Some books shape reviews more than others because they are unorthodox and require unorthodox critiques. That’s the case with J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year.
This novel is written in three bands, if you will, so that each page comprises 1) a segment of expository prose by an aging novelist in an anarchistic mood, 2) a segment reflecting his thoughts and actions, largely centered on the pretty young woman in his apartment block he persuades to type his manuscript, and 3) a segment that carries her thoughts about his interest in her and some of her boyfriend’s thoughts and actions in response to the writer’s interest in his girlfriend. The elderly writer is named Señor C, the young woman is Anya, and Anya’s boyfriend is Alan, some kind of financial advisor/operator.
Band one is being written for a German publisher, and it will be part of an anthology called Strong Opinions, with contributions from Señor C and other writers of his caliber. All that’s required is musing on whatever topics these writers have opinions about. So you can read left to right from pages 1 through x and continuously encounter Señor’s thoughts about the nature of the state (he’s against it), the nature of numbers (he’s got his doubts), the use of the phrase “going forward” (he doesn’t like it), and the question of whether one is doubly bad for having tortured or murdered two victims rather than one. For writing in which a fictional character’s expository reactions to the world around him are central to the novel, I’d take Saul Bellow’s Herzog over this. Coetzee’s playfulness simply isn’t that amusing, even though several passages are insightful.
Bands two and three tend to overlap. Here the story is one of an elderly man coveting a younger woman who, in this case, is utterly honest with whomever she deals. Señor C hears things from her he probably doesn’t enjoy, same with boyfriend Alan. But Alan is a wicked type, and he really doesn’t like the old writer’s lusting for his girlfriend, so he cooks up a scheme to pick his pocket. (I won’t spoil things by detailing how; it’s somewhat implausible anyway.)
The odd thing about this odd book is that sometimes I found myself reading straight down a single page, keeping its discontinuities straight without too much effort, and sometimes I skimmed along within a single band and then went back and started the second and third bands where I’d left off.
Once again, got that?
What are the real issues here? Well, there isn’t much of a story, so what’s left is a post-modern exercise in confirming (as eventually happens) the utter authority of writers Señor C admires most, notably Tolstoy but also Dostoevsky and other great-hearted Russians who needed no tricks to probe the heart of their characters’ existential situations.
Of the three characters, Anya clearly is the most compelling because she’s so full of herself and honest about it. She knows what men like about her, and she flaunts it. She knows what she doesn’t like in men-dishonesty--and she makes that equally clear. She nonetheless exhibits some compassion for Señor C, and that’s a note that lingers after you finish the book.
Finally, Coetzee foregrounds a question we all ask ourselves from time to time: do writers of poetry or fiction have opinions about world and public affairs that actually matter? If they’re not economists or scientists or experts in some other substantive field, what’s the difference between what an old novelist thinks and a well-known actress thinks, i.e., someone who doesn’t even write lines, but simply memorizes and delivers them?
This goes a bit beyond personality cults and charisma and all that. Coetzee’s Señor C is widely and well-read (as is Coetzee, as was Saul Bellow, as was Gore Vidal, as is Margaret Atwood) but his expertise is literary/aesthetic. Does that mean his thoughts, or opinions, have more, or less, authority? Does knowing Tolstoy mean you “know” the world better 100+ years after Tolstoy’s death? In fact, did Tolstoy himself merit worldwide renown for his religious views in his own later life?
If these kinds of questions interest you, you will find Diary of a Bad Year inventive and intriguing. If they don’t, it’s pretty thin. I’m sort of neutral: not a bad book, not a good book, only a different book, which may be justification enough to pick it up...or may not. None of the three main characters would read it, I’d wager, so that may be the most telling comment of all.
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