Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Booker Review: Slow Man, J.M. Coetzee

Retired photographer Paul Rayment is cycling near his Adelaide home when he is struck by a car. One of his legs has to be amputated above the knee, but he is otherwise uninjured. His first weeks as an amputee are not easy, but things pick up when he falls in love with Marijana, his home assistance nurse. The seasoned J.M. Coetzee reader will be feeling right at home as this story unfolds. Paul and Marijana are briskly sketched, their relationship used to examine various philosophical and moral questions. In short, Slow Man shapes up like another excellent entry in the Coetzee canon. Then, about eighty pages in, something strange happens: Coetzee gets playful.

Novelist Elizabeth Costello turns up at Rayment's door. She ingratiates herself into his life, about which she knows more than she should, or even could. Her relationship with Paul is fraught. He believes she is gathering material for a new book. The reader might suspect something rather more metafictional: that Paul is already a character in a Costello novel, a novel that we are in fact in the process of reading.

It's all very Italo Calvino, not a mode that suits Coetzee. The book's tone becomes increasingly light, even farcical at times, as Paul attempts to fend off Costello's interference while simultaneously working through his feelings for Marijana. If nothing else, the reader comes to empathise with Paul's distaste for "the Costello woman". The novel disintegrates every time she appears, and the whole blurring of art and life schtick becomes irritating in the extreme.

I admire Coetzee but I'm afraid he has delivered a dud in Slow Man. The introduction of Costello completely derails the novel. It ends up feeling hamfisted and wrong. Disappointing.


UPDATE: The Booker shortlist is announced tomorrow. For the record, my prediction is as follows:

Barnes, McEwan, A. Smith, Ishiguro, Meek, & Z. Smith or Lewycka - I'm going to hedge my bets on the final spot.


Jon said...

Coetzee used a similar device in 'Foe', which I quite liked - with Daniel Defoe/Coetzee turning up in the third act for a metaphysical discussion on the act of writing. By the sounds of it, 'Slow Man' was a rather less successful play on the theme. Pity.

Tim said...

Foe's been on my to-read list for a while now (along with about three thousand other books). It sounds like a good 'un.

Coetzee's a great writer, and Slow Man certainly has good things in it, but overall it doesn't work. I think I'm inclined to be harsh towards it because I know what Coetzee is capable of. Not to mention that I'm sick of reading Booker noms. And I have an attitude problem.