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Wednesday, September 21st, 2005


Slow Man

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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