Call it a simple title for a complex book. Foe is the retelling of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. So it’s a story about a story. But Foe is also a story about an Englishwoman named Susan who is cast away in the Atlantic by Portuguese mutineers on a deserted island. From the beginning of her ordeal, Susan is obsessed with having the story of the island told, an obsession that torments her long after her safe return to England, where she asks novelist Daniel Foe to convert her hastily sketched memoir — “a sad, limping affair,” in her own words — into a novel that conveys “the substance of truth” about her experience. But even in England, with the hustle and bustle of civilized life, Susan is utterly dismayed to learn that “the world is full of islands.” Because it’s a Coetzee novel, Foe is not only a story about a story nor only a story about Susan’s ordeal and lingering torment, but it’s also a story about the origin of itself as a story. See, for a thin, 157-page novel, the complexities are piling up, fast. Coetzee’s prodigious intellectual talents are everywhere on display. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of super smart people. They make excellent physicists and mathematicians and logicians. But when the purely intellectual component predominates in storytelling, the prose lacks the grace of inspiration. In Foe, there’s no sacred fire. At best it’s a meditation on the frailties of life and the vulnerabilities of storytelling that is a lot more intriguing than it is enjoyable.
Foe by J.M. Coetzee