SLOW MAN by J.M. Coetzee (Secker & Warburg/Random House), 263 pages, $34 cloth. Rating: NNN
Slow Man doesn't have the political and narrative depth of J.M. Coetzee's previous novels. It's more specific, more personal.
Photographer and archivist Paul Rayment has a terrible accident while riding his bicycle, so damaging that his crushed right leg has to be amputated. When he's released from hospital, he lies alone in his apartment, certain that his life is over.
Things change, though, with the arrival of nurse Marijana, a Croatian immigrant living with her husband and three children. A gifted caregiver, she's able to deal with his stump and his shit and his foul temper without ever stealing his dignity. Using always precise prose he's obviously been close to this kind of helpless situation Coetzee evokes the deep relief Paul feels with every one of her ministrations.
Before long, Paul falls in love with Marijana and enters a full-blown delusional fantasy. She'll fall in love with him, he thinks. When that doesn't happen, he tries to make himself her son's benefactor. But Marijana knows her boundaries and is about to leave for good when Coetzee brings in the deus ex machina, Elizabeth Costello.
Suddenly Slow Man turns into a literary experiment. Costello, a fictional Australian author, the lead and title character of Coetzee's previous novel, here enters Paul's life with the hope that she can set him straight. She also wants him to turn into a character interesting enough to be the centrepiece of her next book.
Coetzee's po-mo strategy does elevate the story in terms of ideas. Suddenly it becomes possible that Paul did not survive the crash and that he's living in a parallel universe. Or maybe he's gone bonkers and is in a hallucinatory state. But the device also leaches the narrative of some of its emotional force. As a reader, I'd rather worry about what's going to happen to a character than worry about whether I know what's actually going on.
As a meditation on male frailty, though, Slow Man's got the goods.
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