Two scenes leap off the pages of Nobel prize-winning author J. M. Coetzee’s latest novel, Slow Man: the in medias res opener in which protagonist Paul Rayment is accidentally knocked off his bicycle by young driver Wayne Blight and loses a leg; and the penultimate scene, in which the Jokic family, the only realistic characters in the book, present Paul with his own phoenixa recumbent version of his battered bike that he can propel with his hands.
In between, two parallel plots develop. The first and more obvious traces Paul’s confrontation with a life change over which he has had no control. How will he live as a solitary, aging, one-legged man? Who will care for him in his physically diminished state? The second, a deus ex machina that does not satisfy, is the entrance, on page 79, of Elizabeth Costello (the protagonist from Coetzee’s 2003 novel, Elizabeth Costello).
While Mrs. Costello, who is writing a novel inhabited by Paul and the rest of Coetzee’s characters, arranges meetings between and among them, she is unable to bring Paul to life. Not only does he repeatedly refuse a prosthesis, he also will not assent to the requirements of her craftYou have it in you to be a fuller person, Paul, larger and more expansive, but you won’t allow it. I urge you: don’t cut short these thought-trains of yours. Follow them through to their end. Your thoughts and your feelings. Follow them through and you will grow with them.
Thus, while Coetzee explores a man’s not coming to terms with his changed frame, Elizabeth Costello mimics the novelist’s struggle to transform diction, narration, dialogue and scene into the vicarious experience of human suffering. Both plots falter, because Slow Man’s words, with rare exception, never become flesh for the reader.
Problematic is Paul’s own assessment of himself as an outsider even before the accident. He has always seen himself as homeless. Family: NONE, he writes in block letters. He has divorced his wife, and his mother, father, stepfather and sister are all dead. He tells Costello, I am not the we of anyone.
In addition, he considers his life frivolous. While he has done no significant harm, he has done no good either. Now, when both possibilities appear least likely, he yearns for a wife and a son. He desires immortality beyond his collection of historical photographs, which he intends to donate to the national archives upon his death.
The reader wants to sympathize with Paul, perhaps even pity him. But despite the physical brutality of his leg amputation and subsequent bodily humiliations, Paul never expresses his loss from the depths of his being. He simply dissuades acquaintances from visiting, allowing only a married former girlfriend to see him. Spurning her apparently genuine desire to rekindle their illicit romance and its assertion of his still-intact manhood, he instead agrees to Mrs. Costello’s suggestion that he have sexual intercourse with the blinded Marianna, whom he noticed in the hospital elevator. When Paul (who also must cover his eyes, per Mrs. Costello’s instructions) and Marianna clasp one another, the reader can only wonder how they continue, there is so little human emotion on the page. They are one-dimensional, the halt and the blind, caricatures rather than people. They manage to slip into it, into the physical act to which they have willy-nilly contracted themselvesand which, despite the truncated haunch on the one hand and the blasted eyes on the other, proceeds with some dispatch from beginning to middle to end, that is to say in all its natural parts.
Only with Marijana Jokic, the last in a series of nurses who visit his apartment, does Paul approach vitality. Unlike the other characters, Marijana breathes, acts, loves and is loved in the imperfect world. She and her family, Croatian immigrants, are outsiders, too. She once restored crumbling frescoes, but her life in Adelaide offers no such position. Rather than resort to self-pity, however, she has chosen to restore broken people instead. Despite Paul’s awakening desire for her, the threat he poses to her husband, Miroslav (the ease between the two of them tells all) and his less-than-noble attempts to seduce her by providing financial aid to her children, Marijana and her family not only remain true to one another, but also extend their generous loving care to this peevish stranger by presenting him with his bicycle transformed.
Well then,’ he says (he was going to say Well then, my love, but forebears because he does not want to hurt Miroslav...well then, I’ll give it a whirl. Thank you. In all sincerity, all heartfelt sincerity, thank you, each one of you. Thank you most of all to the absent Drago.’ [Marijana’s son] Whom I have misjudged and wronged, he would like to say. Whom I have misjudged and wronged,’ he says.
A Dickensian ending, with Paul Rayment reborn amid his fellows in comedic harmony? No. Paul will never ride the bike. It will go into the store room at Coniston Terrace and there gather dust. All the time and trouble the Jokics have put into it will be for nothing. Do they know that? Did they know all along, while they were building it? Is this driving lesson just part of a ritual they are all performing, he for their sake, they for his.
When gifted with the loving care of Marijana and her family’s subsequent physical manifestation of it, the three-wheeler recumbent tricycle, Paul Rayment rejects his epiphany and therefore his humanity. Bemoaning his isolation throughout the novel, he chooses it once more, returning to his flat without even Mrs. Costello, whom he kisses thrice in the formal manner he was taught as a child, left right left. His words and gestures are scripted rather than lived, his story concluded but unresolved.