Tuesday, January 8, 2008

three levels of story--J. M. Coetzee

J. M. Coetzee's latest novel, "Diary of a Bad Year, is an example of some interesting, major tinkering with the typical form of the novel. His credentials for experiment include winning the Nobel and two Bookers. The reviews I've read are somewhat mixed as to whether the experiment is a complete success. The idea, nevertheless, remains interesting. A principal protagonist, Señor C, like Coetzee himself, is a South African writer transplanted to Australia, and he is compiling a collection of his "Strong Opinions" for a German publisher, representing philosophical, political, and literary positions.

Señor C enlists the help of a young Filipina woman from his apartment building, named Anya, to type a manuscript from his voice recordings. The printed novel's format consists of three, subdivided sections on each page. The topmost section is given over to the transcribed essays on the "Strong Opinions" Señor C holds (similar to actual essays Coetzee has himself previously published). The middle section of the page contains Señor C's thoughts on how and why he has come to hold such opinions, speculates on how Anya might interpret them, and how that might reflect on him. The bottom section is in Anya's point-of-view, her observations, personal reflections, and a narrative of the unfolding relationship between her and Señor C.

The page's arrangement seems representative of three stages of consciousness in the writer. Whether we refer to him as Coetzee or Señor C, the analogy is the same. The topmost section is in Señor C's fully conscious mode, with all the writer's normal strategies of academic rigor, sophistication, propriety, and political correctness at work. Too often this might lead to uninspired, stilted writing. In the middle section Señor C steps back from some of his "Strong Opinions" and thinks critically of how and why he might hold such views. I'm reminded of a current affairs radio program, called "T-U-C; Time of Useful Consciousness," described as a brief flash of time before losing consciousness, when a pilot has to react to save his aircraft after his mind is subjected to acrobatic, super-G forces. Similarly, for Señor C, the wrappings of erudition and neat philosophical packaging fall away from his "Strong Opinions" and the raw instinctual elements of his subconscious shout to him. In the bottom section of the page we have the complete submergence of the writer's thoughts into a pure story level, in the POV of a fictional person, Anya, giving her own thoughts on the "Strong Opinions" she is transcribing, and her thoughts on the developing situation between her and Señor C.

It's interesting to think of new forms for the novel, and Coetzee has given us a unique and interesting model. My own, simpler musings barely rise above forms of combined graphics and prose.

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