By J.M. Coetzee
Viking. 265 pp. $24.95
In 1999 the South African writer J. M. Coetzee published a searing novel called Disgrace, picked up a second Booker Prize (no one had ever done that) and raced up bestseller lists around the world. His next novel, Elizabeth Costello, appeared in 2003, just as he won the Nobel Prize, a coincidence that focused vastly more attention on that strange little book than it would have received otherwise. Readers drawn to Coetzee by all the hubbub found in Elizabeth Costello eight chapters -- or "lessons," as he called them -- each showing the celebrated (imaginary) novelist Elizabeth Costello lecturing, mostly ineffectively, in a different venue. Her subjects ranged from realism to the problem of evil but focused primarily on animal rights. A reviewer in the Guardian classified the book as "Non-Non-Fiction." There were probably half a dozen people cerebral enough to make sense of what Coetzee was doing in Elizabeth Costello. The audience for his new novel, Slow Man, could easily double that.
Initially, Slow Man looks more like a novel. The story opens with a dramatic blow -- literally. Sixty-year-old Paul Rayment is riding his bike along the street in Adelaide, Australia, when he's hit by a careless young driver. The impact sends him flying, and he wakens in a hospital in relatively good shape, the doctor assures him, except for a ruined knee that necessitates amputating his leg. That calamity sends Paul into "fits of lugubrious self-pity that turn into black gloom." He rejects the nurses' encouragement, refuses a prosthesis and demands to be returned to his apartment as soon as possible.
Again and again, healthcare workers ask if he has anyone -- any family? any friends? -- to call for help, which forces him to consider as never before how sterile and isolated his life has been. "What could be more selfish," he thinks, "more miserly -- this in specific is what gnaws at him -- than dying childless, terminating the line, subtracting oneself from the great work of generation? Worse than miserly, in fact: unnatural." As the gloom settles in and he becomes convinced that his universe is now permanently contracted, he contemplates killing himself.
A series of unsatisfactory aides passes through his apartment until he finally settles on an efficient Croatian woman named Marijana Jokic. He appreciates her matter-of-fact manner, her lack of false encouragement, her willingness to treat him as an adult. "In his company she seems to have the ability to annul sex," Coetzee writes, but Paul quickly falls in love with her, even as he realizes (and she knows) what a cliched development this is between a lonely patient and a caring nurse. All of this unfolds with Coetzee's signature brilliance, a mixture of penetrating insight and brittle wit that forces our attention on common terrors we don't want to think about: the fragility of health, the loneliness of old age, the limits of medical care.
Paul knows "the situation is absurd," but he fantasizes endlessly about winning Marijana's heart, caring for her three children, even serving as her "co-husband if need be, platonic if need be." If the story never recaptures the drama of its opening moments, the one-sided romance between Paul and Marijana generates at least enough momentum to keep Slow Man moving through territory that Anita Brookner has been mapping for decades.
But who should show up at Paul's door -- a third of the way through the book -- but the celebrated (imaginary) novelist Elizabeth Costello. "Are you that Elizabeth Costello?" Paul asks, and anyone who endured Coetzee's previous novel has to be hoping she'll say no. But alas, it's the same woman. (Even Paul remembers trying to read one of her novels, but gave up on it because "it did not hold his attention.") Rather than lecturing on the evils of eating meat, though, this time she's writing another novel, and apparently it's about Paul because she sits down on his sofa and begins to recite the opening paragraph of Slow Man that we read some 80 pages earlier. What follows is like an episode of "The Twilight Zone" by John Barth, except that unlike with "The Twilight Zone," we never find out what it means, and, unlike with John Barth, we keep feeling that it means something important.
Elizabeth insists that Paul came to her as a fragmentary vision, and now, like some frail old god or pesky psychiatrist, she's come to prod his lethargic pursuit of Marijana. "We will all expire of boredom before we have a resolution," she warns him. "Go and see her! Confront her! Have a proper scene! Stamp your foot (I speak metaphorically)! Shout!"
Over the next several months, she moves in and out of his life, sometimes staying in his apartment, sometimes, despite her frail health, sleeping under a bush or on a bench in the park. Paul begs her to leave him alone, but she blithely refuses: "I would prefer a more interesting subject but am saddled with you," she tells him, "the one-legged man who cannot make up his mind."
This is "Six Characters in Search of an Author Lost in the Funhouse." The human themes raised toward the beginning of the novel are richly, comically developed as Paul makes ever more ludicrous efforts to ingratiate himself to Marijana, but the postmodern tedium of his bizarre situation involving Elizabeth risks overwhelming everything else, as though what's profound about the novel is in competition with what's merely clever about it. The nature of Elizabeth's existence or her relationship to Paul is never resolved, but the more troubling mystery is why one of the world's most celebrated writers would abandon the dramatic structure and implicit truth-telling of novels in favor of hectoring his characters and lecturing at his readers. That's no disgrace, but it's a disappointment. *
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.