by J M Coetzee
A review by Anna Godbersen
There are those who loudly, if apologetically, proclaim their personal discomfort
with hospitals as though it were their special affliction, although in truth,
the healthy are rarely at ease with the sterility, or the hovering illness, of
such places. Likewise, I suspect that precious few people will find immediate
joy in the company of Paul Rayment, the titular Slow Man of J.M. Coetzee's
latest novel. He is an unfortunate character to be sure: Already isolated and
prickly, he falls victim to the sudden violence of cars, while he is on a bicycle
no less, and wakes up in the hospital with his leg amputated. He goes through
several stages of grief: rage, despair, indifference. (Still with me?) He spars
with his caretaker, an insufferable girl who insists on speaking to him in baby
talk. But then he gets a new nurse, the goodly Marijana, a Croatian immigrant
to Paul's Australia, a wife and mother of three. Paul is, in his own conflicted
way, developing a crush on Marijana, when another woman enters the scene: Elizabeth
Costello, the main character and authorial alter ego of Coetzee's last book. The
famous Australian novelist (also isolated, also prickly, also growing old) insists
that Paul "came to" her. She seems to know an eerily large amount about
his life ("It is as if she were reading his diary"), and now, stranger
still, she seems to be guiding it.
Slow Man poses important questions (How vulnerable are the weak? What
does a life look like after it has been changed forever? How fraught is the
relationship between writer and subject?), but it is a less provocative, less
intellectually rigorous, less artful book than the tricky and brilliant Elizabeth
Costello. With its meandering, present-tense sentences and sometimes clumsy
revelations, Slow Man reads more like a sketch or a first draft of a
novel. It feels, in the end, like a setup, a story blurted out too fast.
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