J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year. 

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 10 2007 7:31 AM

Who Cares?

The big question at the heart of J.M. Coetzee's work.

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The bulk of Anya's monologue, however, recounts her conversations with Alan, her boyfriend, a financial manager and self-made millionaire, a nasty character but a vivid, charismatic riffer. Alan's flair for malice makes this by far the most absorbing part of the novel. To Alan, the author is a dirty old man ripe for a comeuppance. If Señor C puts Anya into his book, says Alan, she should sue: "Wake up. He can't just do what he likes with you. He can't pick on you and have obscene fantasies about you and then sell them to the public for profit."

The couple sits on the sun porch in their penthouse apartment, the best in the complex—they have its only view, a thin slice of Darling Harbour—while Alan ridicules Señor C's ideas, standing up for probability theory, the free market, and John Howard, the then-prime minister of Australia. The problem with her employer, he tells Anya, is: "He can't think structurally. Everywhere he looks he wants to see personal motives at work. He wants to see cruelty. He wants to see greed and exploitation. It is all a morality play to him, good versus evil. What he fails to see or refuses to see is that individuals are players in a structure that transcends individual motives, transcends good and evil."

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Alan is right. This is a morality play, with Señor C in white as Care, Alan in black as Carelessness, and Anya in the middle as the lovely maiden whose soul they joust for. The charge of moralizing would not disturb Coetzee, whose quest to endow his fiction with a moral effect has long since pushed it past mere storytelling toward a self-conscious didacticism. Besides, what better form than a morality play for an amoral age?

Soon enough, Anya catches Alan in a nefarious scheme. Alan has exploited her access to Señor C to hack into his computer and devise a plan to steal his money. He is going to remove it from the financially unsavvy author's account without him even noticing, reinvest it more profitably, skim off the profit, then return the principal upon Señor C's death. It is a brilliant plot, not just because it seems failsafe but because it embodies everything Señor C considers evil and Alan considers desirable, including, and especially, the utilitarianism and instrumentalism that obviously underlie Alan's success in the financial world. And if the plot goes awry, then, in a nice Coetzean irony, the only ones who would be hurt are the leaders of an organization that rehabilitates animals used in laboratory experiments, who would be swindled out of the author's bequest. "It is just dogs and cats," Alan tells Anya. "If the worst comes to the worst, it is just dogs and cats with sensors and drops and lengths of wire hanging out of them. Where is the harm?"

By the end of the novel, Alan will have confronted the author in the course of an unpleasant dinner party at which damage will be done and lives forever changed. It is a testament to Coetzee's authority as a writer that he endows this foreseeable occasion with tension and its unremarkable outcome with a small measure of surprise. Nothing big happens. We skitter for several more short chapters from one narrative stream to the next, from the author's great thoughts to his mundane ones to Anya's remorseful ones, until at last, the tiniest bit bored, we start to perceive another level of drama in the novel, that of the richly textured, cumulative poetry formed by the seemingly random connections between the three layers of text.

In other words, we change over time. We become more attuned to the novel's peculiarities of style. We learn to feel with it, and thus for it. Over the course of the novel, Anya changes, too, and in a similar way. Early on, the author dreams that he dies and is guided to "the gateway to oblivion" by a young woman. "Is she the one?" he wonders about Anya. "Is she the one who has been assigned to conduct me to my death?" By the end of the novel, Anya has started to wonder much the same thing. It is not just that he seems to her so terribly alone, without children or family, with no one to make the proper arrangements, but also that before he dies he may not be able to take care of himself. "It is not his death that concerns me so much," she says, "as what may happen to him on the way there." That we care as much as we should about what happens on the way there: That is what Coetzee asks.

Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.

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