J. M. Coetzee, Slow Man (Secker &Warburg, 265 p., Can. $35/U.S. $29, 2005)
The ending of J. M. Coetzee’s Slow Man is disappointing only because the rest of the novel is so good. Coetzee convinces us early that a character can be part author and an author can be part character. Paul Rayment, the protagonist, is trying, in late middle age, to recompose his life after a crippling bicycle accident. He needs care. He becomes infatuated with his nurse and in a tender moment when she is bathing the stump of his amputated leg, he declares his—sexual, romantic—love for her. She bolts and the elderly Elizabeth Costello, titular heroine of Coetzee’s previous novel, appears and engages Rayment in a potential “life writing” project wherein author and character vie with each other for authorial presence, p.o.v., narrative power, etc.
From there, the plot moves in a series of Faustian, Dostoyevskian, Thomas Mannian interlocutions between Rayment and Costello on Coetzee’s regular themes of beauty and brutality, lust and ethics, memory and language, truth and fiction and the work of the novel. Rayment resists Costello’s authorial advances, albeit, as Marijana, his nurse/beloved, continues to resist his romantic ones, and as he gets older and more tired, unable to compose a plot for his legless new life (Marijana moves part of her Croatian immigrant family into Rayment’s Anglo-Australian house to complicate this part) he finds himself less and less able to resist the trajectory of Costello’s discourse. She, however, does not succeed, either, in creating in him a “rounded” character. The tensions between writer and character—and “the beloved,” that third entity which writers like Anne Carson and Roland Barthes claim is a kind of language/discourse, vital to literature and fatal to love (but not to the reader)—move Slow Man’s “plot” to its weak end because, of course, author and character both fail to reproduce.
318 w. May 22, 2006