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the complete review - fiction
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A : bizarre but remarkable
See our review for fuller assessment.
|Christian Science Monitor
|The Globe & Mail
|Independent on Sunday
|London Rev. of Books
||Peter D. McDonald
|Neue Zürcher Zeitung
|The New Republic
|The New Republic
|The NY Rev. of Books
|The NY Sun
|The NY Times Book Rev.
||José María Guelbenzu
||Sarah Emily Miano
||Andrew van der Vlies
|The Village Voice
|The Washington Post
No consensus, with quite a few quite disappointed
From the Reviews:
- "Almost every new character and fresh incident in this book raises some further moral, philosophical, ethical or aesthetic issue, adding another dimension to its rapidly proliferating complexities; Slow Man is a mix of fictional and metafictional modes, and a delicate, intricate layering of ideas and questions." - Kerryn Goldsworthy, The Age
- "(F)rustratingly unpleasant (.....) Slow Man has the distinction of being the worst novel I've read by a Nobel winner." - Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor
- "This is technically audacious (if not exactly ground-breaking) but the novel suffers an immediate puncture, and the hiss of escaping drama, of novelistic vigour and invention, continues for another 200 pages. It is harder to care about this new Rayment, the mental offspring of Costello, than the Rayment we were allowed to believe in as a person in his own right. (...) The contrast with the exhilarating bleakness at the end of Disgrace is marked. It is likely to send some readers back to that novel to remind themselves what a master Coetzee can be on his day." - Andrew Miller, Financial Times
- "Slow Man can take place entirely in Rayment's apartment because physicality of any kind is strangely irrelevant to this kind of novel. The disfigured man is a study of consciousness; we read as Rayment's is pried open." - Lee Henderson, The Globe & Mail
- "She overwhelms not only him but the novel. What began as a tale of a hollow man and his full-blooded Balkan Venus skids and stumbles into a literary duel between two characters in search, not of an author, but of each other. There is something affecting about the writer who lets us watch him seeking to turn his fictions into flesh -- and then lets us see why he fails. But the momentum of the book -- always slow, like the man at its centre -- is lost." - Christopher Hope, The Guardian
- "The sparsely constructed pages of Slow Man -- no flourishes, little heft -- find Coetzee several steps further down the path into his own private jungle. As with many a writer of this degree of celebrity -- a Nobel Prize back in 2003, two Booker garlands -- the novel's chief distinction is that it resembles other works by J M Coetzee only more so. Routine tics and preoccupations are magnified into obtrusiveness, dominated by its sense of interiority. (...) Full of the deftest psychological touches and some acutely realised brooding on the old fictional firm of memory and desire, Slow Man's code -- if code it is -- stays resolutely, and tantalisingly, uncrackable." - D.J.Taylor, The Independent
- "It becomes apparent that this is a novel about identity and indeed the very question of existence. Does Rayment really exist after the accident or has he slipped into a parallel existence which is hardly distinguishable from the original ? (...) So much is going on in this spare book that it is difficult to keep up. (...) I think we are to draw some conclusions about the nature of storytelling, the relation of fact to imagination, reality to illusion, and the very thin line between what we regard as material and what we think of as imaginary. (...) Coetzee is a unique voice; no novelist explores ideas and the power of literature and the sense of displacement so boldly. Slow Man will add to his immense reputation." - Justin Cartwright, Independent on Sunday
- "And yet, for all its playfully serious subversions of the realist tradition, Slow Man is not an anihilatingly or 'merely literary' exercise." - Peter D. McDonald, London Review of Books
- "Increasingly, Coetzee seems to lack the egotism necessary to play the role of the wise, omniscient narrator. Much of his fictional energy is now devoted to revealing how writers struggle no less anxiously than their characters with a human self increasingly fragmented and diminished by the pressures of modern life." - Pankaj Mishra, The Nation
- "Gerade aufgrund dieser Betretenheit aber mag man auch gewahr werden, wie einen der Roman unmerklich ins Gespinst seiner so grosszügig offengelegten wie fein gewirkten Illusionen gezogen hat." - Angela Schader, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "Amazingly, he gets away with what in any other contemporary novel would be jeered at as a tired and pretentious piece of postmodernist trickiness. (...) What saves Slow Man from being a sterile, self-referential literary exercise is the vividness of the characters who animate it." - John Banville, The New Republic
