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.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

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.

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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.

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."

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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