New Yorker fiction -- June 27, 2005 issue
I strongly suspect this is a novel excerpt, though it's impossible to tell, because the magazine doesn't make it clear. It does note that Coetzee has a novel called Slow Man coming out in September, which could be a heads up, given recent experience. The piece is indeed about a "slow man," one who loses his leg on the business end of bike vs. car (the "blow" he's suffered) and ends up falling in love with his assigned caregiver, a married Croat woman, and helping her son go to private school. This review is based on one reading instead of the usual two or three because life is short and because the piece is approximately 34 New Yorker columns long.
The prose here is lovely, the personalities well rendered, the situation of medical recovery painstakingly realistic. You would certainly expect these things from a Nobel laureate. The writer guides the POV character along from understandably grumpy pessimism to understandably moderate optimism. However, as a self-contained piece of fiction, it drags on way too long, in my opinion, and for what? For a pretty darned conventional stretch of writing that contains no surprises. I kept expecting it to lead somewhere unexpected, but in vain. It chugs on relentlessly and with meticulous detail until it pulls in, brakes hissing, at the station of its half-satisfying half-conclusion.
Shall I talk about the relationship theme, the subtle comparisons between his sometime lover Margaret and his sturdy nurse Marijana? What about the fact that he wishes he'd had a son -- and guess what, Marijana has one, and he really likes the kid? Or the fact that his life is now curtailed thanks to two-wheeling it on the highway, and whaddya know, his would-be offspring is a motorcyclist? No. I don't think so. Even without reading the story, you pretty much can figure out how these things play out. They are not strange enough to sustain enough interest to analyze them. If this is a novel excerpt, maybe there are surprises elsewhere in the book, and maybe it does eventually answer the question Elizabeth McCracken told us fiction should -- of why "this night is different from all others." All I know for sure is that the piece before us doesn't answer that question and is therefore probably only of interest to committed Coetzee fans.