on 4 March 2010
Coetzee's Slow Man begins sharp and dynamic, gripping the reader in the first sentence, and pulls him into the quick sand of his prose, but then buries him deep in a mire of confusion from the middle of the book to the end.
Paul Rayment, a sixty year old man on a bike, has a serious road traffic accident and later ends up disabled at home with a nurse he says he loves. Rayment has either lost his senses, or is not smart enough to keep his thoughts to himself, and he tells the nurse, Marijana, a married woman with three children, that he loves her. This throws her into a spin. She is a professional and in no way, can or will, reciprocate his feelings. She is an intelligent, highly qualified Catholic Croatian woman and reacts by staying away for some time. But Rayment hounds her, even when he knows that her marriage is at risk, promising her son a private education, amongst other money related solutions to her family problems, and feigning need of nursing care at times. Later, he lies to her and her husband, saying that he just wants to help, give them some money, set up a trust fund for all the children, and be a sort of god father, whilst still lusting after her.
Of course this is a sad and lonely man whose life has changed through no fault of his own. He may have well lost his morals too through the accident; on the other hand, he may well and truly want to help the family. But he lusts after another man's wife, and that throws into question any purity in his claim to help the family. He tries at the end to patch up the mess, with the family, but not convincingly enough. All he wants, he says in return for his benevolence, is a key to their back door. A recipe for disaster if you ask me.
The quality of Coetzee's writing is clear - the prose is elegant, with the bonus of some comic elements. However, the plot is thin, and just when the author should have brought in something more substantial, such as a solid character or a plot or sub-plot line, he bestows upon the reader, a boring thin-spirited, unreal character, Elizabeth Costello, who confuses the the reader from page 80 to the end.
Elizabeth Costello is supposed to be an author conducting research for her book, for which Paul Rayment berates her from time to time, treating her as a nuisance. However, she acts as if she is actually inside his head, and some form of magicial but old, ugly being, who enters the house and leaves whenever she pleases, offering him words of advice and giving instruction concerning how he should run his life and fix the mess he has made for himself - "I came to find out what happens when a man of sixty engages his heart unsuitably," she says. This is the premise of the novel: a man engaging his heart unsuitably.
Whatever questions are raised in this book though, are not successfully answered or alluded to, leaving the reader feeling unable to join up the dots successfully.