Friday, July 20, 2007

Stories Interrupted

Steve Mitchelmore highlights, with furrowed brow, two blogland reactions to the prospect of J. M. Coetzee's upcoming book, Diary of a Bad Year. The description of the book at Coetzee's agent's site begins like this:
An eminent, seventy-two-year-old Australian writer is invited to contribute to a book entitled "Strong Opinions". It is a chance to air some urgent concerns. He writes short essays on the origins of the state, on Machiavelli, on anarchism, on al Qaida, on intelligent design, on music.
Scott Esposito is "a little concerned that it's a book about a writer writing a book" and that "Coetzee's metafiction hasn't thrilled" him, whereas The Literary Saloon is "not entirely sure about the turn the book is described as taking". Steve, on the other hand, "experiences a frisson at the prospect of book about a writer by such a fine writer as Coetzee?" I do too. And I wonder why so many readers are so put off by "writers writing about writing". Is it just the topic itself? Does it seem inherently too self-conscious? Are we ultimately impatient with even our finest writers that they just get on with the business of telling us a story? Why has Coetzee gotten so derailed from his gift of writing challenging novels?

I've defended Coetzee's recent books before, here and at Scott's (as well as more recently at The Literate Kitten). I liked both Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man; I don't think of Elizabeth Costello as "metafiction", whereas Slow Man unquestionably is. (Steve also points out that Strong Opinions happens--by pure coincidence, no doubt--to be the title of a collection of "non-fiction miscellany" by Nabokov.)

Instead of worrying about metafiction, maybe we should be asking why Coetzee is doing this kind of thing now. With Slow Man, we have what appears to be a "conventional", old-style Coetzee sort of story (man has accident, spends time recuperating, broods, becomes attracted to Croation nurse), interrupted by the appearance of Costello, claiming to be the author. A lot of readers were annoyed that the story was thus interrupted. But, as I said over at Scott's, "surely that story has no purpose without her showing up. I mean, it's not like there was some story out there he ought to have been telling that he ruined by bringing her in. He begins to tell that story for the express purpose of bringing her in. Why does he do this? Why is he making these choices?" I like what Waggish had to say about it:
Costello is ultimately in search of a story and the machinations she sets in motion are necessary to obtain it. People have focused on the tricky relationship between Costello and her characters, but Coetzee is more significantly focused on the relationship between author and reader. To what extent, he asks, does the effectiveness of fiction rely on these sorts of manipulations remaining hidden from the reader? Slow Man attempts to show a novel from the side of creation rather from the side of consumption, and the subject of the novel--this postcolonial narrative--self-destructs as a result of the exposure. It specifically damages the very symbolism and allegorical resonances that underpinned Disgrace and Foe, because Paul's reticence is forever separating him (in the Heideggerian sense of alienation) from being thrown into the narrative role that he does eventually play. Costello's presence amplifies this dissonance beyond all else.
I've not read Foe (or, well, Heidegger), but it's interesting that Waggish sees Slow Man as essentially calling into question the symbolic and allegorical aspects of Coetzee's earlier work--the very aspects, it appears, that readers tend to see as having been Coetzee's strengths. With Disgrace, for example, he believes that "the character's acts and destinies were overdetermined by the historical context Coetzee was trying to convey". I did not feel this--I felt that it was a little to easy to think this, in fact, which is one of the reasons why I didn't think it. I felt that, if anything, the characters believed that their actions and situations were determined by history, that they in a sense deserved their fates, that perhaps their belief in this actually caused it to be true.

Regardless, I like Waggish's suggestion that Slow Man is Coetzee's "confession"; that he "seems to have abandoned the neat psychological and sociopolitical structures of authors like Alberto Moravia and turned not against their methods, but against their certainty." I don't know if his earlier fiction conveyed "certainty", exactly, but they have been read as explicitly political, as allegorical, as neat. (James Wood, in his review of Disgrace, suggests that Coetzee's "intellectual and formal tidiness" leads the reader toward certain overly reductive interpretations: "Disgrace is so firmly plotted and shaped, so clearly blocked out, that it seems to request a kind of clarity of reading which is ultimately simplifying and harmful to the novel".) He could be reacting against the apparent certainty of his earlier books, or, if nothing else, against the tidy and reductive interpretations his novels have been subjected to. After years of his fiction being so reduced, he wrote Elizabeth Costello, a book apparently doomed to be read as merely Coetzee's opinions presented in fictional form. I wonder if he is exasperated by this, or amused.

I am increasingly interested in questions of certainty, and in authors pursuing variations, be they formal or thematic, and I think of Coetzee, in part, in those sorts of terms. In due time I will return to Disgrace and the earlier books, especially in light of the turns taken in Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man. But I'm very interested to see what happens with Diary of a Bad Year. Will the "strong opinions" resemble the silliness spouted by Costello? Will they resemble Coetzee's own essays? How will Coetzee write through his scenario?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"After years of his fiction being so reduced, he wrote Elizabeth Costello, a book apparently doomed to be read as merely Coetzee's opinions presented in fictional form. I wonder if he is exasperated by this, or amused."

I gather he's not exasperated by it, because the book produced exactly the reaction it was designed to illuminate. And I suspect that beyond a bit of cynicism and depression, he's somewhat amused that he was able to create a character so intellectually dense and error-prone and still have her be not only identified with him, but respected as an *intellectual* marker (rather than as a literary one, which is what Costello actually is).

My own suspicion is that it was indeed the Nobel Prize that turned Coetzee in this direction: i.e., that becoming a "public intellectual" made him feel that he could not write fiction in the way that he previously had; and that indeed, the central aspect of how his writing would now be perceived had now become his name itself. And being a very sharp thinker, as well as being very aware of past precedent of Nobel winners not producing much of merit post-prize, Coetzee took this as an opportunity not to rest on his laurels and produce safe revisitations of his past work, but to interrogate exactly what it means to be that sort of recognizable name.

At any rate, I'm looking forward to the book....