Someone needs to rescue J.M. Coetzee from Elizabeth Costello. Ever since Coetzee introduced her in 1998, his fictional Australian novelist has held his work to ransom. Costello narrated most of his 1999 book, The Lives of Animals, and then demanded a novel of her own, which Coetzee dutifully published about her two years ago, titling it, of course, Elizabeth Costello. But now she has gone and gate-crashed Coetzee’s latest effort, Slow Man, a perfectly affecting tale about love and aging—perfectly affecting, that is, until Costello turns up on the doorstep of Coetzee’s main character to explain that she has in fact made him up.
This is a terrible shame because Slow Man begins with a bang—or more appropriately a crash. Paul Rayment is peacefully riding his bicycle down a suburban road when he is struck from behind by a teenager. The young driver’s negligence doesn’t cost Paul his life, just a leg, but what a price that is. In passages as lucid as anything he has written, Coetzee chronicles the grinding humiliation of a body breaking down: all the helplessness and self-disgust. How the erosion of shame is itself shameful.
This physical belittlement leads to a familiar place. Like many Coetzee characters, Paul has spent his life being aloof and clinical; he conducts emotional transactions, not relationships. But all that is about to change as Paul must lie at the mercy of a nurse. Happily, he winds up with Marijana, a homely Croatian immigrant to Australia whose ministrations feel so tender they awaken in Paul a desperate, hoary need to love and be loved.
Suddenly Paul begins to thaw, and what starts as gratitude swells into infatuation—and then into sentimental silliness. Paul wants to take care of Marijana, her family, even send her son away to boarding school. “We should all be more labile,” Paul erupts at one point. “That is my new revised opinion.”
And then Elizabeth Costello arrives to put a stop to his pabulum, poking at Paul’s soft points, fiddling with his weaknesses. She has, after all, created him and knows him well. “Mr. Rayment,” Costello teases at one point, trying to discourage Paul away from Marijana, “rhyming with payment.”
Costello’s mischief making may be irritating, but it aptly highlights a problem James Wood pointed out in his 1999 volume of essays, The Broken Estate. In the wake of the novel’s secularization, fictional characters have no higher power to wrestle with—and so they wrestle with their more legitimate creator, which is the novelist. While American writers such as David Foster Wallace and Mark Danielewski have addressed this quandary by recycling narrative technology employed in the ’70s and earlier—such as footnotes, hyper-text, and the like—Coetzee, ever the Ph.D., turns this novel into a kind of seminar. Narrative design, free will, the difference between love and caring—in the past these issues may have been spring-loaded onto the reader through plot points and symbolism. Here they are spelled out in dialogues between Paul and Elizabeth Costello. “You may not see the point of it, Mr. Rayment, the pursuit of intuitions, but this is what I do,” Elizabeth says in one typical rejoinder. “This is how I have built my life: by following up intuitions, including those I cannot at first make sense of.”
We have to believe in spite of all this—that, apparently, is the take-away from Coetzee’s experiment in reader patience. Just as Paul must accept the flawed but real affection of his nurse, readers must do the same with narrative, even if it is a load of fakery that attempts to pass itself off as sincerity.
But there is another response to this dilemma, one becoming increasingly common: not to read at all. Even though he has three CNA prizes, two Bookers and a Nobel, this is something even Coetzee will have to think about should he keep writing books like this one.