Chapter One: J. M. Coetzee’s Slow Man


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Chapter One: J.M. Coetzee’s Slow Man
1.1 Introduction

John Maxwell Coetzee won the Booker Prize for his 1999 novel Disgrace. He was also awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. Slow Man is the first novel to be published since this. Expectations were high: not only because his previous works are highly regarded, but also because of these prizes so recently won. In this novel he writes about ageing and migration, and includes the character Elizabeth Costello. Before analysing these three particular topics in the novel Slow Man in detail, one must first take a general look at the novel as a whole. In this chapter I will give a short summary, discuss the point of view, the post-modern features, and the reception of the novel by the critics.

1.2 Summary of Slow Man

Paul Rayment is bicycling on Magill Road when he is hit by a car. In the hospital it is decided most of his leg has to be amputated, including the knee. After this life-changing event Paul re-evaluates his existence. He starts to think about having children of his own when he realises his only legacy is a photograph collection he wants to donate to the State Library in Adelaide after his death. He has been divorced, and from that marriage there are no children. When Paul leaves the hospital, he is not very mobile and needs looking after by a nurse. The first nurse irritates Paul, and she is soon replaced by the Croatian Marijana Jokić. She and her family have migrated from Croatia to Australia. Paul is infatuated with Marijana and her three children, the youngest of which, Ljuba, she sometimes brings along when she takes care of Paul. However, before Paul can act upon his impulses, the Australian author Elizabeth Costello shows up on his doorstep. Paul asks her why she is here, but she is unable to explain it herself and does not give a clear answer. Elizabeth Costello is a character from one of Coetzee’s previous novels, Elizabeth Costello. She questions Paul on what he wants and why he wants it. She knows a great deal, and tells him about the background of the Jokić family. Marijana and her husband Miroslav were apparently quite well educated and had important jobs in Croatia. Elizabeth tells him she knows Paul was looking at a blind woman in the hospital, and that she can arrange a meeting between the two for him. She does so, and Paul and the blind woman, whose name is Marianna, have intercourse together. Paul, however, still is in love with Marijana. He offers to pay for the education of her son Drago, and when Marijana asks him for his reason for doing that, he professes his love for her. Marijana quickly leaves and Paul is left alone, contemplating his actions. Elizabeth urges him to follow his thoughts through, and to use his imagination and to push, to act. Miroslav, Marijana’s husband, visits Paul and they have a talk about the fact that Paul wants to pay for Drago’s education. Paul assures Miroslav his intentions are nothing but honourable. Later Marijana contacts Paul saying there are problems with Blanka, the eldest daughter. She has done some shoplifting and the shop manager is unwilling to let her off. Paul visits the shop and is able to strike a deal so that there are no repercussions for Blanka. His deal includes him buying clothes for her worth a huge amount of money. After helping out with Blanka, Elizabeth points out to Paul that Drago has taken one of his photographs and manipulated it so that a photograph of mineworkers in Australia now includes the face of Drago’s father. Paul and Elizabeth visit the Jokić family because Paul wants the original photograph back. When he is there, Paul realises that Marijana and Miroslav have an intimate, caring marriage, not a bad one at all. As for their dealings with Paul Rayment, the Jokić family seem to have found a balance as a family. As a token of gratitude for everything he did they give him back his bicycle, which they have adjusted into a three-wheeled bicycle so that he can use it again. However, he never will. In the end he declines Elizabeth’s offer to take care of him at her home, and says goodbye to her. He will not make use of the new bicycle, nor take Elizabeth up on her offer, but would rather stay home alone.
1.3 Third-Person Point of View

