The 2003 Nobel laureate’s tenth novel reintroduces wisdom-dispensing Australian novelist Elizabeth Costello, first sighted in Coetzee’s lecture collection The Lives of Animals (1999).
As she did in the author’s 2003 novel Elizabeth Costella Elizabeth functions as doppelgänger and mentor—this time, to 60-year-old former photographer Paul Rayment, who has lost a leg in a bicycling accident. After leaving the hospital, Paul rejects several home-care nurses, until Croatian immigrant Marijana Jokics earns his trust, his gratitude—and his unspoken love. The hardworking Marijana’s busy family life also attracts her aging, infirm patient (who refuses a prosthesis, and is now acutely aware of his loneliness and childlessness), and Paul attempts to play God, offering to pay her teenaged son’s college tuition (and offending Marijana’s husband, a trained engineer underemployed as a mechanic). Enter dea ex machina Costello, a world-renowned writer who’s now a homeless septuagenarian. She seems to know everything about Rayment’s and the Jokics’s histories, and patiently pushes Paul toward fuller involvement in the world: as the lover of a sex-starved blind woman (interestingly named Marianna), a de facto parent-guardian, and an all-round more emotionally (albeit not physically) complete human being. “Become major,” she intones. “Be a main character.” Coetzee never reveals whether (as Paul suspects) he is a character in a novel Costello is writing, perhaps a creature of her imagination, or whether she has (as she repeatedly insists) been “sent” to recall him to life. Slow Man has more narrative than the laxly discursive Elizabeth Costello, and does build appreciable dramatic momentum, before ending inconclusively. Still, one has the uneasy feeling that Coetzee’s Nobel Prize has had an enervating effect, stripping his formerly intricate house of fiction to a shell of its former self: a platform for the abstract musings of a sententious sage.
Where is the author of Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace, now that we need him most?