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Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee

Being a Main Character

As a novelist, J.M. Coetzee has always been preoccupied with ideas, and in his best novels he has invented situations that work equally well as plot points and as a debate of those ideas. When Coetzee is on his game, his philosophical debates are so seamlessly entwined with the plot and dialog that his books read like tight, potent narratives.

Reading Coetzee's new novel, Slow Man, it's impossible not to look back to his second-most-previous work, Elizabeth Costello. In that book, published in 2003, Coetzee wrote that "Realism has never been comfortable with ideas. It could not be otherwise: realism is premised on the idea that ideas have no autonomous existence, can exist only in things. So when it needs to debate ideas, as here, realism is driven to invent situations."

Elizabeth Costello divided critics in part because it was so bald in presenting its ideas, much more so than in Coetzee's other books. The book has a table of contents where the chapters are labeled "lessons", and the plot primarily consists of a series of lectures given by the titular character. With Slow Man, Coetzee has once again polarized the critics.

The book begins with 60-year-old Paul Rayment flying through the air. The Australian has just been knocked off his bike by a young driver, and must have his leg amputated above the knee. When he returns home he hires a nurse: a sturdy Croatian immigrant named Marijana whom he promptly falls in love with. The problem is that she is married with three children; even if she was not, though, Rayment doubts an elderly cripple would much interest her.

This part -- roughly the book's opening third -- is Coetzee at his best. Rayment's dejection is rammed home again and again, from the doctor who tells him they would have tried to reconstruct the knee in a younger man, to his first at-home nurse who makes aggressive, embarrassing comments about his "willie" and exploits him for money. Coetzee convincingly portrays Rayment as a man who has drifted for too long and suddenly realizes too late that he regrets not making more of his life, and is now helpless.

Then on page 79 Elizabeth Costello appears at Rayment's door, implying that Rayment is nothing more than a character she has conjured up in her head. She chides him for being so dull, especially for his inept, half-hearted stabs at Marijana. The rest of the book consists of Rayment's attempts to atone for his wasted life by claiming Marijana's heart, or, if he cannot have that, by at least worming his way into her family's embrace as godfather of her eldest son. There are many further meetings between Rayment and Costello, always with her reminding him what a dullard he is and practically begging him to do something, anything.

Bringing Costello into the book as the "author" of Rayment is a risk, but for the most part Coetzee handles it well. Costello's presence allows Coetzee to explore not only the relationship between a writer and her characters, but also the relationship between passion and reason. Coetzee reminds us of Plato's metaphor in which man is described as a carriage drawn by two horses -- a white one representing reason and a black one representing passion -- and Slow Man excels when Costello and Rayment's arguments nimbly tease out the relationship between these horses.

The potential of this fine idea is only partly realized, though. Too often Costello and Rayment sound more like an uninspired Socratic dialog than a well-crafted novel. It's at these points that one wishes Coetzee would get back to the plot, or at least try a little harder to disguise his philosophizing.

Another issue is that Rayment, being terminally wishy-washy, isn't that interesting of a character to build an entire book around. Costello herself sums it up, imploring him to be more passionate,

"So that someone, somewhere might put you in a book. So that someone might want to put you in a book . . . So that you may be worth putting in a book . . . Become major, Paul. Live like a hero. . . . Be a main character."

Of course, the irony here is that Rayment not only has been put in a book, but is also the main character. His lack of interesting traits is redeemed by Coetzee's ability to artfully portray his suffering and to derive worthwhile thoughts on passion and regret from it, but it's impossible not to feel that Slow Man would have been better served either by less of Rayment's dithering or more action. Even with those reservations, the book is worth reading, although it's far from a masterpiece like Coetzee's 1999 Booker-winning Disgrace.

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee
September 22, 2005
Viking Books
Hardcover/$24.95
ISBN: 0670034592
264 pages