THE first moments of J.M. Coetzee’s new novel describe a cyclist being struck hard by a car. Paul Rayment’s crushed leg is amputated hours later. When he awakes in the hospital after the operation, he signs forms and in the blank space next to the word “family,” he writes “none.”
Paul refuses a prosthesis and tells the doctors that he prefers to care for himself. Despite his reluctance to accept professional care, they engage a private nurse to help him at home. When the nurse, Marijana, asks Paul about his future -- “Who is going to take care of you?” -- he finds those words inscrutable. When he was a child, 50 years ago, his father took their whimpering dog, in the last stages of canine distemper, into the backwoods and shot it. “That kind of caring, with a shotgun, was certainly not what Marijana had in mind. Nevertheless, it lay englobed in the phrase, waiting to leak out.”
Thus begins “Slow Man,” the latest effort by the winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in literature. The story twists around the idea of care, or caritas, just as his 1999 novel, “Disgrace,” revolved around eros. But this is love Coetzee-style, cured of any romance with inappropriate liaisons, power struggles or abuse. While being treated by Marijana, Paul muses: “A man and a woman on a warm afternoon behind locked doors. [We] might as well be performing a sex act. But it is nothing like that. It is just nursing, just care.” He invokes his namesake, St. Paul, explainer of the pure and divine love -- the caritas -- between beings in the afterlife. He calls himself the “after-man,” a mortal manifestation of St. Paul in an imperfect human realm of caritas.
Paul falls in love with Marijana. It starts as a response to her therapeutic touch, which makes him think that she “does not find this wasted and increasingly flabby body distasteful.... [I]t is probably no more than orthodox nursing practice, but it is enough.” He loves her smile. He loves her children and would have liked to have had children with her. But he isn’t sure he has it in him to father children, and, in any case, he isn’t sure he has ever liked passion or even approved of it. He knows Marijana has a husband, so he would settle for “co-father if need be, co-husband if need be, platonic if need be. He wants to take care of them, all of them, protect them and save them.”
The novel then shifts into that peculiar brand of Coetzeean genre confusion when Elizabeth Costello, the author’s alter ego and namesake of his 2003 novel, materializes at Paul’s door. Paul can’t figure out where she has come from, what she is doing in his life or why she knows all his most intimate thoughts. “You came to me,” she explains, “that is all I can say. You occurred to me -- a man with a bad leg and an unsuitable passion.” Paul decides that Costello is a writer who is using him as research material for her next book, and with that the story lurches on in fits of fiction and metafiction.
The Costello character prods Paul into action even as she undermines his intentions with ethical debate. “You must become accustomed to paying,” she says. “No more free love....But perhaps I misinterpret you entirely.... How much love does someone like you need, after all, Paul, objectively speaking? ... None. None at all. We do not need love, old people like us. What we need is care.... Care is not love.” Still, Paul fumbles forward, offering to pay for Marijana’s son’s schooling, helping her daughter beat a shoplifting charge and meeting with her husband to negotiate himself into her family. He becomes a burden; Marijana stops visiting him (though he still sends out her paychecks), and his letters to her family go unanswered.
Costello’s discussions with Paul are also the interactions between a novelist and character. She can’t tell him what to do (he must follow the imperatives of his character). She gets exasperated trying to figure out what events to confront him with and meddles endlessly with the plot of Paul’s world, mostly unsuccessfully. It’s a comedy of errors, with Paul trying his hardest to get rid of Costello, but she returns, like a bad smell, chiding him at times: “ ‘No good pulling faces at me, Mr. Rayment,’ she says. ‘I did not ask for this any more than you did.’ ”
When Paul ventures out on his crutches, discovering a wider picture of his new life and a place in Marijana’s family’s life, Costello feels her character retreating from her grasp. She proposes that they spend the rest of their lives together. “Come and live with me,” she tells him. “I will take care of you; and perhaps in return you will learn to take care of me.” She gives him 24 hours to decide. That night, he lifts her sleeping head off of the papers on her desk and puts a pillow underneath it. The next day, when she asks, “Is this love, Paul? Have we found love at last?” He tells her that no, this is not love, it is something less.
The South African-born author acknowledges the abstruse caritas between creator and creation near the end: "[I]n ways so obscure, so labyrinthine that the mind baulks at exploring them, the need to be loved and the storytelling, that is to say the mess of papers on the table, are connected.”
By climbing inside the labyrinth, Coetzee sacrifices his story to his ideas. As a novel, “Slow Man” is disappointing, but as a book of ideas, it is fascinating.
Natasha S. Randall has completed a translation from the Russian of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” for Modern Library.