Diary of a Bad Year

J. M. Coetzee’s 2003 novel Elizabeth Costello opens with a bold announcement: “We have left behind the territory in which we were. We are in the far territory, where we want to be.” In Diary of a Bad Year, Coetzee’s newest work of fiction, it is safe to say we are still there. Taken together with 2005’s Slow Man, Coetzee’s most recent novels form a strange conceptual trilogy: he seems to have abandoned the familiar shores on which he built his Nobel Prize?winning reputation to engage with the more troubling underside of his vocation. There is, beneath the increasingly experimental turn in Coetzee’s 21st-century incarnation, a sort of extreme ethical urgency about what exactly, if anything, fiction can offer.

Diary of a Bad Year is the story, if one can call it that, of “Se?or C,” an aging South African writer who meets a beautiful younger woman named Anya in the laundry room of his apartment building. C hires Anya as his typist, and the resulting plot — the novel’s only real gesture of deference to traditional narrative — is embedded within a series of essays entitled “Strong Opinions” that C is writing at the behest of his German publisher. Like the orations that provide the structural mortar of Elizabeth Costello, C’s essays comprise the bulk of the text. Alongside these inflammatory expositions unwinds the story of their making, Anya transposing the words of the lustful writer.

Coetzee’s tandem construction of these separate strands is visually jarring. Every page is partitioned into segments, each progressing at its own pace and often breaking disruptively. Beneath the essays, we have C’s take on his budding relationship with Anya, then Anya’s own. It’s as if Coetzee decided to be as taxing on the eye as he so often is on the soul. The result is a typesetter’s nightmare. And Coetzee’s flight of structural fancy poses a dilemma not least for his reader: it’s hard enough to read a novel built upon a series of unconnected philosophical pronouncements, but harder still when faced with uncertainly about where even to direct one’s gaze. Do we read according to the logic of story, or as the pagination dictates? It is, as Anya laments, “difficult to get into the swing when the subject keeps changing.”

But Coetzee is not a showman. If he adopts a measure of formal ostentation worthy of Pynchon, it is because his interests, at least of late, involve pushing the parameters of fiction to the brink. In Diary, the flamboyance of the postmodern exists at the service of a grander concern about how the ethical sensitivity of the novel, and by extension of the novelist, might exert a force on the world immediately around them. Given the extent to which our present political climate appears in its foreground, Diary represents a timely expansion of Coetzee’s longstanding fascination with fiction’s singular capacity to command our empathy.

Diary of a Bad Year begins gruffly, as C’s “Strong Opinions” are just that — disquisitions on the ills of modern life that, if more often than not accurate in their diagnoses, have a distinctly curmudgeonly bent. “Someone should put together a ballet under the title Guantanamo, Guantanamo!,” C writes. “A corps of prisoners, their ankles shackled together, thick felt mittens on their hands, muffs over their ears, black hoods over their heads, do the dances of the persecuted and desperate?In a corner, a man on stilts in a Donald Rumsfeld mask alternately writes at his lectern and dances ecstatic little jigs. One day it will be done, though not by me.” While there is a certain shock in seeing the ignoble figures of our headlines appearing in the pages of a novel, C’s essays are less a coherent reaction to their wrongdoings than a sequence of angry riffs. Topically, they are wide-ranging, from an attack on Tony Blair to meditations on Australian immigration policy and more abstract matters of writerly authority and “national shame.”

How best to parse the connection between what is expressed in these opinions and the stance of their author, between the quasi-fictional C and his creator J. M. Coetzee, is perhaps the greatest mystery of Diary. Unlike Coetzee’s previous alter ego, Elizabeth Costello, or the third-person boy of his memoirs, C would seem to represent Coetzee’s unmediated voice. In addition to sharing some of the technicalities of Coetzee’s biography — a relocation from South Africa to Australia, a strict adherence to vegetarianism — C at one point dispels all doubt with an allusion to one of his earlier works, Waiting for the Barbarians. And yet, the story of C’s relationship to Anya feels every bit like the fiction it is. Coetzee has elsewhere described the “unmistakable accents of personal truth” that may unintentionally leave their mark on an author’s fiction, and Diary of a Bad Year simply doesn’t have them. There is something too unbelievable in the immensity with which C and Anya come to bear on each other’s lives.

In particular, Anya’s voice is almost aggressively tone deaf to the realities of feminine consciousness (echoes of the deficiencies that plagued Marijana in Slow Man — both are vessels for the desires of others more fully than they are people). “El Se?or’s eyesight isn’t that good, according to him,” she observes. “Nevertheless, when I make my silky moves I can feel his eyes lock onto me. That is the game between him and me. I don’t mind. What else is your bottom for? Use it or lose it.” Her boyfriend, Alan, is an even rougher character sketch. A right-winger with a monomaniacal faith in the free market, Alan hatches a plan to profiteer off C.’s ill-managed bank account. His worldview — one in which “the economic not only sums up the individual, but it also transcends it” — settles into too easy a polarity with the earnest politics of C, whom Alan dismisses as a “leftover from the Sixties.” Meanwhile, the hapless Anya is left to navigate the breach.

Diary, ultimately, makes for a thin story. As a treatise, it is equally thin. Where does this leave us? Somehow, against all the odds, Coetzee has managed to find at the intersection of these two endeavors a striking addition to his exploration of the responsibilities of fiction. Without the collapse of theory into story, of sweeping moral claims into the texture of lived experience, both halves of the equation come up short. It is not until the second half of the novel that this collapse fully completes itself. In contrast to the cantankerous homilies C. offers up in his “Strong Opinions,” the pieces in his “Second Diary” are softer, more self-aware, their bitterness supplanted by a wistful irony. As C himself acknowledges, “Do I really qualify as a thinker at all, someone who has what can properly be called thoughts, about politics or about anything else? I have never been easy with abstractions or good at abstract thought.” The second set of essays is written privately, not for publication but for Anya, in answer to the criticisms she has levied: “You bring things to life,” she offers cannily. “If I have to be honest, the strong opinions on politics and so forth were not your best, maybe because there is no story in politics, maybe because you are a bit out of touch, maybe because the style does not suit you.”

Coetzee’s gift for self-subversion, his willingness to play with the fact of his own didacticism, is what rescues Diary of a Bad Year from the weight of its ambition. As C.’s political tracts and Coetzee’s initial plotline are each rendered hollow, something honest begins to emerge in their wake: a work of genuine engagement between our political world and the fictional characters who move through it. Anya’s voice may still ring with an intermittent falsity, but in the personal digressions that are the product of her influence, it is possible to see how her promise of empathy has enlivened C’s writing, restoring his ability to create a work of authentic force. Where Diary of a Bad Year fails to join the ranks of Coetzee’s greatest novels, it leaves no question that he is one of our great minds.