Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee

Slow Man is a persistently self-conscious novel.

It starts with a bang.

Paul Rayment, 60, is pedaling his bike up Magill road when a reckless young driver mows him over, shattering his knee and resulting in the amputation of his leg above the joint.

Irascible and sullen, Paul is tormented by the bitter regret of childlessness. He suffers a succession of nurses and finally falls in love with one of them. Her name is Marijana. She’s married with three children. And Paul’s “unsuitable passion” wreaks havoc on her marriage and family life. 

Now, it’s very rare, indeed, for a reader to mark the precise moment when a story goes sideways.

It happens on page 79, in the fourth paragraph, when Elizabeth Costello, a famous novelist, mysteriously arrives at Paul’s dreary flat. “I want to explore for myself what kind of being you are.”

She’s intrigued by the idea of an amputee with no future and a misguided love for a young nurse. But Costello is no ordinary character. It quickly becomes evident — what with her uncanny omniscience and her mysterious comings and goings — that Costello is an ontological tweener.

She’s a character who exists in a book with other characters. But she’s also the embodiment of Coetzee’s troubled spirit, brooding over the waters of his own creation. The author has cast himself as a character in his own novel.

Problem is, Costello (and hence Coetzee) is dreadfully conspicuous.

For one, she’s so bloody sententious. In her ceaseless object lessons, she annoyingly calls Paul by name even when they’re alone. “No, Paul, that is not right.” “What will you do, Paul?” “You know, Paul, that won’t be good enough.” “Paul, dear, try to be worthy of being in a novel.”

On her tongue there is a Paul, EE-I-EE-I-O, with a Paul, Paul here and a Paul, Paul there, here a Paul, there a Paul, everywhere a Paul, Paul.

Vexing and annoying to no end. 

The other difficulty is that the dialogue is boringly repetitive and predictably double.

Boringly repetitive in the sense that the character and the author bicker too much about who’s in charge. “I’m not under your control,” says Paul. “Paul, I can read you like a book,” says Elizabeth. “I’m not here to entertain you,” or “I’m sick and tired of being nudged this way and that to further these crazy stories in your head,” complains Paul. “This is your story, not mine,” says Elizabeth.

And the dialogue is predictably double in the sense that the exchanges between Paul and Elizabeth mirror the exchanges between Coetzee and his aggrieved readers. Coetzee plays his Elizabeth to the reader’s Paul. “You don’t know what to make of me, do you?” says Elizabeth to Paul (read: Coetzee to his readers). “You do not belong here,” says Paul to Elizabeth (read: Coetzee’s spectators to him). “This is not your place, not your sphere. Your involvement merely confuses us,” says Paul to Elizabeth (read: Coetzee’s audience to him).

In a novel about loving and caring, it’s surely a bad sign to fervently wish that poor old Paul had lost his head instead of his leg.

At least that would’ve been a swift, merciful end to an amputee of a novel that needs a lot more than a prosthesis to make it whole.

14 Responses to Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee

  1. Trevor says:

    Ah, Kevin, it was bound to happen. I quite liked Slow Man, though I think all of your criticisms of it are valid. It’s me, not you. I have what is perhaps a failing of allowing Coetzee to get away with anything just to see where he takes me. This isn’t my favorite of his stories, but I was thrilled by it nonetheless and happy to see it take a completely different direction on (I remember it too) page 79.

    We’ll always have Wharton (and Eddings).

    • “It’s me, not you.” I invented it’s-me-not-you (in my best Costanza impersonation)! Literary brotherhoods have to be challenged every now and then, to make them worth anything. We have Wharton, Eddings, and others. I have one more Coetzee to read and, hopefully, blog about, Foe. I’m reading Defoe right now in the run up. Cheers, K

      • Trevor says:

        I’m very optimistic about the future, too! We have a foundation on O’Connor, London, McCarthy, Robinson. This is not the end!

  2. Some works are very much written in order to solve some problem the author is working on. I understand both responses here, Trevor’s and yours – 1) I want to see the process, or 2) get back to me when you’ve got an answer.

  3. What problem is Coetzee noodling over? I assume the process of writing, or the process of something, maybe the gap between inspiration and execution. A big chasm. K

  4. nicole says:

    Have you read Elizabeth Costello itself? I haven’t, and I haven’t gotten as far as page 79 in Slow Man (my boyfriend really wanted to read it first…and I don’t believe ever finished it himself). What was my point again? Oh, right, I like the Coetzee that I have read (Waiting for the Barbarians), but everything I’ve ever heard about Elizabeth Costello makes it sound like a no for me, so I wouldn’t be surprised if her appearance put me off here as well.

    • Ay, I’ve read Elizabeth Costello and even took a mighty swipe at it, rousing the mighty Reading Ape from his slumbers! I found EC and Slow Man nearly unreadable. Nice to see you here, Nicole.

      • nicole says:

        Oh dear, of course, you were one of the people whose readings put me off! I remember my boyfriend really liked it, but everything he said about it sounded bad to me.

  5. Anthony says:

    I’m siding with Trevor on Slow Man. That combination of awe and teeth-grinding frustration I get when reading Coetzee feels enjoyable to me. I like figuring out what the hell he’s trying to achieve. He always stops short of metafiction, the point where my frustration would dilute the reading. In that I mentally place Coetzee alongside Sebald.

  6. Biblibio says:

    I’m still sort of in the middle re: Slow Man. I liked aspects of it, but I also agree with many of your criticisms regarding the excessive presence. I found myself focusing more on the Marijana stories, the relationship Paul forms with her kids and her life (as creepy as they got…). It’s a weird book, but it did lead me to read Disgrace, which was also weird but a lot better too…

  7. Richard says:

    Ouch! I’ll try and remember your other Coetzee recommendations when his time comes for me in the bookstore, but now you have me afraid that this is the title that will actually stick with me.

  8. Yes, the other ones are so much better in my opinion. But when good readerly folks like Bilibio and Anthony and Trevor and AR, and presumably many, many others, like Slow Man, my opinion is highly suspect.

  9. Oh, I haven’t read it. You and Trevor were helping me place the novel.

  10. I rather like the self-consciousness of Elizabeth Costello, and have Slow man on my shelves now waiting to go. Your selected quotes encourage me … they make me laugh partly because I like the fact that Coetzee is playing games with us, teasing us. I did Elizabeth Costello an odd read, but fascinating for all that.

    All this said, I enjoyed your review though Kevin … love your description of the point the book went sideways. We always know where you stand and what you mean!

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