Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"Slow Man" is the tenth novel by J.M. Coetzee that I have read (and reviewed here). Mr. Coetzee might be my favorite author, but this is not my favorite book of his. While it conveys frighteningly deep wisdom about what it means to be old (the author was exactly my current age, 63, when he wrote the book in 2004 or 2005), I do not like the sudden transition from fiction to meta-fiction at about one-third of the novel. Of course, I know next to nothing about literature and am too obtuse to appreciate this particular literary structure, so my opinion is tentative at best.
Paul Rayment, a 60-year old Australian ex-photographer and bicycle rider, has an accident in the street; his leg is shattered and has to be amputated above the knee. He falls in a sort of love with his day nurse, Marijana, a mother of three children. The affection (it is really more than that) that Mr. Rayment feels for Marijana makes him offer money for her son's college education. Enough summarizing: any more would make the novel sound like the worst kind of soap opera, which it emphatically is not. The point of the book is far, far beyond the plot. The point of "Slow Man" is the difference between care and love and how painful the difference can be felt by those affected.
This is one of the most adult books I have ever read; I doubt people below forty will understand it at all. It is about longing for a child one has never had. It is about sexual awakening of a 60-year old amputee. Mainly, though, it is about yearning for love, including the sexual kind, when one is at the end of the earthly passage and readying to die. Mr. Rayment worries about "leaving no trace behind" and having been "sliding through the world". The subtlety and depth of psychological observations are stunning. Mr. Coetzee writes about things that we barely dare to think about in private and would never dare to talk about.
In addition to the meta-fiction trick, I am unable to appreciate the Marianna (not Marijana) episode. To me, it is redundant; I do not think the impact and message of the novel would change at all, if the Marianna event was removed from the text. Of course elderly and infirm people need sex and are sometimes lucky to have it. I just find the episode incompatible with the rest of the novel and the details (flour and water paste, nylon stocking, etc.) ridiculous. Skip Marianna, skip Elizabeth, and it could be the greatest novel for adults ever written. But then how ridiculous am I to criticize a Nobel Prize winner in literature?
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