When I get to the end of certain books I find myself wondering: now if that was me sending that off to an agent or publisher, I would rate my chances along with someone wanting to lose weight on a diet of nothing but fast food.
I believe that someone like J.M. Coetzee has earned a kind of carte blanche when it comes to his writing, especially after winning the Nobel prize for literature. Being established, he can afford to take risks and play around with the whole notion of what we expect from a novel. Other lesser-known writers wouldn't have this luxury.
Slow Man is a perfect example of a novel that starts out as a cosy blanket, but then quickly shakes the reader out of bed! Coetzee is playing. I believe he deliberately wanted to sound the alarm clocks at dawn, regardless of how we all react!
This is the story of Paul Rayment, an elderly man who loses a leg in a cycling accident in Adelaide, Australia. Coming across as someone with a no-nonsense, philosophical approach to life, he refuses a prosthesis and tries his best to make the most of his lot. Not surprisingly, however, he finds it difficult to fend off misery and loneliness. Combined into the mix is his attraction towards his Croatian nurse and an overwhelming desire to help her and her children.
The novel, which only runs to 263 pages, starts in a very traditional way and it is very easy to get hooked into the story. The writing is crisp and light, without the folds of fat that most novels have. Then, just when we're feeling cosy with a non-taxing read, we are in for a bit of mental acrobatics: at page 79 a character from one of Coetzee's previous novels knocks on the door, the Australian novelist Elizabeth Costello. She is drawn as a busybody, urging Paul to change his outlook, make decisions, get a grip. He doesn't want this woman around but she stays anyway, saying that he simply came to her and she has no choice in the matter. We understand that Paul is a character in a book she is writing when she quotes to him the opening lines of Slow Man and asks: "Why do I need this man, why not let him be, coasting along peacefully on his bicycle?"
We are forced to re-evaluate. Is this about an author starting a story and then getting in touch with the protagonist to find out how he ticks and where the plot should go? It seems Paul is being constructed in the draft of a complex novel, a story that throws up more than the author envisaged and there is no easy conclusion. It triggers debate on how these kinds of "moral" stories are developed and brought to fruition. Is Costello just Coetzee in disguise? There is no doubt we are being sucked into a parallel universe, with all the trappings of a Paul Auster novel. The themes are universal: loneliness, the need to be looked after, sex, lust, parenthood, alienisation, the impact of migration.
The book turns into an interesting exercise in classic fiction being ripped apart and analysed - without spelling things out too much - forcing us to confront some of the deeper questions that good plots ignite: who controls what happens to us? can we be helped and help others without attachment? can we ever really hope to be confident about the decisions we make in life? how does this fit in with the concept of fiction and the turns that tales take?
I ended up loving this book for its weirdness, for its bold take on the writer's quest. This won't please all readers, especially those familiar with Coetzee's previous books and those who want a logical, pleasurable experience. But I am one of those who walked away from this book with a certain buzz, ruminating on what Coetzee was trying to get across. We can read it on two different levels. There is the simple story of Paul and his predicament, with a strange woman coming to share his home. But there is also a feast on a deeper level, with the various elements of the story representing issues we all face and how these are dealt with in literature.
Now, I am off to find out more about this annoying woman Elizabeth, who is the star of Coetzee's previous book Elizabeth Costello.