Sunday, February 17, 2013

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee

The romantic yearnings of a solitary amputee disturb the peace of a nosy old lady author

Paul Rayment, an émigré to Australia, loses his leg in a bicycle accident. He requires a nurse and after some mismatches, hires the sturdy Croatian, Marijana Jokic. She is hardworking, practical and has nice calves. Without further ado, he falls in love with her, then, bit by bit, falls in love with the rest of her family, including the Apollo-like son, who needs someone to finance his military school education, the beautiful little sister who suspects something is up, the shoplifting daughter in need of rescue, and the skinny-assed jealous husband. After first designing to spirit their mother away, Paul settles for simply being the godfather. Yet something else is going on here, something that keeps interrupting the love story. Something deeply weird.

At the beginning of the book, just as Paul is about to go under the anesthesia for his amputation, he hears the clacking of typewriter keys. Huh? In the middle of Paul’s romantic agony, Elizabeth Costello, famous Australian author, shows up on his doorstep. She is here (sent here?) to nag him. Elizabeth Costello urges him to channel his erotic feelings towards another lady, not Marijana, but a blind woman, Marianna. Her blindness seems to pair up better with his missing leg. Besides Marianna is single too, not encumbered with a husband and family like Marijana. Who is this Elizabeth Costello? She seems to know a lot of about him. After a while Paul starts to think he is losing his mind. Because it can’t be-- He can’t be--

I really enjoyed this book, as I have enjoyed all the Coetzee novels I have read so far. He is good at entwining abstract themes of human freedom, the nature of reality, and morality with compelling tales of obsessions, sexual and otherwise. That way the medicine goes down easy.  Slow Man seems to be a novel about a closed up fussy man who has squandered his life collecting old photographs when suddenly he realizes he has a last chance at love. This conventional plot is interrupted by Elizabeth Costello butting in to give him all the good reasons why he should not break up this woman’s marriage and interfere in her family’s happiness. Elizabeth Costello is not only the voice of common sense - she seems personally interested in the outcome. Paul’s stubbornness annoys her. In some ways, she plays the role of God here. Isn’t she prodding him towards the morally correct outcome as well as the logistically elegant outcome?  She grows weary when he does not obey.

The novel is also a meditation on what it means to be physically disabled, how hard it is to get up the stairs, get out of a taxi, get a girlfriend. A proud man is humbled and the humiliation opens his eyes. Excellent writing.   The novel works on many levels.

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