One night, while out for a bicycle ride, an Australian photographer is hit by a car and loses a leg. So begins the frustratingly unpleasant new novel by J.M. Coetzee, winner of both the Nobel and Booker Prizes and a slew of other international awards.
It is meant to be a meditation on how the body affects our identity and about the writing process. Instead, Slow Man has the distinction of being the worst novel I've read by a Nobel winner.
Coetzee's novels tend to be well-written but chilly. But with "Disgrace," the most powerful of his books that I've read, you certainly couldn't argue that not enough happens - in that a South African professor engineers his own downfall.
In this case, however, Paul Rayment, the "Slow Man" of the title, refuses the prosthesis that would allow him mobility and reluctantly hires a nurse. After a few missteps, he gets a Croatian refugee named Marijana, who is both caring and competent.
So in gratitude, he proceeds to inflict himself on the poor woman, trying to wreck her marriage and forcibly adopt her teenage boy, Drago (aka "the son he never had"). For someone who keeps spouting off about wanting to give back, Paul is wholly selfish (and Coetzee is either oddly unaware of this, or playing his cards very close to the vest.)
Partway through the novel, the protagonist from Coetzee's 2003 novel, "Elizabeth Costello," shows up, moves into Rayment's spare room, and starts trying to make over his life. Is he just a character in Elizabeth's next book? If only we cared.
But the prickly author now intones clichés about the importance of love and acting on impulse. And while a reader longs, right along with Elizabeth, for Paul to DO something, her only idea is that he should have a one-night stand with a woman he glimpsed in a hospital elevator who lost her sight to cancer. And while a reader is grateful for almost any notion that stops Paul from obsessing about Marijana, preying on another woman and destroying her psyche doesn't seem like much of an improvement.
In fact, it is Drago who actually functions as the voice of reason: "But how come no one asks my mother what she wants? Maybe she wishes she had never taken a job with Mr. Rayment ... maybe she doesn't feel like having an affair with every man that gives her - you know - the eye. That is why I say, why does no one ask her?"
Part of the problem lies in expectations. Most readers expect books to take them on a journey - if not literally, then morally, emotionally, or philosophically.
But Coetzee elects to remain static and analyze the situation ad nauseam - preferably without coming to any conclusions. One gets the sense that he pities those of us who love to devour a great read.
Perhaps the stasis would be less exasperating to a reader if either Elizabeth or Rayment were sparkling conversationalists.
But alas, we're treated to long stretches of dialogue like the following: "You know, there are those whom I call the chthonic, the ones who stand with their feet planted in their native earth; and then there are the butterflies, creatures of light and air, temporary residents, alighting here, alighting there. You claim to be a butterfly, you want to be a butterfly; but then one day you have a fall, a calamitous fall, you come crashing down to earth; and when you pick yourself up you find you can no longer fly like an ethereal being, you cannot even walk, you are nothing but a lump of all too solid flesh."
Coetzee also makes odd choices, like giving both "love" interests essentially the same name, and handing a minor character the loaded moniker of "Karadzic." (If you name someone after a war criminal, there really should be a reason.)
During one of his many tirades, Paul exclaims, "Losing a leg does not qualify one for a dramatic role. Losing a leg is neither tragic nor comic, just unfortunate."
Neither tragic nor comic - just unfortunate. That about sums up the book for me.
• Yvonne Zip is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.