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Novelistic multitasking

September 27, 2011

J.M. Coetzee. Diary of a Bad Year.

There is at least one good thing to be said for Diary of a Bad Year: you don’t want to put it down.

At first this is because of a move that seems almost dishonest. For the first twenty pages (but really less; there’s a lot of whitespace) each page is split in two, the top section, usually the larger one, being the text of a book being written by the main character, who narrates the bottom section. After that each page is in three parts: first, the text of the book, second, the thoughts of the writer, third, the thoughts of his secretary, with whom he cultivates an erotic-but-not-quite-sexual relationship.

On hearing the text described this way, the ideal reader (who clearly must be open to formal experimentation) will begin to salivate over the new possibilities opened by such a non-linear, polyphonic presentation. And it is an interesting idea; it’s like every story before it is a single voice, and Coetzee has finally invented harmony. It’s also not that hard an idea to come up with; the key is executing it well. But I digress. What he will not necessarily realize is that this also means there are almost no natural stopping points; when the first section comes to a chapter break, the other two rush on in their narrative, not breaking across sentences but certainly across ideas, and when one of them comes to a pause the chapter and other narrative keep going.

So the book doesn’t allow you to read a bit, put it back down, take it up, repeat. You either read it quickly or put it down and are done with it. And the three voices works against even putting it down–because once you grow tired of one of them, you shift to the other, then shift again. You have to do this every minute or so, that or read a single narrative over several pages then go back–but that seems to miss the point of the way they’re presented. So as long as each of them remains just compelling enough to sustain your interest over a page of text, you’ll keep turning the pages–and at only 229 pages with lots of white space, this doesn’t have to go on for too long before you’ve finished the book. (It took me maybe four hours. Maybe.)

Like I said, this seems almost a formal trick that should annoy us more than it impresses us. At times it did. But then, I can say the same for “poetic difficulty.” And Coetzee does execute it masterfully; the juxtaposition of the three streams was always intriguing while rarely making an explicit philosophical point or poking at too obvious an irony. Even the few breaks he includes are extremely well-timed. Right as you’re getting used to having two voices, there’s a break but on the next page you see a third come in; it’s the perfect opportunity for those fed up to drop out and all others to be drawn in by their curiosity so that later they feel as if they did choose it, they could have quit back then, but they didn’t. Then there’s nothing until three quarters of the way through, when you’re already too far in to give up; and it’s just at that point that the top section changes from political opinions to more personal aesthetic reflections, a move the narrative in the lower two has hinted at but not quite promised, and the reader is allowed a chance to breathe feeling as if yes, I’ve accomplished something, I’ve labored through, and now I will get my reward.

So yes, there’s quite a lot of good to be said for it, purely on the level of form. The content is another matter. It’s more interesting than it first appears. Like I said, the top section is full of bizarre political ramblings, most expounding political beliefs I find bizarre, sometimes even repulsive, but it’s also refreshingly honest, and as it moves from politics to science to religion to literature it constantly improves. It’s strangely autobiographical (the main character is named JC and is said to be the author of Waiting for the Barbarians, so, yeah), as all novels about novelists tend to be, but that, too, makes it come across as more honest than most novels.

That said, Coetzee’s obsession with erotic-not-quite-sexual almost-Muse-like “platonic” relationships between lecherous old men and lascivious young women is somewhat off-putting at times (all the more so since the novel seems so autobiographical). The novel depends on our accepting the idea that this relationship really does somehow transform the main character, making him more sensitive or more honest or something. But while I can accept the transformation (it’s really quite interesting to see it in the top section; one might not expect mimesis of academic writing to be compelling, but Borges did it too to resounding success), and I can suspend my disbelief at the idea that the girl caused it, it’s still a suspension, not real acceptance.

I still found the story interesting, as I find Coetzee’s take on the idealization of women, but I find it hard to take that conception seriously. the way I do Dante’s or Keats’ or Eliot’s (to name three very different ones), which renders me unable to take seriously the novel as a whole. Perhaps this is my own fault, not Coetzee’s; but I’m not convinced that is the case.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 27, 2011 3:16 am

    I enjoyed the post and thanks for the tag. It seems you are multitasking (an agreeable word for paying more attention to something that perhaps doesn’t warrant the priority it’s given, as I also do often) grad school nicely, right along with Coetzee’s novelistic wishy-washings. How is Chicago by the way?

    I haven’t read Diary, but from your description, it seems to be the most formally radical of his “novels.” He employs something more subtle yet similar in Summertime, his latest novel, in which a biographer appropriately named “Vincent” is trying to compile interviews from those whose lives were involved with the author John Coetzee, now dead. Summertime ends up being a series of interviews, inherently narrative in style because of the questions Vincent asks, that introduce brilliant but scary dynamics into the ways one interprets John Coetzee: we must either conflate these biographical accounts of JC with what we know of him outside the novel (since Coetzee makes it impossible for us to separate the fictional character that is him from his real person), or we allow these accounts to efface what was once the author. Characteristically, in either circumstance, Coetzee, in whichever form of him we insert into the novel, is powerless–one ubiquitous side-effect being that pseudo-sexual stuff you noticed here and in your previous post on Disgrace.

    There are similar things going on in Summertime as what you described in Diary, namely the chasm opened between thoughts of characters who affect the narrative, and the narrative-proper itself. More about that after this aside.

    There’s a reading where Coetzee (the real one, I guess?) reads from Youth, yet another one of his autobiographical-who-knows-what-to-do-with-this stories, and says that because of bookstores’ genre divisions, the U.S. would put it in fiction shelves while the U.K. would put it in biography shelves: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BWkltTJJb Har har har.

    All this being said, Coetzee shows cavalierly that he’s nervous about narration as a convention used to tell… well, anything. I think Coetzee’s anxiety has to do with an inability to accept the doctrine of “willed suspension of disbelief.” He disagrees with the separation between life and fiction and thinks disbelieving fiction thereby casts it off into a place of no worth. He does not see narration as parallel, or mimetic, of life: life and fiction as a logical construction are oddly and intimately linked in ways that conventional narration ignores. He therefore plays with and augments narration in a way that shows that that which we live is constantly mediated by many modes of interpretation, narration being one such convention used to streamline that uncooperative life-thing.

    This was stupidly long, but I haven’t talked about Coetzee in what seems like years. I didn’t mean to turn your comment space into my own personal rostrum. Thanks for the post, but now I have to read Diary of a Bad Year. Damn it. I was just putting Coetzee away.

  2. September 29, 2011 8:09 pm

    Thanks for the reply (I don’t mind it being long–you should see some of the conversations Therese Couture and I have on here…).

    I can see how Coetzee is suspicious of mimesis; it is a troubling concept, and too easy to just assume uncritically that fiction can “mean.” But I don’t think I’m really happy with how he goes about “solving” the problem. It leads to some interesting quandaries (does “fictional” “John Coetzee”=”real” J.M. Coetzee, etc) but I don’t know that it really gives us much insight into our lives. I don’t know that I have much more to say other than to express this dissatisfaction… maybe it just seems too personal. It leaves me feeling as if I know Coetzee fairly well, almost too well, and as if his writing helps him get his life in order, but it doesn’t offer anything to help the reader get his own life in order. Perhaps as readers we shouldn’t expect that.

    Oh, and Chicago’s pretty awesome, as you would expect. Hyde Park is much nicer than I had been lead to believe it would be. Everything is so well proportioned: the average building height is three stories and there’s just enough grass everywhere for there to also be trees everywhere. The streets are narrow enough that it doesn’t feel weird to walk places but wide enough that it’s not claustrophobic. &c &c…

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