I should start this review with an admission: I’ve only read one book by J.M Coetzee, and that book is Slow Man. I didn’t know anything about its metafictional surprise when I first got it in the mail a few weeks ago; I’d never heard of Elizabeth Costello until this month. So, when I first began reading the book, I thought, wow, realism. I yawned a couple of times, but I also relished the narrative voice: I could hear a booming English-ish accent accompanying my eye as it followed word after word of the text.
But then, at the point when Paul Rayment, our one-legged hero, falls in love with Marijana, his once-upon-a-time-in-Croatia restoration-queen-turned-nurse, my boredom crept in quickly, and sunk roots. I was done with Paul. So he’d lost a leg, from the knee down, so what? “Move on, Paul,” I thought. “Move on and please do something worth reading about.”
This is around when Elizabeth waltzes in, out of breath and wanting Paul to do what I want him to do: get it together and “make a case” for himself. She’s about to give up on him. We have a lot in common, already, this reader and the Costello woman, so I take a liking to her.
After Elizabeth moves in- to Paul’s flat and to the book’s narrative- things pick up: Paul has a blindfolded rendezvous with a blind woman; Marijana and her husband get into a fistfight; Drago, Marijana’s son, moves in. Coetzee’s characters are so engaging that I find I have the hots for Drago.
The book is very much concerned with the source and motive of human generosity. In one scene, Elizabeth confronts Paul:
“Do, you remember, Paul, the story of Sinbad and the old man?”
In the story, an old man asks Sinbad to carry him across the bank of a stream, and climbs onto Sinbad’s shoulders. Once Sinbad carries him across, the old man says Sinbad is now his slave. Paul tells Elizabeth that he won’t be her slave, but she replies, “Perhaps I am already there.”
Many of Paul’s problems, it seems, stem from his need to give. His generosity towards Marijana and her family is suspect both by Marijana’s husband and by the reader. And, while Paul feels the need to help, primarily monetarily, those around him, Elizabeth feels the need to help by forging ties between the characters, regardless of whether or not those ties may cause problems. In this way, the book makes distinctions between male and female giving. At some point, it seems that Drago has been helping Paul solely for monetary gain, while his mother, Marijana, has been helping Paul in a way that is almost saint-like. In the end, it is Marijana who benefits from Paul, because he pays her for her services, and Elizabeth who benefits as well, because she gets a book out of it.
I love the way the novel addresses writing. Just as human beings can get too complex to be made into “real” characters, characters can sometimes get sick of being pushed around. Paul suggests to Elizabeth, at one point,
“You should open a puppet theater, or a zoo. … Buy one, put us in cages with our names on them. … Rows and rows of cages holding people who have, as you put it,come to you in the course of your career as a liar and fabulator.”
One of the most interesting themes of the book is that of human complexity. Like any other writer, Elizabeth struggles with the complex nature of her “characters” vs. that of her fellow humans; with the difficulty of translating that complexity to fiction. But she addresses a very profound point: Humans wrestle with their own complexities, they struggle to become fuller, more complete beings, constantly. One afternoon, on the bank of a river- an interesting setting for a scene considering the earlier discussion about Sinbad and the old man- Elizabeth tells Paul:
“We would all like to be simpler… but we are complicated creatures, we human beings. … You have it in you to be a fuller person, Paul, larger and more expansive, but you won’t allow it.”
And Paul replies, both to Elizabeth and to the impatient reader:
“I am not dithering, at least not in my own eyes. I am acting at a pace that comes naturally to me. I am not an exceptional person, Mrs Costello, and I cannot make myself exceptional just for your sake. I am sorry.”
The book’s title alludes to Paul’s slowness in all things. It takes him too long, for example, to realize that his leg’s been cut off. It takes him too long- he is well over 60- to realize that he wants to be married and have a child- preferably, he admits, a boy. It takes him too long to join the modern world and get a real computer, and a modem, much to Drago’s chagrin:
“We went to Croatia last summer…. That’s where my mum’s parents live. They’re pretty old now. They also got, like you said, overtaken by time. My mum bought them a computer and we showed them how to use it. So now they can shop on the internet, they can send emails, we can send them pictures. They like it. And they’re pretty old.”
“So you can choose,” says Drago. “That’s all I’m saying.”
And when Paul does choose to make up for lost time, he’s missed out on so much, misjudged Marijana and her family as a pack of “Croatian Gypsies,” and been, generally, an annoying ditherer.
A subtle meditation on loss and creation, Slow Man is a book about what we lose when we don’t engage ourselves to become the fullest human beings we are capable of being. “See what you can come up with,” Elizabeth tells Paul, tells herself, tells us, “So that someone, somewhere might put you in a book.”
Slow Man, by J.M. Coetzee, Viking, 263 pp, $24.95