At the top of the page, an argument is being pursued. It is a political argument; right now, it is taking up the rightward drift in Western politics since 9/11. "Next week there will be federal elections in Canada," the voice is saying, "and the Conservatives are tipped to win." In the middle of the page, the author of this argument is writing a letter to his secretary. Not his secretary, exactly–the neighbor he has coaxed into typing his notes. She is young, married, half-Filipina and crushingly sexy, the kind of woman who gives men ideas they can't get rid of. He's paying her three times what the work is worth, but they've had an argument, and she has refused to go on. "You have become indispensable to me," the letter begins. At the bottom of the page, the young woman is reporting a conversation she has had with the man she lives with. He has been tapping into her employer's computer, but not because he wants to spy on his private thoughts. He's interested in other things. Like what, she's asked. "Like his finances," he says. Her employer is old, and rich. "Like what is going to happen with his assets after he dies."
We are about halfway through J.M. Coetzee's eleventh novel, Diary of a Bad Year, and we have gotten used by now to the ways it wants to be read. The page is divided in three, horizontally, suggesting an archeological dig, or a kind of play, or the layers of the self. At the top, a writer we know at first as "Señor C" is delivering a steady flow of brilliant ideas, on the nature of political life, on the "war on terror," on the slaughter of animals–his contribution to Strong Opinions, a collection of meditations by six eminent authors. Beneath that, the writer's thoughts on his typist, Anya. At more than 70, he's too old for lust, or so he believes; the throb she evokes he calls, sentimentally, "a metaphysical ache," "diffuse and melancholy," "something to do with age and regret and the tears of things." Beneath that, her thoughts on him, far less courtly. Anya is vain, profane, contemptuous, cruel. What he calls "a derrière so near to perfect as to be angelic" she calls, shaking it in his direction, "my behind, my delicious behind." (Alan, her crude, sweaty lover, calls it, simply, her "bum.")
The structure establishes a rhythm. We read a few lines of analysis, then two bits of narrative. On each page, three voices, three perspectives, three threads of monologue, picked up and let go in turn. The art is visual as well as verbal. Ironies ricochet from layer to layer: the frustrations of political choice at the top of the page become the frustrations of sexual choice in the middle; the "gamble" of nuclear deterrence becomes the "gamble" of Señor C's offer of employment. At first, each layer is self-contained within its page, but as desires become more exigent and narrative momentum builds, Coetzee starts to violate the integrity of the structure, running first paragraphs and then sentences across the page break, forcing us to read out of sequence, make our own unsatisfying choices. A temporal friction also develops. Señor C tells one side of the story; then, pages later, in Anya's narrative, we get the things he left out. Opinions we read many chapters ago only now register in Anya's consciousness, as she types them up, and in her mocking conversations with Alan.
The young couple have no end of fun at the old man's expense. So out of date, so pompous, so transparent in his feeble lust. Alan is a business hustler who fancies himself an intellectual; Anya is sure he'd wipe the floor with her employer in debate. But what else will he do to him? By the time we get to Señor C's letter of supplication and Alan's boast about his spyware, we're worried about what these callous young people might be capable of. We've read Coetzee before, and we know the depths of indignity to which vulnerable old people can be brought, especially aging liberals who think their decency keeps them safe.