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He's slow to win our affection

In Coetzee's new novel, the protagonist analyzes rather than acts

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One night, while out for a bicycle ride, an Australian photographer is hit by a car and loses a leg. So begins the frustratingly unpleasant new novel by J.M. Coetzee, winner of both the Nobel and Booker Prizes and a slew of other international awards.

It is meant to be a meditation on how the body affects our identity and about the writing process. Instead, Slow Man has the distinction of being the worst novel I've read by a Nobel winner.

Coetzee's novels tend to be well-written but chilly. But with "Disgrace," the most powerful of his books that I've read, you certainly couldn't argue that not enough happens - in that a South African professor engineers his own downfall.

In this case, however, Paul Rayment, the "Slow Man" of the title, refuses the prosthesis that would allow him mobility and reluctantly hires a nurse. After a few missteps, he gets a Croatian refugee named Marijana, who is both caring and competent.

So in gratitude, he proceeds to inflict himself on the poor woman, trying to wreck her marriage and forcibly adopt her teenage boy, Drago (aka "the son he never had"). For someone who keeps spouting off about wanting to give back, Paul is wholly selfish (and Coetzee is either oddly unaware of this, or playing his cards very close to the vest.)

Partway through the novel, the protagonist from Coetzee's 2003 novel, "Elizabeth Costello," shows up, moves into Rayment's spare room, and starts trying to make over his life. Is he just a character in Elizabeth's next book? If only we cared.

But the prickly author now intones clich├ęs about the importance of love and acting on impulse. And while a reader longs, right along with Elizabeth, for Paul to DO something, her only idea is that he should have a one-night stand with a woman he glimpsed in a hospital elevator who lost her sight to cancer. And while a reader is grateful for almost any notion that stops Paul from obsessing about Marijana, preying on another woman and destroying her psyche doesn't seem like much of an improvement.


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