The novel is written in the third person, from the limited point of view of Paul Rayment. As M.H. Abrams points out, in a limited point of view “[t]he narrator tells the story in the third person, but stays inside the confines of what is perceived, thought, remembered and felt by a single character (or at most by very few characters) within the story.” This means that “the point of view is limited to the consciousness of a character within the story itself, gives readers the illusion of experiencing events that evolve before their own eyes” (A Glossary of Literary Terms, “Point of view”, 233). The reader knows as much as Paul Rayment does in the novel. However, the reader realises that it is indeed Paul’s point of view that he or she perceives and can therefore think outside this perspective. While Paul is infatuated with his nurse Marijana, the reader can take a more objective stance and analyse the situation clearly. The novel starts out through the perspective of Paul as a man who has had an accident and fades in and out. Brooke Allen has said that “Coetzee’s description of the accident and subsequent surgery, seen from Paul’s skewed, feverish point of view is brilliant” (29). The reason why this perspective works particularly well for Slow Man and J.M. Coetzee is that the reader lives and learns along with the protagonist, Paul Rayment. As mentioned before, a reader can think outside of this perspective, but sometimes not all the information is present for new insights. Besides, this point of view shows how the mind of the protagonist works and how he deals with the things that happen in his life. Little information is given, for example, about Paul’s ex-wife. All that the reader knows is that he has been married and divorced and it is only near the end that more information is divulged. In his own distinct writing style Coetzee gives the bare minimum of information necessary for the plot and leaves it to the reader to fill in the blanks.

1.4 Post-Modern Novel

Slow Man is a post-modern novel. To discuss the implications of this, first a definition of post-modernism is in order. A Glossary of Literary Terms explains that:

Postmodernism involves not only a continuation, sometimes carried to an extreme, of the countertraditional experiments of modernism, but also diverse attempts to break away from modernist forms which had, inevitably, become in their turn conventional, as well as to overthrow the elitism of modernist ‘high art’ by recourse of the models of ‘mass culture’ in film, television, newspaper cartoon, and popular music. (168)

A post-modern novel also “resist[s] classification according to traditional literary rubrics” (Glossary, 168). As J.M. Coetzee in Slow Man does go against the formula of the novel, it resists classification according to the traditional standards. Perhaps the most noticeable difference is the inclusion of the character of Elizabeth Costello, who is a writer herself. The protagonist, Paul Rayment, is unsure of whether he is merely a character in one of Costello’s novels or if he is perhaps experiencing the afterlife and Costello is there as his guide. “Might the whole Jokić affair, with his ill-considered and to this point fruitless passion for Mrs Jokić at its centre, be nothing in the end but a complicated rite of passage through which Elizabeth Costello has been sent to guide him?” (Slow Man, 191). In the first case, it can either be that he serves as an inspiration to Elizabeth Costello, or that he literally is a character in one of her books, and that he is not real at all. There are many references, by Elizabeth herself as well as Paul, to being a character in a novel. She says: “‘You came to me, that is all I can say. You occurred to me – a man with a bad leg and no future and an unsuitable passion. That was where it started. Where we go from there I have no idea. Have you any proposal?’” (85).

Another example of the fact that Slow Man is a post-modern novel is that Coetzee examines the meaning of language. Language is important in all of Coetzee’s novels. When Coetzee is interviewed, he is also often trying to think of the right word to express himself. Coetzee has studied – and is a great fan of – Samuel Beckett’s early work. This influence can be seen when Paul is searching for the right words to describe how he feels. Of course it is true that English is not his native language, because he is of French descent, but it also the desire to be able to express himself as clearly as possible. In all of Coetzee’s work this quest for the right word is present. As Paul Rayment is also reassessing his life and as a result finds himself wanting children, this is a fresh perspective on his existence and changes its meaning.

In the post-modern movement the protagonist would often be an antihero as opposed to a hero. This is also true for many a modern protagonist. An antihero is “[t]he chief person in a modern novel or play whose character is widely discrepant from that which we associate with the traditional protagonist or hero of a serious literary work.” Whereas a hero would display “largeness, dignity, power, or heroism”, an antihero is “petty, ignominious, passive, ineffectual, or dishonest” (Glossary, 11). The protagonist of Slow Man, Paul Rayment, is petty, passive, ineffectual, shows a certain degree of ignominy, and is dishonest at times. In short, the symptoms fit. The opposite is also true, as Paul does not display any of the features of the hero: a manifesting largeness, dignity, power, or heroism. He is a man who loses his leg and afterwards becomes rather passive and turns introspective:

[E]xtreme instances are the characters who people a world stripped of certainties, values, or even meaning in Samuel Beckett’s dramas – the tramps Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot (1952) or the blind and paralyzed old man, Hamm, who is the protagonist in Endgame (1958). (Glossary, 11)

Comparing these examples to the examples of Paul Rayment shows that there are similarities. He struggles to have meaning in his life, and leave a legacy behind, because his world has been stripped of certainties and fixed meaning. He is no longer mobile, having lost his leg and being unwilling to adjust to a prosthesis, and suddenly very aware of the fact that he is ageing. The certainties of his world have changed.
1.5 Reception of Slow Man

