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J M Coetzee: Slow Man

Views on this novel were divided. Some critics thought it a superb work while others thought that Coetzee frankly failed. I am in the latter camp. The novel, set in Adelaide, Australia, seems to start off by being one of those novels about the travails of old age. The various problems that can occur – sex, solitude, a feeling of being out of touch with the Zeitgeist, inability to understand or communicate with the younger generation and health problems – are all to the fore here. Paul Rayment, our hero, lives alone. His parents and sister are long since dead. He is divorced and his ex-wife has remarried. They had no children. Only now is that becoming an issue for him as he yearns for a son. He is a retired photographer. One day, while cycling along the road, he is hit by a car. His leg is badly injured and, as he is old, they do not make the effort to reconstruct it but amputate it above the knee. They suggest a prosthesis but he declines. Why he does so is not entirely clear but it seems, at least in part, that he reserves the right, as an old man, to do what he wants and not what he is told to do. He hires a nurse to look after him but soon gets rid of her as she over-mothers him. He then gets Marijana Jokić, a Croatian immigrant, married to Miroslav, an auto worker, and the mother of a boy and two girls. Marijana does her job well and is attractive. He soon finds himself falling in love with her and that is when his troubles start.

Post-modernism uses many tricks and one of them is for the author to intervene in the story, not just in the form of comments but as a character. Pirandello‘s Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author) is an obvious example though, in fact, the author does not appear but his presence as a character is felt throughout the play. B S Johnson‘s work has the author talk to the characters in more than one work. There are other examples on this site. Coetzee takes the eponymous character from his previous work and has her appear both as a character and as an author. There is nothing wrong with that except for the fact that Coetzee seems at times unsure whether she is one or the other or both. She turns up unannounced (and unwanted), a seventy-year old woman, who seems to know more about Rayment than anyone but an omniscient author would and tells him that she is going to write about him. However, it is never clear whether she is to write a novel about him, a novel in which he is a character but not necessarily the main one or whether she is, in fact, the author of Slow Man. Moreover, we find out that there are things that she does not know about him, his past, for instance. (She claims to only know about him in the present but surely an omniscient author should know about her character’s antecedents?)

With the occasional intervention of Elizabeth Costello, Paul Rayment’s life changes. She fixes him up with a blind woman for sex. The woman used to be attractive but now, apparently, her blindness has made her less so, so much so that he has to be blindfolded when he has sex with her. He pays 450 Australian dollars for this. I don’t know the going rate for prostitutes in Adelaide but surely he could do better for his money. On the Jokić family front, things go badly. He has declared his love for Marijana and she does not take it well. He offers to pay for her son’s education and her husband does not take it well. Things go from bad to worse, with Ms Costello popping in and out, with Rayment and the reader left unsure as to exactly what she intends to do. There is a sort of a happy ending but you are left with the feeling that, for once, Coetzee did not quite work it out properly.

Publishing history

First published 2005 by Viking Penguin