grist

 

Friday, February 25, 2005
A few readings for the paperback, a flurry at work, the inordinate tumult of days, and somehow I have ended up a couple thousand pages behind in these notes--so some catch-up is in order. Today's installment: Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee (in keeping with a trend of recent Bookers). Since I seem to be focused on openings, I'll start there, because I think Coetzee's is excellent:

For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved
the problem of sex rather well.

In contrast to so many of the short story openings, this one starts with resolution, not problem. The problem of sex is solved. Well, not solved, but solved to his mind. For a man of his age. And what is the problem of sex exactly anyway. Deviously simple and yet we are caught. And, in his age, Coetzee has David Lurie leaning-still upright--but leaning and about to fall, and we begin to brace to think about it.

More? yes, there is. Lurie's character is in here also: self-satisfied, focused on his own appetites, complacent, arrogant. Here is a line that caught me more than the thousand mysterious dead bodies, or half-glimpsed beautiful women, or backward looking regrets. It is masterful.

The book doesn't disappoint--it pulls you along into awkward and ugly places and Coetzee does an interesting thing: he doesn't make us like his characters much, but he always makes us interested in what is happening to them. This is a tricky line--and runs in the face of much of the bad advice given to young writers about making characters sympathetic. Coetzee keeps us at a distance, but riveted. So as Lurie has sex with Melanie (not rape, he tells us, but undesired), he is completely repulsive, his delusions apparent, his greed appalling. But we need to know now what happens--how does punishment descend and will he come to understand it?

Coetzee doesn't release our interest and this creates a welcome, but difficult pressure--he doesn't let us love them--any of them, not even Lucy, who seems like she should be victim and yet refuses to descend to that--she keeps and makes her choices and these hold us off from her in a way that makes us look at our own choices, our own judgements about her rape and response to it.

An excellent book (4 stars), in a string of excellent books--stay tuned for more coming.



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