- "You can see the idea behind it; or rather, the two ideas. (...) These two ideas, plainly enough, belong to different genres. Coetzee marries them without fuss, but you cannot help sensing something forced in the union. The effect on his characters is a kind of irritable decorum. They behave both stiffly and showily. (...) He seems in perfect control of his abilities (.....) Which makes this latest novel all the more puzzling -- if he knew what he was doing, why did he do it ?" - Benjamin Markovits, New Statesman
- "When a writer turns up in his own fiction it is often to pose questions about the arbitrariness and artificiality of narrative. That doesn't seem to be the main focus of Coetzee's interest here. It is more, perhaps, a question of ethics, touching on the morality of making people up, and then devising trials and torments for them, designed to expose and test their deficiencies. (...) Slow Man does not drag; but it is specialized in its interest, and a reader who is not interested in the problems of writing fiction may find the novel dry." - John Lanchester, The New York Review of Books
- "By introducing Elizabeth Costello into Slow Man, Mr. Coetzee substitutes dull metafictional questions for the interesting fictional questions he has been in the process of asking. (...) Certainly the ending of Slow Man, which finds Costello and Rayment at an impasse, suggests that even fictional lives are less susceptible to manipulation than the reader casually supposes. But these questions are so laboriously posed, and so much less humanly interesting than the relationship between Paul and Marijana, that all Mr. Coetzee finally accomplishes in Slow Man is to run a promising novel off the rails." - Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun
- "I take this novel to be a scrutiny of disappointment and irresolution, a chicken-and-egg affair that does not yield satisfactory answers. Still, Coetzee's narrative is a bracing corrective to the blustering do-not-go-gentle-into-that-good-night.. (...) (B)eautifully composed, deeply thought, wonderfully written." - Ward Just, The New York Times Book Review
- "Her interventions into what, until then, has been a story of some compulsion might threaten, you imagine, to collapse any plausibilty and identification in Paul's predicaments. In fact, even as she reveals her manipulations, they prove what a consummate writer of fiction her creator, Coetzee, can be." - Tim Adams, The Observer
- "Coetzee ya no está para cometer ni un solo error porque se encuentra en esa etapa en que un escritor se halla en posesión de todos sus recursos y además desea correr riesgos. (...) Una gran novela, en definitiva." - José María Guelbenzu, El Pais
- "But my mixed feelings about Coetzee's earlier work hardly prepared me for, or explained, the strong emotions -- feelings that ranged from impatience to a dull rage to a sort of despairing boredom -- that overcame me as I began the new book." - Francine Prose, Slate
- "What had seemed simple is now back in the realm of artifice. There is of course nothing to say that artifice is not permitted, but the effect is disconcerting, particularly as the opening chapters were so exemplarily lucid, with the gravitas that pertains to hard-won endurance. (...) It is no small achievement to have created such a miasma of feeling, to leave us convinced and unsettled, and above all face to face with imponderables to which there is no solution. An unwelcome lesson, perhaps, but a salutary one." - Anita Brookner, The Spectator
- "Coetzee’s excellence has been so sustained, his fictional interventions (for this is what, with their stern politics, they resemble) so precise and compelling, that one experiences a quiet shock at reading Slow Man. Because this is not only unmistakably Coetzee’s least accomplished work, it is also, by more general standards, a mediocre novel. (...) The effect of this meta-fictional invasion is ruinous. From the moment of Costello’s arrival, the novel’s plausibility is abolished. Coetzee continues to investigate the ideas of care and love, but he also speculates aridly on the nature of literary creativity. These two types of language -- the humane and the theoretical -- grate painfully against one another, and against the reader, even as Coetzee tries to make them knit." - Robert Macfarlane, Sunday Times
