Slow Man

by J.M. Coetzee
265 pages,
ISBN: 0436206110

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Birth and Rebirth
by Patricia Robertson

Elegant, taut, compassionate, Slow Man amply demonstrates why J.M. Coetzee deserved the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature. He has written no better novel since Life & Times of Michael K., which won Britain's Booker award (now the Man Booker) in 1983. His new work is not only a subtle exploration of loss, mortality, and love, but also a brilliant meditation on the creative process and, indirectly, an evocation of the new paradigm posited by contemporary quantum physics. It is that rare thing, an essential novel.
The "slow man" of the title is Paul Rayment, a retired French-born Australian photographer who, in the brief opening chapter, is hit by a car while bicycling. A lesser writer would describe this accident in detail; Coetzee's prose is notable for what it leaves out. Rayment is depicted flying through the air, then waking in hospital, where he learns his leg must be amputated. Both physically and mentally he is slowed; he feels "a grainy whiteness like old toothpaste in which his mind seems to be coated." The exactness of the comparison-not just "toothpaste" but "old" toothpaste-is a mark of Coetzee's surefootedness and masterly control.
Rayment is brought face to face, in "the land of whiteness" (white is one of a number of recurring images, here signifying both the hospital and pain), with the meaninglessness of his life. "He has many regrets, he is full of regrets, they come back nightly like roosting birds." He especially regrets not having a son. Divorced, childless, solitary, he feels humiliated by his new dependence and yet stubbornly refuses to consider a prosthesis. Into this void comes Marijana Jokic, his homecare nurse, who was once an art restorer in her native Croatia. Brisk, practical, unembarrassed, Marijana washes and massages his stump (Rayment calls it, dismissively, le jambon, the ham), prepares food, provides company. Mired in self-pity, Rayment becomes grudgingly thankful for her ministrations, then realizes he is falling in love with her. "He is not sure he has ever liked passion, or approved of it," the third-person narrator tells us. Passion, to Rayment, is "foreign territory; a comical but unavoidable affliction like mumps, that one hopes to undergo while still young, in one of its milder, less ruinous varieties, so as not to catch it more seriously later on."
Marijana herself is a fully realised and sympathetic character; we can see why Rayment is drawn to her. But it's more than passion; what he really wants is to become part of Marijana's family. When she confides her worries about her handsome teenage son Drago, he offers to pay for the boy to attend boarding school. Blind to the reality of his situation, he wants "to take care of them, all of them, protect them and save them . . . Drago above all he wants to save." He wants, in fact, to become as necessary to this family as Marijana is to him.
What lifts this novel out of an ordinary portrait (albeit a complex and convincing one) of a disabled man who falls in love with his nurse is the unexpected swerve it now takes. An elderly woman, Elizabeth Costello, shows up; Rayment recognizes the name as that of a famous Australian novelist. (She is, in fact, the central character from Coetzee's last, eponymous, novel). She can give no other explanation for her arrival than, "You came to me . . . You occurred to me-a man with a bad leg and no future and an unsuitable passion." What she is describing is the creative act itself, a process perhaps paralleling Coetzee's own: how a fictional character "arrives" in a novelist's mind rather than being invented. "You were sent to me, I was sent to you," Costello tells Rayment. "Why that should be, god alone knows." Then she hands him responsibility for what happens next. "Now you must cure yourself as best you can."
This brilliant evocation of the relationship between creator and created enrages Rayment. "I came to you? You came to me!" he tells her. Here, as though in a quantum universe, two perfectly accurate, and equally truthful, versions of reality collide. Costello refuses to go away, and proves not only to know more about Marijana than Rayment does, but interferes in his life, arranging for him to take a lover whose name, Marianna, is another version of his caregiver's. In this dizzyingly multiple world, Rayment feels he is being watched, yet also tells Marianna that "there is no need for us to adhere to any script . . . We are free agents." They both are and aren't, of course; they depend on their creator's imagination, yet as characters must have free will or they will turn cardboard.
With this magic-realist device Coetzee takes his fiction in a new direction, indirectly reflecting and refracting a new ontological paradigm. Its elements-the uncertainty principle, the possibility of multiple universes, even the idea that dreaming is the substance out of which the universe is made-are all incorporated here. They in turn echo the ancient "dreamtime" myths of the Australian Aborigines. Magic realism, it turns out, isn't magic at all. Our old mechanistic models of the universe, from clockwork to computer hard drive, are turning obsolete; we are in the midst of a profound shift in worldview, an uncomfortable transition which is paralleled by Rayment's own resistance to change.
What changes him is the emotional connections he begins to establish with others. When Drago and his father have a fight, Rayment offers Drago a place to stay, insisting to himself that his motives are pure and selfless. He's deceiving himself, of course, a fact underlined by Drago, who looks around the old-fashioned apartment and asks if Rayment hates new things. At first Rayment says no and then is forced to retract. "I have been overtaken by time, by history," he says. But Drago refuses to accept this self-pity. His own grandparents have learned to use computers; Rayment, too, can choose. The choice, not spelled out, is between acceptance of life with its constant change, or withdrawal and death.
Drago himself, the son Rayment has never had, stands for both life and the future. Yet it is also Drago who "steals" one of Rayment's precious historical photographs, part of a collection that he plans to leave to the Australian National Archive, and digitally inserts a picture of his own Croatian grandfather. In doing so Drago undermines another of Rayment's assumptions. "He tends to trust pictures more than he trusts words. Not because pictures cannot lie but because, once they leave the darkroom, they are fixed, immutable. Whereas stories . . . seem to change shape all the time." In the age of Photoshop, of course, this is no longer true; Rayment cannot control the past either. Costello calls Drago's act "an unthinking, juvenile joke"; Marijana, when confronted by what her son has done, says, "Images, who they belong to? Images is free-your image, my image."
Rayment, too, has been in love with an image, a fantasy image of living with Marijana's family. Both she and Costello advise him to change his life, to look for someone of his own to love, underlining Drago's earlier lesson about choices. The "cure" that Costello mentions is mental and spiritual, not just physical. "Might the whole Jokic affair," Rayment asks himself, "with its ill-considered and to this point fruitless passion for Mrs. Jokic at its centre, be nothing in the end but a complicated rite of passage through which Elizabeth Costello has been sent to guide him?"
The answer to this question seems to be yes, since Costello has more than once cryptically urged Rayment to "push". "Push what?" wonders Rayment. "Push is what you say to a woman in labour." His own birth out of gloom and despair into life is what is being urged here, but also the birth of story out of the novelist, the fact that plot must develop out of character, as any writer of fiction knows. God and the novelist may dream, Slow Man seems to be telling us, but it is we ourselves-like these fictional characters-who are responsible for our actions, who in the end must make our own moral choices.

Patricia Robertson's new collection of short stories, The Goldfish Dancer, will be released in May.

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