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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.

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