28 April 2008

The old man on the ground floor

"In public life the role I play nowadays is that of distinguished figure... an appropriately comic and provincial fate for a man who half a century ago shook the dust of the provinces off his feet and sallied forth into the great world to practise la vie boheme. The truth is, I was never a bohemian, not then and not now. At heart I have always been a sobrietarian, if such a word exists, and moreover a believer in order, in orderliness."
- J.M. Coetzee

I finished DIARY OF A BAD YEAR last week and, not surprisingly, I really liked it. I thought the structure was very innovative and led to Coetzee's being able to tell the story -- which in itself was interesting -- in a new sort of way. What's going on with the three sections I mentioned is not a matter of three stories pulling your attention away from each other, although when you first start reading it's easy to feel that way. Instead, they comment on each other in unexpected ways. Here are a few examples I found:
  • In one of his essays, Señor C is talking about the parts of his body and whether they are truly "his" (hair, teeth, a tumor). Underneath that, he is commenting on how Anya won't refer to him by his name -- how she only calls him Señor, rejecting that which is truly his.
  • One of Señor C's sections comments on the crime wave in the new South Africa; under that in Anya's section, her lover Alan says, "Every word he says is bullshit." A built-in skepticism -- very cool.
  • Sometimes these instances are more wry: A discussion of how athletic victory is now determined by machines, supplanting human power,* flanks a paragraph about Anya's typing, a chose Señor C could do on his own (and a mechanical chore at that) but chooses to have performed by Anya.
It struck me as I read that the opinions or essays Señor C is writing may or may not be Coetzee's own -- it's not really important -- but, if they were published by themselves, I might not read them. Some are quite short, and others are pretty muddled in terms of the conclusions they reach. Additionally, while some are related to each other, they hold to no order within the book and have no common theme. Maybe they only make sense in context -- perhaps the point Coetzee was trying to make.

*One of my favorite passages in the book comes from this opinion:
"One can of course hear stunted and mechanical speech all over the world. But pride in the mechanical mode seems to be uniquely American. For in America the model of the self as a ghost inhabiting a machine goes almost unquestioned at a popular level. The body as conceived in America, the American body, is a complex machine comprising a vocal module, a sexual module, and several more, even a psychological module. Inside the body-machine the ghostly self checks read-outs and taps keys, giving commands which the body obeys."

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