JM Coetzee’s novel Disgrace was one of the best I’ve read in a decade. Unfortunately, the two novels I’ve read subsequent to Disgrace thudded in my sensibilities like drinking Kool-Aid after a glass of Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet.
And to think, elements of one bad novel made an appearance in the second bad novel. Well, that was bad luck for this reader.
Let’s start with Slow Man. The novel started out well, if fairly typically, with a “life-changing crisis:” Sixty-year-old Paul Rayment is hit by a young driver while riding his bicycle and his leg is amputated. Bidda-bing, we are catapulted along with the protagonist into a new world, with limitations and new people and all sorts of reflective moments. Coetzee could pull this approach off because his prose is spare and his observations dead-on.
I had the same feeling starting Disgrace, actually. I thought, oh, God, another story about an aging professor banging a young student and embarking on a mid-life crisis. But Coetzee’s prose was so stellar, I decided to hang with it — and that novel took an amazing twist and then an amazing turn, and so forth, for a spectacularly satisfying read.
Slow Man never really took off (another bad pun). Although I had twinges of “this hits too close to home” (Rayment is childless and regretting it, along with his life lived generally for himself. Shades of moi, unfortunately…), the novel clanged into a rather predictable gong of the patient falling in love with his nurse and then unaccountably crashed (whoops) into disaster with the appearance of Elizabeth Costello.
Elizabeth Costello is the heroine of the eponymous novel released prior to Slow Man. This was the OTHER novel of Coetzee’s I decided to read, after Disgrace. That book is essentially a series of lectures on writing by the writer Elizabeth Costello. Oh, hey, meta-fiction, my favorite. Yawn.
As if it wasn’t bad enough to have a whole novel devoted to the ponderous ponderings of a fictional windbag, Coetzee has to bring her slap into another story. The character of Elizabeth Costello did not improve in the transition, either. She’s unpleasant and unnecessary, and really, I have to work with a lot of people who are like that; if an author insists on being all cutesy with meta-fiction and recycling his character, then it better be for a very good reason.
Unfortunately, Elizabeth Costello doesn’t have the grace to jump off the nearest cliff. She sticks around until the bitter end of the novel.
The whole point to this post is: I really, really want to love JM Coetzee. He obviously is a brilliant writer. Is Disgrace the only great book he wrote? Or did I simply have the misfortune to pick the two duds out of his entire oeuvre?