bad leg and no future and an unsuitable passion ... where we go from there I have no idea. Have you any proposal?" All the while denying that she is using him as the basis for a character in her novel, she quotes lines from earlier in this novel, thus reinforcing – for us, the readers, but not for him – the sense that he is indeed her construct. But she becomes frustrated with him. She goads him into doing something interesting, in order to provide the usual fodder of fictional entertainment, but he will not. The message seems to be that she has created a dud of a character. "In certain respects I am not in command of what comes to me," she says. "You came, along with the pallor and the stoop and the crutches and the flat that you hold on to so doggedly and the photographic collection and all the rest." But still he will not translate himself into a worthy character for her.

And this, of course, is part of the difficulty with the novel, because Paul Rayment, crotchety, self-obsessed, stubborn, is not a particularly endearing character. Nor is Elizabeth Costello, a prickly and insensitive woman. The remaining characters, meanwhile, the Croatian family, are not allowed to be rounded individuals. The overwhelming sense, then, is of a cast of characters deficient in terms of literary technique. That Coetzee has done this deliberately doesn’t alter the fact that it is so: the trouble with postmodern game-playing is that it becomes self-referential and, ultimately, self-defeating.

What is frustrating is that, until the metafictional narrative intrudes, Slow Man is an engrossing study of age and infirmity and the dangers and inevitability of losing one’s self-reliance. Rayment’s predicament is terrifying precisely because every one of us could be in the same position tomorrow. Every one of us will experience the slow unravelling of independence and it is a haunting prospect. The sense of vitality that Rayment projects onto Marijana through his hopelessly unrequited love for her is tender, moving, pathetic and frightening, all at once. It is beautifully written. But that sense of exploration of the human experience dissipates once Coetzee begins to question the very worth of what he is creating. His work is remarkable, and yet he feels the need to publicly question it in this way. However, the reader’s overriding passion is to understand the psyche of the character. The writer should not interfere in that. It may be his fiction, but it is not his story.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

All Posts

A Fine Balance A House for Mr. Biswas Absurd Drama Achebe Across the Black Waters Addison Adiga African Ages Albee Alberuni Ambedkar American Amrita Pritam Anand Anatomy of Criticism Anglo Norman Anglo Saxon Aristotle Ariyar Arnold Ars Poetica Auden Augustan Aurobindo Ghosh Backett Bacon Badiou Bardsley Barthes Baudelaire Beckeley Bejnamin Belinda Webb Bellow Beowulf Bhabha Bharatmuni Bhatnagar Bijay Kant Dubey Blake Bloomsbury Book Bookchin Booker Prize bowen Braine British Brooks Browne Browning Buck Burke CA Duffy Camus Canada Chaos Characters Charlotte Bronte Chaucer Chaucer Age China Chomsky Coetzee Coleridge Conard Contact Cornelia Sorabji Critical Essays Critics and Books Cultural Materialism Culture Dalit Lliterature Daruwalla Darwin Dattani Death of the Author Deconstruction Deridda Derrida Desai Desani Dickens Dilip Chitre Doctorow Donne Dostoevsky Dryden Durkheim EB Browning Ecology Edmund Wilson Eliot Elizabethan Ellison Emile Emily Bronte English Epitaph essats Essays Esslin Ethics Eugene Ionesco Existentialism Ezekiel Faiz Fanon Farrel Faulkner Feminism Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness Ferber Fitzgerald Foregrounding Formalist Approach Forster Foucault Frankfurt School French Freud Frost Frye Fyre Gandhi Gender German Germany Ghosh Gilbert Adair Golding Gordimer Greek Gulliver’s Travels Gunjar Halliday Hard Times Hardy Hawthorne Hemingway Heyse Hindi Literature Historical Materialism History Homer Horace Hunt Huxley Ibsen In Memoriam India Indian. Gadar Indra Sinha Interview Ireland Irish Jack London Jane Eyre Japan JM Synge Johnson Joyce Joyce on Criticism Jumpa Lahiri Jussawalla Kafka Kalam Kalidasa Kamla Das Karnard Keats Kipling Langston Hughes Language Language of Paradox Larkin Le Clezio Lenin Lessing Levine Life of PI literary Criticism Luckas Lucretius Lyrical Ballads Macaulay Magazines Mahapatra Mahima Nanda Malory Mandeville Manto Manusmrti Mao Marlowe Martel Martin Amis Marx Marxism Mary Shelley Maugham McCarry Medi Media Miller Milton Moby Dick Modern Mona Loy Morrison Movies Mulk Raj Anand Mytth of Sisyphus Nabokov Nahal Naipaul Narayan Natyashastra Neo-Liberalism NET New Criticism new historicism News Nietzsche Nikita Lalwani Niyati Pathak Niyati Pathank Nobel Prize O Henry Of Studies Ondaatje Orientalism Orwell Pakistan Pamela Paradise Lost Pater Pinter Poems Poetics Poets Pope Post Feminism Post Modern Post Structuralism post-Colonialism Poststructuralism Preface to Shakespeare Present Prize Psycho Analysis Psychology and Form Publish Pulitzer Prize Puritan PWA Radio Ramayana Rape of the Lock Renaissance Restoration Revival Richardson Rime of Ancient Mariner RL Stevenson Rohinton Mistry Romantic Roth Rousseau Rushdie Russia Russian Formalism Sartre Sashi Despandey Satan Sati Savitri Seamus Heaney’ Shakespeare Shaw Shelley Shiv K.Kumar Showalter Sibte Hasan Slavery Slow Man Socialism Spender Spenser Sri Lanka Stage of Development Steinbeck Stories Subaltern Sufis Surrealism Swift Tagore Tamil Literature Ted Hughes Tennyson Tennyson. Victorian Terms Tess of the D’Urbervilles The March The Metamorphsis The Order of Discourse The Outsider The Playboy of the Western World The Politics The Satanic Verses The Scarlet Letter The Transitional Poets The Waste Land The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction The Wuthering Heights Theatre of Absurd Theory Theory of Criticism Theory of Evolution Theory of Literature Thomas McEvilley Thoreau To the Lighthouse Tolstoy Touchstone Method Tughlaq Tulsi Badrinath Twain Two Uses of Language UGC-NET Ulysses Untouchable Urdu Victorian Vijay Tendulkar Vikram Seth Vivekananda Voltaire Voyage To Modernity Walter Tevis Webster Wellek West Indies Wharton Williams WJ Long Woolfe Wordsworth World Wars Writers WW-I WW-II Wycliff Xingjian Yeats Zadie Smith Zaheer Zizek Zoe Haller