Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee is his most recent work of fiction, and completes (for now) my goal to read all of Coetzee's fiction. This novel is different in some ways than his other fiction, though it deals, again with rhetoric, communication, meaning and process, but in, what I thought, was a very different and profound way.
Slow Man is the story of Paul Rayment, an Australian photographer about 60 years old, who is injured in an accident (he is riding his bicycle and is hit by a man driving a pick-up truck), and must have his leg amputated as a result. He refuses a prosthesis and returns to his apartment where he lives alone. Despondent over his lack of independence, he fixates on his Croatian nurse, Marijana, and her family.
This aspect of the novel is fairly straight-forward, but then comes Elizabeth Costello. (Yes, it is the same woman who figured in some of the essays of The Lives of Animals and the novel Elizabeth Costello.) She shows up univited to Rayment's apartment and moves in, introducing strange interludes, goading and cajoling Rayment, who resents her presence (he doesn't know her), but strangely allows himself to be subjected to her dominance and influence.
The plot cycles through issues that Paul has with Marijana, for whom he develops feelings, and her husband, son and daughter, his photography collection, and his efforts or nonefforts to adapt to his new physical situation. He considers his choices, his independence (or loneliness?), his career, his legacy, all in contrast to the fullness of Marijana's family life and their struggles as an immigrant family in Australia.
Elizabeth Costello's presence in the novel is very different from the reality put forth regarding Paul's life after the accident. The very human and realistic situation of Paul and Marijana's family is contrasted with the strangeness of the relationship he has with Costello.
It seems to me that Coetzee is presenting Costello as the author of a book about Rayment, and Costello is in the narrative nagging Rayment, introducing plot points, trying to see what he will do, pushing him to take an action, make a decision, bring his life and the story to some kind of apotheosis. I found this motif to be very revealing and insightful about an author's work and way of working. (We do know that Costello functions in some ways as an alter-ego for Coetzee. When he gave lectures in the United States, Coetzee read a story about Costello giving lectures instead.) Costello negotiates with Paul, she is irritated by him, she fights with him and is rejected by him, trying to find a way through to the end. I found it fascinating that she has this kind of volatile, unsatisfying and painful relationship with a character she is creating, and yet I know from what I have read about fiction writing, that characters come in many ways to authors, and many of those means are painful, unyielding and unsatisfying. In fact John Fowles writes in The French Lieutenant's Woman, "It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live" (Fowles, 1969, p. 96).
I LOVED that Coetzee chose this way to illustrate the act of writing in Slow Man, because it is never "exposed" outright or done in a heavy-handed manner (I'm not even sure I'm interpreting the book correctly.) The layers of the novel provide the human relationships and the opportunity to scrutinize them that one would have in any novel through the arc of Paul Rayment's experiences as well as the opportunity to consider the act of writing, the origin of creative ideas, the psychic pain, really, of writing and creating simultaneously.This multi-layered "reality" provokes the reader to consider (as always with Coetzee) what is fundamentally true and what is true in the minds of those he features in his novels.
I put this novel on my list of more readable and provoking Coetzee novelsand I recommend it!