Slow Man

Norbert Ruebsaat

The ending of J. M. Coetzee’s Slow Man (Secker & Warburg) is disappointing only because the rest of the novel is so good. The main character, Paul Rayment, suffers a crippling bike accident, becomes infatuated with his care nurse and declares his love to her one day while she bathes the stump of his amputated leg; she bolts, and the elderly Elizabeth Costello, the eponymous heroine of Coetzee’s last novel, appears and engages Rayment in a potential “life writing” project wherein author and character vie with each other for authorial power. The plot unfolds through a series of Faustian, Dostoevskian, Thomas Mannian interlocutions between Rayment and Costello on Coetzee’s familiar themes of beauty and brutality, lust and ethics, memory and language, truth and fiction, and the work of the novel. Rayment resists Costello’s authorial advances, although he finds himself less able to withstand the onslaught of her discourse as his nurse/beloved, Marijana, continues to resist his romantic ones, and as he gets older and more tired, unable to compose a plot for his new life without legs (to complicate this part, Marijana moves part of her Croatian immigrant family into Rayment’s Anglo-Australian house). But Costello does not succeed in creating in Rayment a “rounded” character, and the tensions between writer and character—and “the beloved,” that third entity that Anne Carson, Roland Barthes and other writers describe as a kind of language/discourse, vital to literature and fatal to love (but not to the reader)—drive Slow Man’s plot, in which both author and character fail to reproduce, to its necessarily weak end.

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Norbert Ruebsaat

Norbert Ruebsaat has written many articles for Geist. He lived in Vancouver and taught at Simon Fraser University.


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