The South African writer and Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee made his name in the 1980s with Waiting for the Barbarians and The Life and Times of Michael K, darkly elliptical fables that answered the oppressions of apartheid with a grim and comfortless intensity. Coetzee’s fiction typically sets global issues against tight personal dramas of loss, desire, disgrace, and aging, and probes vulnerabilities beyond the merely human. A concern for animal welfare first appeared in a fictional essay, “The Lives of Animals,” and was later incorporated into a novel, Elizabeth Costello, as a subversive speech made by the title character. In Slow Man, Costello reappeared as a virtual dea ex machina to complicate the sexual and personal crises of the male protagonist, a solitary intellectual possessing many traits in common with his originator. Coetzee specializes in this sort of slightly off-center self-examination, using alter-ego fictional characters to present variations on his real self—or, conversely, writing about his real self in the third person, as in his two-part “fictionalized autobiography,” Scenes from Provincial Life. In that work, the stance of detachment only served to highlight the writer’s grave deliberations over his sense of self. Now similar deliberations inform and indeed structure Coetzee’s novel, Diary of a Bad Year.
Novels can be read as attempts at problem solving, and the problem addressed in Diary of a Bad Year concerns a celebrated author’s identity: What does it mean to be a venerable sage, a man of letters whose fiction and essays command world literary attention? Who and what is such a figure? Always an innovator, Coetzee offers a brilliant and formally challenging solution. He divides the pages of his text into three horizontal sections, counterpointing a series of essays written by his alter-ego, “JC,” against monologue and dialogue between JC and Anya, the writer’s beautiful Filipina typist. The bottom section records the conversation between Anya and her lover, Alan, an investment counselor and trenchant critic of JC. All three strands converge at the novel’s open-ended conclusion.
The experience of reading Diary is one of significant disjuncture. Every page requires a decision: do you read top to bottom, or move through each section individually, left to right, passing the ones beneath and returning later to pick up the thread? The effect is both antiphonal and corrective, with every page exposing the fictional frame, the mechanics of discourse. Coetzee forces us to question the illusion of coherence offered by a conventional novel’s plot: is it at all applicable to the experience of life? Whose is the voice that philosophizes and defines with ex cathedra authority? The same one that records the writer’s lust for the short-skirted woman in the laundry whom he begs to be his typist? The same whose reputation, not to say bank account, falls prey to her predatory lover?
The solution Diary offers to the question of identity begins with the essays themselves. Gathered under the title “Strong Opinions,” the weighty commentaries on American hegemony, literary pilgrimages, the state of the English language-over fifty in all-espouse notions of honor and aesthetics that set their author at odds with popular culture (as well as with his typist and her lover). JC aligns himself with classic treatises of political theory, quoting Leviathan at some length. Gravely, he ponders the plight of U.S. citizens whose consciences are burdened with their country’s foreign policy:
Suicide would save one’s honor, and perhaps there have already been honor suicides among Americans that one does not hear of. But what of political action? Will political action—not armed resistance but action within the ground rules of the democratic system...suffice?... Yet if today I heard that some American had committed suicide rather than live in disgrace, I would fully understand.
The sage who delivers such austere judgments, however, proves venal in desire. In monologues JC confides his desire, and is reciprocated when Anya offers her view of her “Juan,” at first in interior musings, then in dialogue, and finally in confessional letter form. At the bottom of most of the pages, we find Anya in dialogue with Alan, whose criticism of Juan’s essays and suspicions of Juan’s fantasies over Anya provide another version of JC. Deriding the writer with every virtuoso click of his computer keyboard, Alan dismisses him as a guru on a par with celebrity chefs—and as intellectually obsolete, a man living in the past, out of touch with a “probabilistic universe.”
The character of Alan is expertly drawn, and his attacks represent an insightful act of transposed self-criticism on Coetzee’s part. They also precipitate the crisis of the book and its eventual resolution, both in formal and personal terms. (Yes, Diary does have a plot, complete with conflict, climax, and denouement.) In his cyber-world Alan not only keyboards philosophical broadsides, but also moves money and encrypts accounts—capabilities that threaten to make JC the object not merely of criticism but of outright villainy. Anya, meanwhile, separates from Alan, admitting in letters that she has become an admirer of Juan’s writing and his ways of understanding the world. Unknown to him, she arranges for a close watch of his physical state, offering to assist should the untoward occur. The public man’s private admirer acts out of compassion for the man, and admiration for his writing and his companionship. And yet Anya remains apart, denying herself and Juan any physical resolution.
Such a summary can give little sense of the rewards of reading Diary of a Bad Year. This is serious fiction, a novel of ideas and of character. Coetzee braves the public analysis of who he is and offers versions of his limitations that are by no means caricatures. How many of us ever attempt to come to terms with our political and intellectual selves without resorting to the easy dualism that separates the mind from the body? It is no mean task, and one to which Coetzee applies the heavy lifting of a powerful fictional force. The joys of reading him are not those of a “cracking good tale,” but they are nonetheless immense. Undercut with a knowing, self-deprecating humor, his books do that rare service: engage, challenge, and surprise.
Related: Jeffrey Meyers's review of Inner Workings, a book of essays by J. M. Coetzee