Elizabeth Costello, a talented and prolific writer, chooses to tell the story of a “slow man” protagonist: an amputee committed to disciplined inaction.
Elizabeth is the title character of J.M. Coetzee’s previous work, Elizabeth Costello. In that book, Elizabeth lives the life of a prize-winning novelist, giving lectures all over the globe and finding the experience rather tiresome. In Slow Man, Elizabeth resurfaces as the stubborn gadfly for Paul Rayment, a retired photographer who looses his right leg above the knee when a young driver crashes into his bicycle.
Slow Man begins with Paul’s accident. “The blow catches him from the right, sharp and surprising and painful, like a bolt of electricity, lifting him up off the bicycle. Relax! he tells himself as he flies through the air (flies through the air with the greatest of ease!), and indeed he can feel his limbs go obediently slack.”
Coetzee, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature, crafts a mesmerizing narrative during Paul’s accident and hospitalization. The first part of the story moves quickly, giving the reader an intense view of the trauma, despair, and physical humiliation which mark Paul’s recovery. Once he is somewhat ambulatory, the hospital releases him back into his comfortable upstairs (no elevator) apartment, where his nurse Marijana cares for him six days a week. Essentially confined to his apartment and refusing a prosthesis, Paul is cut off from his few friends, and has no family. His infatuation with the married Marijana is inevitable. When Elizabeth enters the book at its midpoint, Paul is actively wooing Marijana, but why? She never gives him any encouragement. In fact, she stops showing up to work on a regular basis, coming by intermittently to perform the absolute minimum of her duties.
Elizabeth knocks on his door, introduces herself, and moves in with him in the space of a few minutes. Paul, having no idea who Elizabeth is or why she is there, stands by in shock while she declares, “For the foreseeable future I am to accompany you…Bear up, it’s not the end of the world.” Elizabeth claims repeatedly that she is compelled by odd visions to land on Paul’s doorstep, and her quasi-psychic knowledge of his thoughts and feelings initially keep him from forcing her to leave, but he does not tolerate her constant criticism. She tries to heave him in many directions, first away from his unrequited love for Marijana, then toward a blind prostitute, then diagonally at Marijana’s son, and finally backward, encouraging his relationship with Marijana, intimating that perhaps Paul has a real chance to woo his amiable nurse away from her husband.
Elizabeth is the observer / writer, living in Paul’s apartment uninvited so she can write a story about him. She constantly pushes Paul to connect with other people so the inevitable complications will develop into a story worth telling, while he remains unresponsive.
“You have to be a fuller person, Paul, larger and more expansive, but you won’t allow it. I urge you: Follow your thoughts and feelings through to their end.”
Paul responds by doing nothing, thus preserving his life of conflict-free inaction. Paul and Elizabeth battle each other repeatedly, and the argument always ends in a draw. At this point the novel’s pace becomes irritatingly sluggish, and the reader may well wonder if Elizabeth is caught in a rut similar to Paul’s.
The minor characters in Slow Man ruminate on issues of cultural identity, non-traditional families, and the daily stresses of old age. This philosophizing, while marginally intriguing, does not tie into the book’s central Paul/Elizabeth conflict, and often feels forced, as if Coetzee is giving each of the characters their turn at depth. The result is not necessarily a slow book, but a shallow one. The book in general has an unfinished feel.
Elizabeth’s determination to craft an interesting story may or may not be Coetzee struggling to shape a story around an immutable protagonist. Paul is literally thrown into the air and dropped into a new life, but he is determined to ignore Elizabeth, the journey, and even Coetzee himself.Imagine if after banging around her small house during the tornado, Dorothy, looking out the window at Oz, decides the colors are too bright, the road too yellow. If she stays inside with Toto, she might be happy, she might become bored. Either way, her life from that point on wouldn’t be story worth telling, and sadly, neither is Paul’s. On the last page of the novel, Coetzee finally reveals Elizabeth’s motivations, but this information does little to help the book’s lack of a compelling plot, and the reader is left unsatisfied, while Paul, sans leg, seems to be doing just fine.