For the first twelve of its thirty chapters, Slow Man reads like a retake of J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999). A proudly solitary older man is dramatically humbled, forced to acknowledge his vulnerability and dependency on others, particularly women. In Disgrace, after accusations of sexual harassment cause him to lose his academic position in Cape Town, fifty-two-year-old David Lurie ends up moving to his daughter’s small, secluded farm and finding redemptive work in a shelter for abandoned animals.
The eponymous slow man of Coetzee’s new novel is Paul Rayment, a retired, sixty-year-old photographer. In the first sentence of Slow Man, he is knocked off his bicycle and sent flying through the air by a careless young driver. He has barely recovered consciousness, in a hospital bed, when a surgeon extracts his consent to amputate his right leg. Rayment, who is divorced and childless and has no close living relatives, stubbornly refuses to be fitted for a prosthesis and balks at regimens of physical therapy. Returning to his empty apartment in South Australia, he is tended to by a succession of unsatisfactory caregivers before settling on a Croatian nurse named Marijana Jokié. Rayment falls in love with her and imagines that she might be willing to abandon her jealous husband, Miroslav, for him.
Rayment’s new physical disability forces him to reflect on the relationship between mind and body and on how his options have been suddenly and radically reduced. Convinced that his life is frivolous, that he has been merely sliding through the world, Rayment longs for a child of his own, someone who would endow his existence with transcendent value. He befriends Marijana’s troubled sixteen-year-old son, Drago, and offers to pay for his tuition at a prestigious boarding school. The patronizing gesture causes turmoil within Drago’s family. When the boy has a falling out with his parents, Rayment invites him to move in with him. Fantasizing a new household in which he has displaced Miroslav as paterfamilias, Rayment attempts to win the trust of Ljubica and Blanka Jokié, Drago’s younger and older sisters.
On page 79, Slow Man takes a metafictional turn when Elizabeth Costello, a character in two of Coetzee’s earlier books, The Lives of Animals (1999) and Elizabeth Costello (2003), rings the doorbell of Rayment’s flat in Adelaide. An accomplished and respected novelist, she insinuates herself into his aimless life, while claiming, ambiguously, that he in some sense came to her. “Who is this madwoman I have let in my home?” asks Rayment, who feels overpowered by the presumptuous, seventy-two-year-old intruder. “How am I going to rid myself of her?”
Costello reveals an uncanny knowledge about details of Rayment’s existence, and she analyzes his current situation as if he were a character in a developing plot for her next novel, or perhaps as if he were a muse she is studying for inspiration. Rayment, who rebuffs the advances of a married former lover, Margaret McCord, reluctantly allows Costello to move into his apartment. When she offers to arrange a tryst with a sexually hungry blind woman she calls Marianna, Rayment accedes, but the awkward encounter is marred by his sense that he and his partner are performing for Costello.
The visiting author chides Rayment about his behavior toward his nurse, Marijana, and her family. Disappointed by his deficiency of passion and his failure to act decisively, as if demanding for her book a more assertive hero, Costello accuses Rayment of being slow and cold. Exhorting him to make himself worthy of being the protagonist of a novel, she admonishes him to “please stop dithering.” Rayment joins aloof personalities found throughout Coetzee’s oeuvre who, no longer able to take for granted their own autonomy, are forced to acknowledge the integrity of the Otherman, woman, or beast. “You treat me like a puppet,” complains Rayment, who feels like a character rebelling against his tyrannical creator. “You treat...
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