The 2003 Nobel winner’s latest (Inner Workings: 2000–2005, 2007, etc.) is another drama shaped as intellectual argument, unhappily akin to its immediate predecessors Elizabeth Costello (2003) and (the somewhat livelier) Slow Man (2005).
Its protagonist, an eminent and aging author initially identified as Señor C., has agreed to contribute his thoughts about the state of the contemporary world to a volume presenting its several contributors’ “Strong Opinions.” As C. undertakes this task, he simultaneously develops an avuncular relationship with Anya, the gorgeous young woman he meets in their building’s laundry room, and eventually establishes a more formal acquaintance with Anya’s lover Alan. The latter is an “investment consultant” who tests Anya’s resolve by suggesting strategies to exploit C.’s evident appreciation of her beauty, and embezzle funds from his presumable great wealth. In a narrative that we read both from top to bottom of each page and horizontally, following arguments continued on facing pages, C. fulminates, Anya frets and Alan schemes. C.’s strong opinions consider the formation of political states; the current administration's rampant contempt for law and the related “crimes” of its enablers; radical feminism's attacks on pornography; the inhumane treatment of animals and indifference to their rights; the devaluation of modern culture; and the “authority” with which great writers (notably Tolstoy) render the warp and woof and detail of human experience. Late in the book, Coetzee’s serial drone, the aforementioned Elizabeth Costello, shows up (doesn’t she always?), and any pretense that C. is not Coetzee is airily abandoned. Otherwise, there’s no development. C. brandishes his erudition. Anya is, fleetingly, intriguingly fiery. And Alan is a bloody bore.
There’s something wrong with a novel in which a twisted, exploitative sexual relationship is far less interesting than are dozens of pages of discursive commentary. But that’s the new, improved Coetzee for you. Maybe we should blame the Swedish Academy.