"The Blow" by J. M. Coetzee

New Yorker fiction -- June 27, 2005 issue

red light
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.


bihari said...

I had the same reaction to this piece; I felt like I could have gotten the story from a patient at work (i.e. it felt a lot like a medical history, which of its nature has no particular beginning and end, and whose raison d'etre lies in the pathology itself). Which I suppose is a tribute to its medical accuracy and general meticulous realism--but that didn't necessarily make me want to read it.

kclou said...

Think anyone suggested to JM that there might be a better title out there?

Grendel said...

I hope so, kclou. I hadn't really thought about it, but it must be one of the worst titles in recent memory.

ian said...

Isn't there a Hemingway story called "The Three-Day Blow"? Or maybe it's five days. I can't remember. It's a long blow, regardless.

Patry Francis said...

Thanks, Grendel. You and your commenters have just saved me some precious reading time that can obviously be better spent elsewhere. I'm not even going to feel guilty when I pass the New Yorker cover with the unread story inside!