- "But the promise of the novel and the considerable pleasure offered by Coetzee's style is interrupted a third of the way through. Another accident takes place, and this time it is a metafictional jolt that topples the reader. (...) In Slow Man, however, Costello's arrival seems to render the narrative at cross-purposes with itself. (...) His latest novel, in contrast, gives the impression of being an amputee. It appears to possess ghost limbs -- characters and ideas from earlier novels -- and it doesn't seem to be aware that it is mistaking these spectral appendages for real ones." - Siddhartha Deb, The Telegraph
- "It is an undeniably peculiar read, but Coetzee has profound things to say about ageing, writing, and accepting one's lot in life. It's probably too strange to win the author another prize, but this seems unlikely to concern him. He has earned the right to poke fun at fiction, and die-hard fans will delight in this jeu d'esprit." - Matt Thorne, The Telegraph
- "Elizabeth and Paul are two spirits imprisoned in a literary afterlife or some sort of mythical purgatory. Slow Man may lack the range of Coetzee’s masterpieces Disgrace and Michael K, but it is a sensational act of double-exposure: on one side a renowned writer at the close of her career, feeling disillusioned with her own art; on the other, a man at the end of his sexual life, coming to terms with his own mortality." - Sarah Emily Miano, The Times
- "(A) novel of ideas which tests the limits of the genre. (...) Slow Man (...) offers itself as a meditation on living and writing, and an enactment of Coetzee's prognosis for the novel as a genre, for what it must be. It is further witness to J.M.Coetzee's achievement as one of the most intelligent and important writers writing today." - Andrew van der Vlies, Times Literary Supplement
- "In Slow Man, Coetzee confronts by analogy his own predicament, that of the obsolete dissident. (...) Elizabeth's arrival suggests that the stakes in this novel about aging are personal." - Benjamin Strong, The Village Voice
- "The human themes raised toward the beginning of the novel are richly, comically developed as Paul makes ever more ludicrous efforts to ingratiate himself to Marijana, but the postmodern tedium of his bizarre situation involving Elizabeth risks overwhelming everything else, as though what's profound about the novel is in competition with what's merely clever about it. The nature of Elizabeth's existence or her relationship to Paul is never resolved, but the more troubling mystery is why one of the world's most celebrated writers would abandon the dramatic structure and implicit truth-telling of novels in favor of hectoring his characters and lecturing at his readers." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post
- "Eingebettet in die streckenweise operettenhaft anmutenden Liebesverwirrungen ist eine leichthändige Skizze der Befindlichkeit von Menschen in einer neuen Welt, die Art und Weise, wie sie sich an Plätzen, die nicht die von Generationen ihrer Vorfahren sind, verorten." - Thomas Lang, Die Welt
- "Natürlich verfolgt Coetzee seine Geschichte mit Hintersinn, aber allzu offensichtlich möchte er zugleich moralisch korrekt bleiben. Interessante Romanfiguren entwickeln jedoch immer ein Eigenleben, und das ist es, was sie aufregend macht, für den Autor und dann auch für den Leser. Coetzee aber hat sich mit der kurzen Leine, an der Elizabeth Costello ihren Paul Rayment hält, selbst die Hände gebunden." - Jochen Jung, Die Zeit
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Slow Man begins with a bicycle accident that leads to Paul Rayment losing his leg.
A photographer in Adelaide, he has no close friends or family.
He's also getting on in years; one of the reasons they decide to amputate is because of his age: were he a young man, a greater effort might have been made to save the leg, but at his age it's essentially deemed not worth the trouble.
It's a serious accident, and requires considerable after-care.
Paul is unwilling to have the lost leg replaced by an artificial one, preferring to hobble along on crutches and a Zimmer frame.
He requires nursing care at home, and while the first nurse he hires doesn't work out too well, he's soon very taken by the second, Croatian immigrant Marijana Jokić.
A mother of three, an art restorer in her native Croatia, he's impressed by her competent manner and behaviour, and soon enough quite smitten.
Almost all alone in the world, little more than a lonely old man, it's not surprising that Paul would fall for someone offering any sort of human contact.
Marijana -- happily married, more or less, and with three children to worry about -- however wants to be strictly professional.
Paul manages to complicate matters by trying to help the family (in order to make himself at least some small part of it): he offers to pay for the son's schooling, helps the older daughter out of a jam, even lets the son live with him for a while.
Marijana is tempted by what he can offer, but it's clear his place won't ever be in the bosom of this family; he's a stranger, a well-meaning old fool.
