Slow Man is a persistently self-conscious novel.
It starts with a bang.
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.