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Slow Man’ fails to impress for Coetzee readers

Roque Strew | Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Death could hardly stop Samuel Beckett from spreading his seed.

J.M. Coetzee, South Africa’s recent Nobel laureate, has famously professed loyalty to the Irish father of modern drama. But Coetzee’s language, its steely cool and cut-crystal exactitude, is bleached clean of Beckett’s comic soul, leaving only a husk of sterile irony. Behind his pen, one imagines the blank, humorless face of a brain surgeon. And where Beckett’s glances flash at the airy vagaries of existence, Coetzee often trains his eye on a more specific area, from a more eccentric angle – he is a witness to political society through allegory seen, as depicted in his recent book, “Slowman.”

Working amid national unrest, Coetzee’s interest in political society is not unexpected. Yet somehow he has kept his distance. Despite his loaded subject, Coetzee hesitates to take sides. Like Erasmus, denying the pope’s request to denounce Luther’s heresies, his independence is a sort of integrity. Allegory helps preserve this independence, lifting his concerns above the fray into a disconnected, ethereal kingdom of make-believe. It’s something of a Platonic cop-out.

This wavering between distance and engagement is among the thicker threads running through Coetzee’s corpus. An incendiary look at a man’s affliction by his society’s ills – and by most accounts his finest novel – “Disgrace” foregoes his usual detachment. Neither taking sides nor proffering answers, he tackles the morally fraught, deeply-rooted racial tensions of his native country. More a sequence of lectures molded into a story, his last “novel,” “Elizabeth Costello,” is a step back from South Africa’s unsavory realities. What unites these works with his newest work, “Slow Man,” is their testimony to the often-suppressed kindness coursing below human affairs.

The titular character is Paul Rayment, a divorced photographer drifting alone in the limbo between middle age and senescence. He has retired to Adelaide, Australia. One day he goes out for a bicycle ride and is blindsided from the right by a passing car. The experience of the whole trauma is conveyed meticulously, in spartan prose, from the jarring moment of impact to the hazy ambulance ride to the hospital. There, from beneath an anesthetic fog, Rayment consents to the amputation of his leg.

Dejected in the aftermath of the operation, Rayment’s loss takes a greater and greater toll. He endures the rituals of rehabilitation alone – his wife is gone, he is childless, and the one friend who visits him comes only for sex. His only human contact is with his series of nurses, the last of whom, a “handsome” Croatian named Marijana Jokic, he falls for.

Then, like an addled fairy godmother, Elizabeth Costello appears on Rayment’s doorstep. Without a splinter of explanation, she immediately moves in. She anoints herself Rayment’s personal consigliore, dispensing advice. Regrettably Costello, Coetzee’s alter ego and heroine from his previous novel, is less a character than a device – a mutated strain of a modernist virus. The pyrotechnics of her arrival and function are so heavy-handed and ineffable that they unduly outshine Rayment’s better story, a social novella in itself.

“Slow Man” is at last two books, not one placed beside another, but rather one ominously enveloping the other, in a vaguely imperial fashion, with the larger wrapping and warping the smaller in its own image. Perhaps this is no accident, given Coetzee’s prior evocations of his homeland’s history.

The humble Dostoyevskian tale at the heart of the book, a pristinely fashioned glass menagerie, is swallowed into the postmodern whirlpool of Coetzee’s formal experiments. Like a mad scientist exhilarated by his own grand gambles, Coetzee has abandoned reason.

This time Coetzee has gambled too brashly. What he has risked here, the suspension of his readers’ patience and disbelief, he has lost.