Few art forms today seem to provoke as many obsequies and hallelujahs from their practitioners as the novel. According to V.S. Naipaul, the world has grown too large and complex for an essentially nineteenth-century literary form to grasp. The novel is “of no account,” Naipaul told the New York Times recently, mocking people who persist in writing about “men and women falling in love, etc.,” and who “give a little narrative here and there.” On the other hand, Salman Rushdie thinks the novel is uniquely dialogical, the “crucial art form” of the “post-modern age,” and even a kind of substitute for religion in the secularized West.
It is hard to imagine J.M. Coetzee, the most self-effacing of writers, offering grand statements on the novel and the state of the world. He may seem to speculate about them through his most recent fictional author, the aging novelist Elizabeth Costello, who in the book that bears her name offers many views on realism, the future of the novel, humanism, multiculturalism and death. But Coetzee also undermines our temptation to exalt him as a wise man by often making Costello spout transparent nonsense.
Nevertheless, few European or American writers since Thomas Mann have been as concerned as Coetzee to examine the novelist’s relationship to his bourgeois origins, subjects and audience. He reintroduces Costello in Slow Man, which begins with an aging Australian photographer called Paul Rayment having a near-fatal biking accident. Lying in bed with an amputated leg, Rayment wonders about his sixty-odd solitary and childless years on earth. “Frivolous is not a bad word to sum him up…. If in the course of a lifetime he has done no significant harm, he has done no good either. He will leave no trace behind, not even an heir to carry on his name.”
With his sense of futility, his simple regrets and longings, Rayment is an average character in a contemporary novel. Most novelists choosing this slightly banal figure as their central character would feel compelled to entangle him romantically with someone; it would be the easiest way to give him some emotional depth, open up the possibility of “character development” and make him attractive to readers, who often bring to novels their own unfulfilled fantasies. Accordingly, Rayment does fall for his middle-aged Croatian nurse, Marijana, and tries to assume control over her life by offering to pay for her son’s education. But he has not reckoned with her proud husband or her European past.
There are enough class and emotional complications here to stretch any fictional narrative for a few hundred pages. But Coetzee seems too conscious that the novel is mostly formula, and that its characters acquire meaning and depth only to the extent that the writer invokes the social and political prejudices he shares with his readers. His recent works express a dignified refusal to play the usual game. Indeed, much of their interest arises not so much from losing oneself in Coetzee’s delineations of character and plot as in observing what this extremely intelligent and superbly self-aware artist does to his creations.