Coetzee’s Slow Man: an irreal element in a realist work

[posted by Greg]

An additional, and interesting, aspect regarding Coetzee’s Slow Man was his use of Elizabeth Costello as a kind of writer-of-the-work-in-the-work. Not that this particular device is, in and of itself, particularly original; Rod Serling, for example, used it in an episode of The Twilight Zone, “A World of His Own”, written by Richard Matheson, in which the protagonist, a writer, creates real life versions of characters by dictating a description of the character into a (magic) tape recorder. When he destroys the tape, the character disappears from his life and the story. But this use of the device — where the writer-in-the-work is a kind of alchemist who can turn base ideas of people into real people — is quite different from Coetzee’s. In Slow Man, the writer-in-the-work’s role is far more ambiguous than Matheson’s straightforward fantasy and, indeed, takes on an irreal quality in that we aren’t certain what the physical nature of Elizabeth Costello’s presence is. Is she supposed to be the writer of the novel that we’re reading? Or is she a character herself, in the form of a writer researching characters for a novel she is writing? Or maybe she is, given her odd ability to know things about the protagonist, Paul Rayment, that nobody but he could possibly know, a figment of his imagination? This last possibility is easily rejected, as she interacts with other characters in the work and is even known by them as a famous writer. The first possibility seems the most reasonable when Elizabeth Costello makes her first appearance in the novel, since she quotes the novel’s beginning word for word as proof of her knowledge of what’s going on in his life: who else, after all, could do this but the writer of the work itself? But this conclusion is later challenged by Paul Rayment ‘s frequent independence from Elizabeth Costello and ultimate rejection of her. In addition, he pointedly asks her later in the work whether she isn’t doing just that, researching characters for a novel and, indeed, she suggests that possibility some number of times herself. But if she were simply researching characters for a novel, as so often seems to be the case as the novel unfolds, it doesn’t explain why she has such intimate knowledge of the characters’ lives (nor, of course, how she can quote from the beginning of the work). Of course, it might then be argued that this is simply a commentary by Coetzee on the fact that characters often wind up going in different directions than the author originally intended for them; this argument would, however, make much more sense if the novel was more generally symbolic as opposed to realist in nature and had as its primary theme, let’s say, the problems of trying to make people in your own or somebody else’s image. Instead the novel is a pretty straightforward character study of an independent, self-sufficient man going through a major life crisis that has been brought on by a serious injury and incapacitation.

Of course, Slow Man’s straightforwardness in this regard also precludes us from considering it to be metafiction — that most modern form of the “writer-of-the-work-in-the-work” — as well as preventing it from being, in any general sense, irreal. But the ambiguous and unresolved nature of Elizabeth Costello as a writer-in-the-work does introduce an effective irreal element into the novel, in that it undermines the physics that we take as a given in a realist novel. Indeed, such a standardized, realist physics is presented to us for the first half of the novel (until the Elizabeth Costello character is introduced); and this modest undermining of the realist paradigm succeeds in making this character-study of a novel less (as science-fiction readers have been known to call mainstream realist fiction) “mundane.”