Coetzee describes the uneasy give and take and relationship between the Jokićs and Paul well, but what makes Slow Man extraordinary is the introduction of the one other major character, writer Elizabeth Costello (last seen in the eponymous novel).
The otherwise painstakingly realistic narrative takes a metafictional and fantastical turn here -- though Coetzee is careful to weave it in so that it barely stands out.
Elizabeth's arrival is much like the actual author popping up mid-story: she claims Paul as her invention, yet also acknowledges him as a separate entity, able to influence the course of events yet to unfold.
The character has his destiny in his own hands -- though she prompts, suggests, and influences.
It's a daring leap into the novel when she announces:
You came to me, that is all I can say.
You occurred to me -- a man with a bad leg and an unsuitable passion.
That was where it started.
Where we go from there I have no idea.
Have you any proposal ?
Paul is unable to understand exactly where she is coming from (asking only once, much later, whether she is real or whether this is some after-life fantasy).
She proves quite the irritant, moving in with him for a while (though he kicks her out) and trying to guide him in directions he's generally unwilling to go -- an amusing inversion of what readers usually imagine, a character struggling with an author rather than the other way around.
What Coetzee does, employing Elizabeth Costello as this sort of literary device, sounds like a fancy parlour-trick, a too-simple game with the reader.
But it's anything but: Coetzee pulls it off.
Even the obvious touches are presented carefully enough that they don't seem entirely forced: lift some out of the text and they may appear too obvious, but within the narrative all flows with barely a ripple -- for example:
He himself has never been at ease with mirrors.
Long ago he draped a cloth over the mirror in the bathroom and taught himself to shave blind.
One of the more irritating things the Costello woman did during her stay was to take down the drape.
When she left he at once put it back.
Elizabeth forced him to look at himself -- to introspection -- something he is loathe to do, etc. etc.
Taken apart from the text one can already imagine the university professors setting the passage as an essay-question: it's almost too clever and easy and obvious, but within the novel itself it barely stands out among the rest.
The book is full of these telling riches, some better hidden than others, and all helping to illuminate this character and his dilemma(s).
There is so much that is well done here.
Slow Man is, on one level, a book about writing, and it is perhaps this that Coetzee has juggled best: Paul is, indeed, a slow man, and Costello -- with her suggestions and actions -- too fast.
An author can create a character, but inevitably moves beyond him (or her), the character left behind, stuck fast, immutable, on the page, frustratingly unchanging and unchangeable.
(Cleverly, Coetzee also allows modern technology to creep in, as photographs are doctored -- not by old-fashioned Paul, of course -- and history (or at least its representation) changed, one of the many clever subplots.)
Slow Man is also about other aspects of literature (though Paul is clearly not much of a reader), Elizabeth trying to incite him to action:
'So that someone, somewhere might put you in a book.
So that someone might want to put you in a book.
Someone, anyone -- not just me.
So that you may be worth putting in a book.
Alongside Alonso and Emma.
Become major, Paul.
Live like a hero.
That is what the classics teach us.
Be a main character.
Otherwise what is life for ?'
Yet Slow Man itself contradicts her, Paul's existence in it suggesting the heroic (of the proportions she insists on) aren't necessary, that Paul is book-worthy even as the unexceptional man he is.
Coetzee proves (though he's evidently not entirely sure of himself) that the entirely ordinary is capable of sustaining literature as well.
Finally, Slow Man is also an entirely ordinary tale, of growing old and of trying to find a place and role in the human community (with Elizabeth trying as hard as Paul to find a place and fit in -- each inevitably seen as a different side of author Coetzee himself).
It is the story of a man who has lost his leg, which proves indeed to be "a rehearsal for losing everything."
Slow Man is bizarre, and, as so often with Coetzee, many of the characters are not particularly sympathetic and many of the scenes quite ugly and unpleasant.
Both generous and profoundly sad, Coetzee doesn't offer simple, happy resolutions in Slow Man, but it feels incredibly true-to-life (even with its fantastical turns).
Exceptional, and highly recommended.
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Other books by J.M.Coetzee under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
John M. Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940.
He has won many literary prizes, and was the 2003 Nobel laureate in literature.
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© 2005-2023 the complete review
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