Saturday, 29 October 2011

diary of a bad year [j m coetzee]

This is an unusual, fractured narrative. There are two narrators and three writers on almost every page. An ageing writer has been commissioned to write a book of “opinions” about the modern world. Each page contains his apercus on the state of the modern world. His thoughts range from terrorism to globalisation to Blair to Pinter; the nature of love and sex in the modern world, and much more besides. The material is profound but dry. Counterpointed against this is the sub-narrative, as he meets and employs a shapely Filipino woman who acts as his secretary. She in turn is in a relationship with a financial whiz kid, who sees her relationship with the writer as a possible means to rip him off, by using the writer’s dormant but healthy bank account to his own advantage. She is given a voice at the bottom of the page to narrate the consequent fate of her relationship, outlining the way in which the writer has influenced her own life.

This makes for a somewhat structural novel, something the writer’s opinions later address, as he writes about the way in which writers become more formalistic as they get older; their texts tending towards the theoretical, becoming more and more disconnected from the human angle. It reads at times like a cri de coeur by Coetzee himself, railing against his own fate as both a man and an author. Of course, this is just one of the book’s conceits: with no knowledge of the man, this assumption could be entirely false. Even if it is, there are still times when the book feels like an intellectual exercise. In large part this is because the two (literally) sub-narratives remains somewhat fragile. The net effect is a book that’s somewhat sketched out. Which might be the writer’s commentary on the nature of reading in the digital age. When the writer’s opinions really bite is when he comments on the enduring power of the classics, in particular the works of Tolstoy and Dosteyevski. His writing about them appears to contain a lament for the diminishing power of the novel, with the novelist no longer capable of embracing and containing the great themes within the confines of their pages. We’re now reduced to fragmentary narratives which are so self-aware that they can no longer aspire to any kind of universality. It makes for a curious, fascinating, if unsatisfactory reading experience; and perhaps that’s the whole point. 

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