The big question at the heart of J.M. Coetzee's work.
To thrive in the dry climate of J.M. Coetzee's novels, you need extra supplies of fortitude and compassion. His latest novel, Diary of a Bad Year, tries your patience at the formal level. It is a novel in stripes, a split-screen novel, with three separate sections running through the book, one on top of the other, forcing you to choose on nearly every page whether to read across or down. But Coetzee's work exasperates in more basic ways as well. In novel after novel, his protagonists are, to put it nicely, unattractive: men and women in late middle age or old, their bodies in breakdown, their manners chilly, their self-pity in full bloom. Plots he doles out in pinches, like salt. His settings are as barren as deserts, even if they're in cities.
Coetzee does not put just his readers to the test. He puts himself to the test, too. Can he keep you from closing the book? Can he make you care? Caring, when you're talking about Coetzee, does not mean evincing polite interest in some character's welfare. It is much more urgent than that. Care, in fact, is Coetzee's main subject: the unacknowledged nobility of those who give it, the horror of a world without it. Care, as Coetzee understands it, is the indispensable element of the moral universe, and in 11 novels and two memoirs on distinctly disparate subjects—colonialism, aging, disfigurement, animals—he pushes himself, his characters, and us to live up to its demands.
Coetzee's treatment of animals (in Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello, among other places) lays out the issue in the starkest terms. We kill animals as casually as we do, he suggests, because we have trained ourselves neither to care about them—not to feel for them because we no longer feel ourselves to be like them—nor to take care of them, at least not once they've outlived their utility or been designated for slaughter. In a memoir about his childhood in Afrikaner South Africa, Coetzee offered a boy's-eye view of the suffering of barnyard animals, linking the gratuitous mutilation of chickens and sheep to brutality toward humans, be they "Natives" and "Coloureds"—apartheid-era labels for nonwhite South Africans—or the white schoolchildren who, like him, were educated at the end of a lash. Coetzee's novels close in on the suffering of the human animal, often taking as their starting point its moment of maximal vulnerability: senescence, when the body loses its beauty and its basic capacities, and the protection of a respected identity.
Diary of a Bad Year is also a novel about care, though each of its three streams considers the matter from quite different points of view. In the top stream—a series of sharp, short, curmudgeonly essays delivered, apparently, by Coetzee himself, or else by a fictional character who parallels Coetzee in nearly every important biographical detail, including the names of his novels—Coetzee runs variations on the theme of carelessness. The topics range from politics to the humanities to science, from the intrinsic violence of the state to the problems of the contemporary university to probability theory, but in essay after essay the gravamen remains the same. The author indicts the heedlessness inculcated in us by modern ideas, technologies, economics, life. In each domain he mourns our inability to respond to the plight of single beings, or to immerse ourselves in the idiosyncrasies that would allow us to care about them as we should.
Take probabilistic thinking, which pervades not only science but also our most intimate decision-making processes. We base crucial life choices on statements that deny a place for us as individuals. To say that "overweight men are at increased risk of heart attack," for instance, is to speak only for large numbers of men, never for any single man. How should I eat? the author asks. What should I do, based on my character, my desires, my history, my destiny? That is the question statistical analysis makes us oblivious to: "It is not in the nature of probabilistic claims that they can be disconfirmed by example. They can be confirmed or disconfirmed only probabilistically, by other statistical investigations conducted on other masses of subjects." Taken to extremes, the author says, probabilistic thought obviates poetry and drama, literature and religion: "Can one imagine the Sphinx foretelling that Oedipus will probably kill his father and marry his mother? Can one imagine Jesus saying that he will probably come again?"
It should be noted that these fiery, brilliant essaylets proceed impressionistically. These are rants against a coarsened sensibility, not the patient construction of a coherent politics. What emerges feels more like a theology than a philosophy, especially since it wells up out of the experience of the novelist, who, like God, creates in units of thick and irreproducible experience, and leaves it to others to deduce the generalizable principles.
The middle stream of the novel consists of the author's interior monologue during the time in which he wrote the essays—the diary of a bad year—and it brings into view care as an unmet physical and emotional need. The author spends most of his time thinking about Anya, the beautiful young Filipina woman whom he met in the laundry room of their cavernous apartment complex in Sydney, Australia. He has hired her to type the essays for him, partly out of lust, partly because his fine motor functions have begun to deteriorate as a result of Parkinson's disease, and now he has fallen in love with her. Can she be brought to care for him, or at least not run away from him?
In the bottom stream, Anya's thoughts burble up, and it is not immediately clear where she fits into Coetzee's dialectic of care. She gloats a bit about her sexual power over the author, whom she calls, mockingly, Señor C, because a neighbor has told her that he is from South America; she offers up literary opinions of her own. Anya is better educated than she lets on, and her objections to his writing are not unreasonable. She dislikes his "know-it-all tone." She finds the steady diet of abstractions boring: "Write about the world around you. Write about the birds. There are always a mob of magpies strutting around the park as if they own it." Some of this she actually says to him; smitten, he listens. By the end of the book, his essays have become more personal, and indeed, one of them meditates charmingly on a magpie that lives in the park nearby.
Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.