6.12.2007

Slow Man by JM Coetzee

JM Coetzee's novel Disgrace was one of the best I've read in a decade. Unfortunately, the two novels I've read subsequent to Disgrace thudded in my sensibilities like drinking Kool-Aid after a glass of Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet.

And to think, elements of one bad novel made an appearance in the second bad novel. Well, that was bad luck for this reader.

Let's start with Slow Man. The novel started out well, if fairly typically, with a "life-changing crisis:" Sixty-year-old Paul Rayment is hit by a young driver while riding his bicycle and his leg is amputated. Bidda-bing, we are catapulted along with the protagonist into a new world, with limitations and new people and all sorts of reflective moments. Coetzee could pull this approach off because his prose is spare and his observations dead-on.

I had the same feeling starting Disgrace, actually. I thought, oh, God, another story about an aging professor banging a young student and embarking on a mid-life crisis. But Coetzee's prose was so stellar, I decided to hang with it -- and that novel took an amazing twist and then an amazing turn, and so forth, for a spectacularly satisfying read.

Slow Man never really took off (another bad pun). Although I had twinges of "this hits too close to home" (Rayment is childless and regretting it, along with his life lived generally for himself. Shades of moi, unfortunately...), the novel clanged into a rather predictable gong of the patient falling in love with his nurse and then unaccountably crashed (whoops) into disaster with the appearance of Elizabeth Costello.

Elizabeth Costello is the heroine of the eponymous novel released prior to Slow Man. This was the OTHER novel of Coetzee's I decided to read, after Disgrace. That book is essentially a series of lectures on writing by the writer Elizabeth Costello. Oh, hey, meta-fiction, my favorite. Yawn.

As if it wasn't bad enough to have a whole novel devoted to the ponderous ponderings of a fictional windbag, Coetzee has to bring her slap into another story. The character of Elizabeth Costello did not improve in the transition, either. She's unpleasant and unnecessary, and really, I have to work with a lot of people who are like that; if an author insists on being all cutesy with meta-fiction and recycling his character, then it better be for a very good reason.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth Costello doesn't have the grace to jump off the nearest cliff. She sticks around until the bitter end of the novel.

The whole point to this post is: I really, really want to love JM Coetzee. He obviously is a brilliant writer. Is Disgrace the only great book he wrote? Or did I simply have the misfortune to pick the two duds out of his entire oeuvre?

10 comments:

Richard said...

Well, since no one has answered, I'm going to. Elizabeth Costello is his great book; and I liked Slow Man, too, so maybe you shouldn't listen to me. But since you didn't like them (and I'd make an argument in their favor, but don't want to bore you), you might instead like Waiting for the Barbarians and Life & Times of Michael K, both of which are more generally regarded as his best, along with Disgrace. I also liked Age of Iron.

verbivore said...

I had an extremely similar reaction to Coetzee. I loved Disgrace and have re-read it several times since my first read a few years ago. Since then I have tried both Slow Man and Elizabeth Costello and could not finish them. I simply gave up. But I loved Disgrace so much that I'm not yet willing to give up on Coetzee.

Charlotte said...

LK, I'm with you and verbivore! Disgrace was brilliant, but I found Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man less than riveting. Like you, I want to like his writing, and I love his beautiful prose, but I found the last two thudding and heavy-handed. Apparently Waiting for The Barbarians is good. I read it as a student and can't really remember it sadly, except to say that it is nothing like Disgrace.

LK said...

Well, it just goes to show you: Reading tastes are subjective.

But Richard, I would like to know what it was about both Slow Man and Elizabeth Costello that engaged you -- I'd like to be a careful reader and maybe there is something that I've just overlooked.

iliana said...

Aside from Disgrace (which I also think is fantastic) I've only read Youth. I liked it but it was not Disgrace. I have Elizabeth Costello but just haven't gotten around to it.

Ted said...

Chipping in: I also love Disgrace, but loved Waiting for the Barbarians even more, and I love The Life and Times of Michael K. best.

Elizabeth Costello is towards the top of my mental TBR, so I'll see how it goes...

Do you by any chance have any way to get this review of Slow Man from the NYRB a year and a half ago? It really inspired me to go after Coetzee.

LK said...

Oh, Ted, thanks for that link. I did not see that review, but it had some interesting points, that's for sure. At least, I can see the irritants of Slow Man are indeed the irritants planted by the author (in this reviewer's interpretation). Going back to Don Quixote, which Elizabeth Costello interestingly enough quotes, I think that novel is much more satisfying in questioning the role of fiction and novels -- and not because DQ acts and Rayment does not. Cervantes questions, in various scenes and by holding up a mirror to fiction, real versus make-believe and the purpose of story.

Think I may have to try Life and Times of Michael K. at some point...

Richard said...

Hi - sorry I never followed up here in favor of Elizabeth Costello or Slow Man. I don't have a lot of time to do so right now, either, but I thought I would point you to Waggish's excellent posts on both novels, here and here. Also, Steve Mitchelmore's response to the earlier Waggish post is well worth reading too.

There are many links within these posts to other reviews (including James Wood's reviews of both Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello). Anyway, enjoy!

Richard said...

Incidentally, while I agree with Waggish about Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man, I don't agree with him or James Wood about Disgrace -- I don't believe the characters in that novel are as overdetermined by their historical context as they say, though I suspect that Coetzee leads us in that direction.

LK said...

Richard, thank you so much for those links. (At least, I'm definitely not alone in feeling Elizabeth Costello as a character is quite annoying.)

I look forward to exploring all of these posts! (As I have said, I am DETERMINED to like Coetzee, warts and all!)