- Intertextuality and Other Analogues in J. M. Coetzee's Slow Man
J. M. Coetzee's 2005 novel, Slow Man, is a work that brings together virtually all of the themes and, especially, the methods at the heart of a very successful career. A reader can get to the essence of the novel's most salient ideas, upon realizing that its methodology is no mere decoration but thematically functional. Among the typical characteristics of Coetzee's work that one finds here are questions of "authorship," more than one existential dilemma, "autrebiography" (in one of Coetzee's own literary terms), several doublings (of characters within this novel and of these characters with some in his other works), much use of fabulism, more than one level of reality, and, most pertinently for this essay, considerable and functional use of derivation, allusion, and other analogues. It is hardly the first time that Coetzee's work has been highly intertextual and intratextual, but the theme that such tactics serve varies slightly here. Coetzee is a philosophical writer and one interested in people's religious positions. As James Wood puts it, "Coetzee has always been an intensely metaphysical novelist, and in recent years the religious coloration of his metaphysics has become more pronounced" (143). Characters are consoled, confused, and/or tormented by theological concerns in Foe, Age of Iron, Elizabeth Costello, and elsewhere in the Coetzee canon. In Slow Man, however, theology and psychology are inseparably merged, to the point that the reader cannot readily distinguish the one from the other—nor can the characters. Additionally, Slow Man repeats, and extends, a device that Coetzee has used, notably in Foe and [End Page 528] Disgrace, of misdirecting readers—this time until the final three pages or so—in the not unimportant matter of just whose story this is, and whose pain or joy should most command our attention.
A large portion of Slow Man is given to examinations of "self": the eponymous protagonist, Paul Rayment, sometimes inspects his own self, albeit cautiously; Elizabeth Costello, returned from Coetzee's preceding novel, attempts to establish a self for Rayment but also tries to refine her own by comparison to his; and perhaps Coetzee further develops his own.1 In this regard, Slow Man is almost a continuation of Coetzee's "autrebiography" project in the Scenes from Provincial Life series, especially part 2 of that project, Youth (2002). The search for self also allows him to display Rayment's existential anxieties. This title character convinces himself that he wants psychological freedom but is not altogether content when he seems to have it; he resists being "governed" by dogmas, religious or social, but is uneasy when confronted by their absence. The existentialist self that he seems, in a willy-nilly way, to be forming clashes with the essentialist self that Costello fancies she has already formed. Not least, Coetzee uses both of his main characters, Rayment and Costello, to demonstrate the constant threat of loneliness, particularly to people who perceive themselves as becoming "aged."
As is usual with Coetzee, there is the realistic attentiveness to detail, aural and visual; the faithfulness to actuality and concern with ethical issues; and the presentation of important and credible psychological issues. Yet the novel is highly metafictive; it appears to have been "written" by one of its main characters. Slow Man is much more imaginative than pragmatically documentable—as witness the "presence" in it of the novelist who was the main character in Coetzee's previous novel. Its events, and sometimes its characters, are not always "real" in any verifiable way, although its themes may be those of a realist, one who is fond of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Thomas Hardy, and Joseph Conrad. And it is consistently fabulistic: each of the main characters has a "story" regarding what is "really" happening, and those stories are in almost constant conflict, not [End Page 529] only from one character to the next, but sometimes even when they are one character's version(s). Ultimately, theme is enhanced by this mixing of methods.
Coetzee practically redefines "intertextuality," and Slow Man is no less intertextual than his other novels, as well as being...