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Abandoned Creatures: Creaturely Life and the Novel Form in J. M. Coetzee’s Slow Man

From: Studies in the Novel
Volume 45, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 655-674 | 10.1353/sdn.2014.0002

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In an often-quoted interview from 1990, J. M. Coetzee describes the relation between his literary work and his life as “a person” in unexpectedly direct terms:

Let me add…that I, as a person, as a personality, am overwhelmed, that my thinking is thrown into confusion and helplessness, by the fact of suffering in the world, and not only human suffering. These fictional constructions of mine are paltry, ludicrous defenses against that being-overwhelmed, and, to me, transparently so.

Such a plain statement was all the more surprising coming from a writer whose work was, at the time of the interview, routinely categorized as ‘metafiction.’ It is remarkable that this writer confesses that he is deeply affected by the very thing his fictional work, on an ungenerous but far from uncommon reading, seemed unable to confront directly: “the fact of suffering in the world.” Coetzee’s statement explicitly connects this affective experience to his writings, which are not to be taken as a failure to acknowledge the affect generated by the fact of worldly suffering, but rather as so many “defenses” against it; his fictions serve as a strategy to contain the “overwhelm[ing]” intensity of the affect. Yet if they manage to mitigate this intensity, they do not neutralize it completely: the defenses constructed by fiction are “paltry, ludicrous.”

Coetzee’s statement not only offers us a glimpse into the affective economy propelling his fiction, it also obliquely registers a limitation of his early work; in this way, it anticipates several of the trajectories that his work will explore after 1990. Coetzee describes his ambition to convey an affective response to suffering, yet he also subtly signals an awareness that his work has failed to do so effectively when he notes that the status of his fictions as “paltry, ludicrous defenses” is a fact, and “to me [Coetzee], transparently so.” This phrasing indicates that this understanding of his fiction is less transparent to people other than the author, as the reception of his early work seems to confirm. There are at least two suggestions embedded in this dense passage, both of which are instructive for an understanding of Coetzee’s trajectory in the last two decades: first, it announces Coetzee’s exploration of different modes of writing that more successfully communicate the affect of suffering, and second, it indicates that two of the notions that will have to be renegotiated in such a writing practice are ‘authorship’ and ‘authority.’

Coetzee’s fiction in the last two decades has returned time and again to these two closely interlinked projects. The reconsideration of authorship and authority was already central in The Master of Petersburg, the first novel he published after the interview, and it directly implicated the person of Coetzee himself in his three peculiar autobiographical fictions (Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime). And as David Attwell has noted, in Elizabeth Costello, Slow Man, and Diary of a Bad Year, “the practice of authorship itself” has become “[t]he overriding subject” (217); the same can be said about his Nobel lecture, “He and His Man.” As for the attempt to convey a more direct affective response to suffering, the publication of Disgrace in 1999 seemed to announce a shift to a markedly more topical and realist register in its merciless depiction of the life of a white man in a post-Apartheid South Africa that has totally erased the terms of the social contract that used to pertain. The outspoken reactions to its depiction of new race relationships, lingering xenophobia, and sexual abuse seemed to signal that Coetzee, without abandoning his signature self-reflexivity, had finally managed to convey and provoke an affective response to the reality of suffering to which his work is committed.

It is somewhat surprising, then, that Coetzee’s twenty-first-century novels have not continued in this more realist vein. Indeed, novels like Slow Man and Diary of a Bad Year are infused with a certain abstractness, and a definite disinterest in conveying the lived experience of Australia, Coetzee’s new home. Even if both of these novels are set in Australia, the setting is never made more specific than the perfunctory mention of a...

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