In his tale of an accident victim, J. M. Coetzee steps back for a cerebral examination of time, death, and the human journey
By J. M. Coetzee
Viking, 263 pp., $24.95
Nobel laureate and native South African J. M. Coetzee has never made any bones about his glum worldview. History, for the most part, is an expose of blood and tyranny; individual passion, a transient sleight of hand. Even language, that veritable light on the landscape for most writers, has the potential (and tendency) to reveal us as the disconnected lot we are -- all prisoners of Plato's cave, longing for the sun but recoiling from its reach.
Such dark certainty was put to masterful effect in Coetzee's earlier work, though his widely acclaimed 1999 novel, ''Disgrace," veered too close to solipsistic despair for my taste. There's a bit of the maestro in Coetzee's recent tone, as though his fatalism is so dismally correct that he can hardly be bothered to translate for us. ''Slow Man" is a novel drenched in melancholia and yet oddly whimsical, and Coetzee gives himself an open-ended platform for his ideas -- a seemingly realistic story that opens with a private catastrophe and then wanders, only half-purposefully, into parallel dimensions. His protagonist is a 60-year-old disheartened man in Adelaide, Australia (where Coetzee emigrated in 2002). Divorced and childless, a photographer and photo archivist, Paul Rayment leads a circumspect life, bicycling here and there or visiting the library. Or rather, those solitary pursuits belonged to his recent life, the past receding even as he reaches out to grab its memories. ''Slow Man" opens with Paul flying through the air -- he has been hit on his bicycle by a young driver named Blight. ''You took a whack," the doctor tells him when he awakens into morphine haze. ''We are going to have to amputate, but we will save what we can."
Thus begins the chin-up attitude of Paul's new world -- the old one utterly gone, a piece of ruined history; the new one merely a dress rehearsal, Paul considers, for what is to come: ''for losing everything." Tended by strapping men of medicine and a nursing staff whose smiles only half-conceal their cheerful indifference, he is soon enough sent home on his own -- left to the likes of horrid attendants or tyrannical social workers. Then comes Marijana Jokic, a brisk and competent Croatian woman as kind as she is dignified, unflinching at the prospect of caring for a recent amputee. She arrives with her little Ljuba, the youngest of her three children; she massages her patient's wounds; she cleans and cooks and fills Paul's apartment with something other than his brooding awareness. Through her daily caretaking and silent grace, she gives him back a semblance of sanity and hope.
Or perhaps Marijana's gift is simply the mercy of one human being reaching out toward another in need. Paul falls desperately in love with her, of course, declaring his wish if not his intention, and sending Marijana into understandable flight, back to her family, who live in a nearby suburb. So far so good: ''Slow Man" is a sparse but large story about humanity and hope, the restructuring of a life cramped by the strictures of consciousness. Several bit players have wandered on- and offstage by now, in dreams or reality: Paul's former lover, a woman who makes it clear she'll seduce him again for old time's sake, leg or no leg. A mysterious blind woman Paul sees in the elevator at the hospital. And Drago, Marijana's eldest child, a boy whose light-filled beauty and youth seem to contain the innocent hubris of Icarus himself.
And then the stakes change, both for Paul and for the reader. A woman appears who bears the name of Elizabeth Costello -- the aging Australian writer from Coetzee's 2003 novel by the same name. She is grumpy, overbearing, and, above all, omniscient; she comes in spouting the first line of this novel, Paul's own story, and seems to know everything about him. She is as vigorous about Paul's rehabilitation as Marijana is, if a bit more unsettling. ''Push!" she tells him. ''Push the mortal envelope. . . . The moment you decide to take charge, I will fade away."
Which is precisely what Paul desires; with its adversarial Pirandello tricks, ''Slow Man" ought to be called ''Four Characters in Flight of an Author." Mrs. C., as Paul calls her, insinuates herself everywhere -- into Paul's uncertain sex life, into his desolate clamorings for Marijana's attention, into the Jokics' family dynamics and difficulties. But it is her comic rudeness -- her silliness, as a foil for Coetzee's own authorial intrusions -- that keeps her from seeming like a mere and irritating post-modern device. She's instead a sly piece of autobiography about the fiction writer's desultory path. She tries to fix up Paul with the mysterious blind woman, which turns into a sordid dead-end encounter. She tries to convince him of the banality of his love for Marijana; he stubbornly ignores her. In other words, her characters, dare we call them such, are no more mindful of her intentions than unruly children set free at recess. She lectures Drago: ''Paul here is unhappy because unhappiness is second nature to him. . . . And I am unhappy because nothing is happening. Four people in four corners, moping, like tramps in Beckett, and myself in the middle, wasting time, being wasted by time."
And that, in all its sad inevitability, is the point of ''Slow Man," a novel about the cruel scourge of the days' forward march, with or without us. Even history is a battle between truth and forgery: Marijana was an art restorationist in her native Croatia; now her son is manipulating Paul's precious photographs to turn them into a digital joke. If Paul's archive is under attack by the young -- the one legacy he had thought to leave behind -- so is his inherited continent. ''In Australia you start zero," Marijana tells him. ''Zero history, you understand?"
As in much of life, there are few happy endings in ''Slow Man," just amicable partings and time's non-negotiable forks in the road. But if anyone is to be fingered for the failings of this novel -- its surrender to numb weariness, its thinness of emotional engagement -- it is not poor Mrs. C. (who, after all, has a heart condition), but her own puppet master. Coetzee has sacrificed his characters for his ponderous hypotheses about love and legacy and leaving a trace in the world. Most of these are unanswerable questions, as Paul himself reflects, and they dominate Paul's dyspeptic ruminations, leaving us with little plot development or resolution to speak of. ''Slow Man" begins with the haunting and brutal story of a man faced with his own maimed self: the external metaphor for a journey everyone faces in some form or another. Rather than pursuing this as the simple, searing expedition it might have been, Coetzee ducked into a cerebral, labyrinthine alley where he could contemplate time and death without tears. Mrs. Costello would have had his head.