Slow Man Paperback – 2010
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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!
Slow Man seemed to me a book that Coetzee probably started with an idea in mind and had a problem actuating it. Paul Rayment, his lead protagonist, and his struggles as an aging man after a bike accident cripples him and forces him to examine himself and his life situation is an interesting topic to pursue. The introduction of Mrs. Costello though left me with the impression that Coetzee could not bring that story line to completion. Instead he introduces himself through Mrs. Costello and at times seems ranting to us that his character will not grow or go where he wants him to go. At times the author seems to be screaming for the character to hurry up and push on in his growth so he can be done with it. His frustrations and what I assume are the effects on him physically and mentally through the process of writing are relayed through Mrs. Costello. While this may be interesting to the reader at times, at other times it was not.
In the end, Paul Rayment has grown. He and Costello (Coetzee) are able to depart from each other amiably. I image a deep sigh was released by Coetzee upon completion of the writing process though.
Overall, the book was a quick read and interesting read, if you know the background. Otherwise it might have seemed odd as you tried to understand who Mrs. Costello was and how she came to have the knowledge she holds.
One of the things I like best about this book, and Coetzee's writing in general, is that he is not afraid to show the ugly side of human nature. He is confident enough in his writing that he can create a hero who is nowhere near perfect. In some cases, in fact, the hero is downright pathetic. Such is the case with Paul Rayment, our protagonist here. At his core we see him as a good person, yet profoundly flawed at the same time. He succumbs to serious lapses in judgment and falls deep into self-victimization, and yet we still admire him, or the very least we sympathize with him. For in many ways, he is just like all of us.
This book deals magnificently with the most basic of human needs - the need to love and be loved, and the need to leave a legacy. As our main character faces the onset of old age, and as a tragic accident leaves him without a leg and forces him to contemplate his own mortality, he begins to regret the wasted opportunities of his life. He realizes, too late, that there will be little to remember him by once he is gone. He carefully preserves his collection of rare photographs which he plans to donate to the state library when he dies, but even he himself recognizes the little value this collection has if his whole life's worth is to be judged by it. With no children, no family, and no close friends, he has failed to leave a legacy in the one and only way that matters - by touching the lives of others.
So when he meets Marijana, his Croatian-born nurse, he tries to make up for lost time. Partly motivated by selfishness, partly by desperation, and partly by an inchoate feeling of love, he attempts to woo her, all the while operating under a thin veil of altruism. Here we are asked to explore difficult themes: Can an act be deemed bad if it is based entirely on love? How do we reconcile the good and the evil that both live inside of us? What will we consider most important when we look back on the life we have lived? Coetzee does not make it easy on us, and for this most readers will be grateful.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is the mysterious appearance of Elizabeth Costello, the protagonist from Coetzee's earlier book. How she appears on Rayment's doorstep is not clear, nor for what purpose. Coetzee is clearly taking liberties here, forcing the reader to suspend disbelief, in order to create a neat construct in which he can portray the conscience and alter ego of his main character. Some readers simply won't accept this technique. Personally, it worked for me. I gradually stopped caring that he left too many questions unanswered, and came to appreciate the added dimension that this construct allowed the novel to achieve.
Perhaps Costello's emergence in "Slow Man" is meant for balance and drawing Paul out is no mean feat. But her advice and platitudes become wearing after a while. Could Paul have survived in this book without Elizabeth? I would have preferred to have seen it that way....how he might have stumbled more with his nurse, Marijana and his attraction to her. Elizabeth is like an unwanted guest at a party and in the end I wanted no more of her. If that's Coetzee's final point, he takes a long time to get there.
However, on the plus side of "Slow Man"....and there are many pluses, the author keeps a good pace and reveals his characters with depth and understanding. "Slow Man" is worth the read but the reader may find it agonizingly depressing.
"Slow Man" is a multi-layered parable about growing old, assessing one's life following a catastrophe, the nature of love, and the difficult process of coming to self-understanding. The book takes place in Adelaide, Australia. The protagonist is a 60-year old solitary individual, a photographer named Paul Rayment who loses his leg in a bicycle accident. He refuses to accept an artificial limb. During his recovery he finds, for the first time in his life, that he cannot be self-sufficient and that he needs professional care. Thus he is cared for, briefly, by one nurse whom he abrubtly dismisses and then by a nurse named Marijana Jokic, an immigrant from Croatia who has a husband and three children, including an adolescent boy, Drago, who brings out fatherly feelings in Paul for the children he never had. Paul, alone, long divorced, and childless. reflects on what seems to him to be the empty, lonely character of his life. He finds himself falling in love with Marijana and wanting to help her children. His attentions to her person are rebuffed.
Into the story comes an aging novelist named Elizabeth Costello. Untlike some other reviewers on this site, I am unfamiliar with Coetzee's other novels in which Costello plays a leading role, including one with her name as the title. Thus, I was able to read this work on its own, without associations from Costello's role in Coetzee's other works. Costello seems to know a great deal about Paul, his difficulties and soul-searchings resulting from his accident, and his infatuation with Marijana. She is a sort of alter-ego, urging Paul somehow both to act and to reflect deeper, somehow both at the same time, to give up his futile quest for Marijana, and to take decisive steps with his life.
Costello makes an abrubt entrance into this book, and her appearance changes it dramatically. For some time, I questioned, as Coetzee seems to want the reader to do, her existence -- perhpas she is to be seen is a figure that Paul is imagining in his troubles. But no. This possiblity is explicitly rejected near the end of the book, as Elizabeth interacts with many other live, flesh-and-blood characters in the book. Paul and Elizabeth in effect complement each other, for all their difficulties, and each of them are needy with respect to the other. Elizabeth ultimately asks Paul to join her in a companionate relationship which Paul ultimately rejects. He learns the difference between love -- even the hopeless love he had for Marijana and a feeling which is "something less". The book comes to an ambiguous, difficult ending as Paul and Elizabeth go their own ways.
Elizabeth remains an awkward presence in the book, but she is necessary for Coetzee to tell his story. Her entrance is sudden and unexpected, but she functions as a way to call Paul to himself, even when the result is her own rejection. We really don't know at the end where the characters are going or the extent to which, if at all, they are the better for their search. But the book teaches about the power of love and passion, the fear of solitude and loneliness, the possiblity that one has missed one's way, and the ever-present hope of redemption. This is a troubling and difficult book.