10 October 2008

Misreading Coetzee

At Matilda, Perry Middlemiss has posted a couple of reactions to J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year. In my opinion, the NewsBlaze review completely misses the point and even misidentifies the author with the narrator:
First of all, the desultoriness with which the author hops from one topic to another - thematically unrelated - topic destroys the book's coherence. Few of the topics are developed to a thought-arousing level and the author's person continues to overshadow his views.
"First of all," the reviewer seems to be unaware of the quite obvious Nabokov reference. The character "C" is writing brief mini-essays for a collection entitled Strong Opinions. It's too obvious, but I'll say it anyway: they're "thematically related" in that they are all "strong opinions." Also, the novel's coherence is located in the parallel narratives and the interplay between C's "opinions" and what takes place in the story's action. The plot and the essay portions of the text are inextricably intertwined.
That also holds for the story in which the characters feel like 'voice generators' for communicating the author's mind and not as palpable human figures. There is no climax and the book remains as plain at the end as at the very beginning.
I probably shouldn't even be wasting my time in addressing such an egregious oversight. There is most definitely a "climax" and for the reviewer to have turned such a blind eye to the evolution of the two principal characters makes this "review" completely baseless and causes its writer to come off as sounding callous. On the contrary, the eloquent compassion with which Coetzee writes is quite moving.
Labeling the book as 'fiction' is another point that leaves the book at a loss. There is no 'true' fiction in the book. Of course, a critic should be pointing to the publisher, and not the author, for erroneous categorization of the book.
Aside from the fact that I don't know what "'true' fiction" is supposed to mean, the misidentification of the author with his narrator is unforgivable in a piece of writing that purports to be a literary "review" in a news publication.
Then there is the format of the book - three different modes of speech on the same page - that seriously interferes with the reader's struggle to connect coherently to the content.
But the reader can choose how he or she reads it, which lends strength to Coetzee's structural device. I was delighted at how, for nearly the entire first half of the novel, Coetzee has each segment come to a full stop on each page. This made it easy for me to read it one page at a time. But by the time the central crisis emerges, the sections are no longer self-contained. The text of each section spills over into subsequent pages, prompting a reconsideration of the reading strategy and enabling the reader to confront the shift in the action. It's cleverly done and mirrors the urgent pace at which events occur and the manner in which C begins to lose control of the rigidity of his thoughts and becomes more open to "softer" views.

Reviewers don't have to love the books they write about. But they should (at the very least!) understand what it is the author is attempting and discuss the work on those terms.

No comments: