In a suburban neighborhood of Adelaide, Australia, a cyclist is knocked off his bicycle, a small act with far-reaching consequences. When Paul Rayment opens his eyes, he is immediately required to give consent to the operation that will amputate his leg at the knee. Refusing to consider using a prosthesis and profoundly uncomfortable to be reliant on others, Paul returns home under the care of a string of nurses. It is only with the arrival of Marijana Jokić, a Croatian nurse, that Paul’s life begins to turn around and he falls in love with his down-to-earth caregiver - that is, until Elizabeth Costello arrives on his doorstep, an unstoppable force who demands Paul take an active role in his own narrative and accept responsibility for his actions.
Slow Man, J.M. Coetzee’s first novel since his Nobel Laureate win in 2003, is his latest meditation on care, aging and the nature of existence. The “slowed man” of the title, Paul Rayment, finds himself both physically slowed by the accident and mentally slowed by depression and an inability to accept his new reality. Elizabeth Costello’s arrival (the titular character of Coetzee's 2003 novel) and machinations are designed to force Paul out of his slowness by holding a mirror before him. She questions his motivations and demands that he face the roots of his desire for Marijana. Is it his desire for love; his desperation to leave a legacy or a fear of his own mortality that drives his desire to take Marijana and her children as his own family?
The Observer (UK) suggests that, rather than Elizabeth intruding into Paul’s novel, he has intruded into hers:
“She explains her presence by quoting to Paul the opening section of his novel [Slow Man], the bike and him flying through the air and so on. Far from intruding on his novel, she suggests, he has intruded on hers: “You came to me [Paul], that is all I can say. You occurred to me, a man with a bad leg and no future and an unsuitable passion ... where we go from there I have no idea. Have you any proposal?”
When Marijana shares her fears for her son Drago, Paul offers to pay for Drago’s schooling. Rather than the “help” Paul believes he is providing, in reality he is forcing himself into Marijana’s world the same way Elizabeth has forced herself into his. The consequences of this act of misguided charity ripple throughout the rest of the novel, reinforcing Coetzee’s key point on motivation. Elizabeth points out repeatedly that, no matter what the motivation behind an action, one is still responsible for the fallout – a lack of self-awareness or premeditation does not relieve one of guilt or responsibility.
A meditation on loss, motivation and the creative process, Slow Man is a thought-provoking work raising more questions than it answers. Coetzee’s spare prose is brilliantly exhibited here; however, this is not one of his more accessible works. The bickering dialogue between Elizabeth and Paul, a post-modern meditation on the creative process will not appeal to all readers. A first-time reader of J.M. Coetzee will have a better introduction to his skillful writing through reading Disgrace or Life & Times of Michael K.