Having written one perfect novel, “Disgrace,” and several others that can easily be read annually without diminishment of their power, J.M. Coetzee seems to have decided to spend his remaining years poking and prodding the limits of his form. “Elizabeth Costello” came in the shape of essays delivered by an aging writer. “Slow Man” was a perfectly functional story, until Elizabeth Costello elbowed in and called the whole enterprise her own. Now, with “Diary of a Bad Year,” Coetzee has fractured a novel into three discrete parts and allows the reader to choose how to read it.
Here is the novel in the form a triple-decker sandwich. Running along a top margin, up in the clouds, so to speak, are the philosophical diary entries of Senor C., an aging South African writer who, like Coetzee himself, resides in Australia in the present day. C.’s German publisher plans to publish a compendium of ethical and political essays by eminent writers. This diary allows us the reader to look over C.’s shoulder as he composes these riffs, on Tony Blair in his waning days, on the ethics of eating animals, on the behavior of states. As the title suggests, C. is not happy with the state of world affairs.
In the middle of each page, set apart by a horizontal bar, is a more personal diary kept by Senor C.—much of it has to do with his infatuation with a 30-year-old woman named Anya who lives in his apartment block and possesses, among other things, a divine bottom. C. rashly tracks her down in a park and offers her a job as his typist, really as a pretense to have her nearby him—even though, like the hero of Philip Roth’s new novel, “Exit Ghost,” C. hasn’t the power to actually do anything. “The sexual urge has dwindled,” Coetzee writes, “and there is only a hovering uncertainty about what he is actually after, what he actually expects the object of his infatuation to supply.”
Finally, along the bottom of the page, set apart by yet another horizontal bar, Coetzee gives us the story as told by Anya. At first she is skeptical of C., then charmed by him, then bored by him, and finally provoked by him. Anya’s perspective may be interesting, but her voice is not. She is sassy and colorful, but ultimately her character is entirely determined by what she thinks of the two men in the book, which includes her husband, Alan, a freckle-faced banker who likes to dominate in the bedroom and develops an obsession with Senor C.
In the hands of a writer like Julian Barnes, “Diary of a Bad Year” might have become a virtuoso feat of meta-fictional tap-dancing—a lubricious novel which invites you to read it as it in fact reads itself it yet more cleverly. And there are hints of that possibility. Spliced in to riffs on the Blair administration, on torture, on eating mammals—all familiar Coetzee interests—there is also a miniature essay on authority in fiction. “What the great authors are masters of is authority,” thinks C. But then he also remembers Kierkegaard, who instructed: “Learn to speak without authority.”
If this were all Coetzee’s novel worried about, he might have provided some minor, self-referential pleasures. But Coetzee’s fiction has always relied on heavier raw materials in its construction. “Disgrace” felt like a compressed piece of molten history, beautifully shaped. “Diary of a Bad Year” covers similar issues—C. writes on the mother tongue and homeland, on consciousness itself and political thought (“If I were pressed to give my brand of political thought a label, I would call it pessimistic, anarchistic, quietistism”)—but as articulate as he is, one cannot help but feel these ideas are evoked in a much more superficial way, which is in the form of an opinion piece, or a diary tirade. And they have the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
Ultimately, the reader’s eye glides downward to the action on the lower page, especially when Anya begins to sexually taunt C., and offers up her own criticisms of his work, and when Alan so forcefully invades his working life with Anya that the center section of the book’s lateral narration falls away entirely. This moment is cleverly cast, and for a brief period the characters in the book act, as C. himself notes, as states do—which is brutally, aggressively, as if they had to eat or be eaten. But this period of the book is short lived, and after finishing “Diary of a Bad Year,” a reader feels like, for once, there has been truth in advertising. Here are fragments, shards really, of a year in which nothing much good happened, and diaries were written. If only the two had more to do with one another on the page this might be a novel. (John Freeman)
“Diary of a Bad Year”
By J.M. Coetzee
Viking, $16.99, 304 pages