The critics are sure of one thing: whether it is an enjoyable read or not, it is most certainly a good novel. The most criticised element of the novel is the inclusion of the character of Elizabeth Costello. She appeared previously in Coetzee’s eponymous Elizabeth Costello (2003). However, most critics wonder why Coetzee included Elizabeth Costello. What exactly she is meant to add to the plot is hard to pinpoint. Is she there as a deux ex machina for Coetzee, to act as an alter ego, or is she really to be seen as a character herself? I will go into detail regarding this issue in Chapter Four. In general though, the response to Slow Man is positive. Ward Just in his review in The New York Times finds Coetzee’s writing as compelling as always, even though the questions raised are not answered to his satisfaction:

I take this novel to be a scrutiny of disappointment and irresolution, a chicken-and-egg affair that does not yield satisfactory answers. Still, Coetzee's narrative is a bracing corrective to the blustering do-not-go-gentle-into-that-good-night. For Rayment, one chance after another has come and gone, some seized, most not. And when enough chances have come and gone, it can seem altogether wiser to maintain things as they are. Romantic leaps of faith are for the young. Rayment's heart is ‘in hiding’. J. M. Coetzee has much to say about these matters and many others in Slow Man - beautifully composed, deeply thought, wonderfully written. (Par. 15)

For popular opinion site Hillary Frey writes a raving review. She found the story about the unremarkable character very compelling:

Only a writer like Coetzee – who doesn't want you to care about his characters so much as observe them, take in their humanity – could make this story of a passive, aging man who desires his housekeeper interesting. Rayment's story is sad, and reading this novel will make you feel profoundly sad – which has a lot to do with Coetzee's ability to write in a prose so spare that the absence of embellishment inspires more despair than does the plight of Paul Rayment. There is air in each line –have I ever read such unadorned sentences? – but that air is thick, and weighs heavily. (Par. 4)

However, not all critics are in agreement that Coetzee has delivered another good novel. Robert Macfarlane’s disappointment is apparent in his review for The Sunday Times:

Coetzee’s excellence has been so sustained, his fictional interventions (for this is what, with their stern politics, they resemble) so precise and compelling, that one experiences a quiet shock at reading Slow Man. Because this is not only unmistakably Coetzee’s least accomplished work, it is also, by more general standards, a mediocre novel. (…) It is hard for Coetzee. We are so accustomed to his immense tidiness as a novelist, that the slightest muddle in his work looks like chaos. But there is no excusing the jumbledness of Slow Man, its indecisive mix of intentions and forms. (Par. 3)

Still, most critics are positive about this addition to Coetzee’s oeuvre. The essence of the novel, the message it carries, is open for debate. It differs from Coetzee’s previous novels in that there is now no obvious political allegory. The re-introduction of Elizabeth Costello seems significant, as she deconstructs the novel from within. Brooke Allen’s review in The New Leader concluded with:

High level. After spending some time with Slow Man, the thoughtful reader might come to see himself – or herself – as the object of some unknown, extended plot, and to view his or her life as symbols or symptoms, the way Elizabeth sees Paul’s. Perhaps this is the point of the exercise. (30)

1.6 Organising Statement

The outline for this thesis is as following: in Chapter Two the theme of ageing will be analysed, Chapter Three deals with the themes of migration, and in Chapter Four the purpose of the character Elizabeth Costello will be discussed. The chapter on the theme of ageing analyses how the protagonist of Slow Man deals with the issues of age, time, death, and his wish to leave a legacy. There is also a comparison with protagonists from two previous novels by J.M. Coetzee: Age of Iron and Disgrace. The chapter on migration discusses the characters who have migrated, and the role of Australia in the novel. Both these chapters deal with global issues: with the current medical care people live longer, and there are many migrants all over the world. Most of the population in Australia are migrants, or descendants of immigrants. As for the character Elizabeth Costello: she is of interest because she is a novelist within a novel. She is a post-modern strategy Coetzee employs to analyse the role of the author in a novel. He can discuss this easily through Elizabeth Costello, and the question is, of course, if she is there as the novelist’s alter ego. In the Conclusion I will reflect on these themes and how they are presented in Slow Man.


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