Questions and Topics for Discussion
Slow Man begins, abruptly, with a devastating blow. While bicycling on McGill Road, sixty-year-old Paul Rayment is hit by a car, thrown through the air and badly injured. When he awakens in a hospital, he is told that his right leg must be amputated.
The shock of this sudden loss casts his previous life into sharp and painful relief. Without children, having accomplished nothing important, Paul feels he has led a meaningless life: “If in the course of his life he has done no significant harm, he had done no good either. . . . He will leave no trace behind, not even an heir to carry on his name.” He has occupied himself merely with “looking after his interests, quietly prospering, attracting no attention” (p. 19). Now he must decide how he is going to respond to his predicament in the time that remains to him.
Coetzee is no sentimentalist and readers hoping for a heartwarming story of misfortune overcome and misery transmuted into joy will find something far more complex in Slow Man. Stubborn and embittered, Paul Rayment refuses a prosthetic leg and sinks into a deep despondency. But when the home nurse Marijana Jokic arrives, Paul falls precipitously, and foolishly, in love. Marijana’s tenderness and matter-of-fact acceptance of Paul’s condition comes as a healing balm both to his injury and to his loneliness. In a moment of passion, Paul blurts out his love for the married Marijana and sets in motion a chain of events that he can neither predict nor control. Lacking a family of his own, Paul wishes to extend a protective hand over the Jokics, but when he offers to pay for their son’s tuition at an expensive boarding school, Mr. Jokic suspects an affair, the family is bitterly divided, and as a result of his “good” intentions, Paul finds himself without a nurse.
Even more disquieting for Paul is the arrival of novelist Elizabeth Costello, the eponymous heroine of Coetzee’s previous work of fiction. Elizabeth shows up unannounced on Paul’s doorstep, possessed of an authorial omniscience about Paul’s life and thoughts. She insists that Paul came to her, though she never makes clear how this is supposed to have happened, and Paul wants nothing more than to get her out of his life. Is Elizabeth merely using Paul as a subject for a story, as Paul suspects, or does she have some higher, more mysterious purpose? Coetzee never lets us know, exactly, how we are to interpret Elizabeth’s presence. In one of their many arguments, Elizabeth tells Paul: “This is your story, not mine. The moment you decide to take charge, I will fade away” (p. 100). Whether or not Paul will ever “take charge” is one of the many questions that drives the novel to its surprising conclusion.
In prose that is both hard-edged and richly suggestive, Coetzee explores with consummate skill the promptings of morality and the tensions we all feel between will and surrender, passion and reflection, youth and age.
ABOUT J.M. COETZEE
J. M. Coetzee has won many literary awards, including three CNA prizes (South Africa’s premier literary award), two Booker prizes, the Prix Etranger Femina, the Jerusalem Prize, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. He is the author of ten works of fiction, including Waiting for the Barbarians, Age of Iron, Disgrace, andElizabeth Costello. He lives in Australia.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONSIn what ways is Paul—a sixty-year-old amputee with no wife and no children—an unlikely protagonist for a novel? How does J. M. Coetzee make of his life such a compelling story?
The narrator says of Paul: “A golden opportunity was presented to him to set an example of how one accepts with good cheer one of the bitterer blows of fate, and he has spurned it” (p. 15). A rehabilitation therapist later tells him, “Accept: that is all you need to do. Then all the doors that you think are closed will open” (p. 59). Why is Paul unable to accept his fate? What consequences follow from that refusal?
When Paul awakens in the hospital, the narrator tells us: “Frivolous is not a bad word to sum him up, as he was before the event and may still be.” Paul’s life has been “a wasted chance” (p. 19). “What could be more selfish, more miserly . . . than dying childless, terminating the line, subtracting oneself from the great work of generation” (p. 20)? How does Paul respond to this self-assessment? How does it motivate his actions in the novel? How does he try to give meaning to his life?
How would you explain the appearance of Elizabeth Costello in Paul Rayment’s life? She tells him, again and again, that Paul “came” to her. (“You came to me, that is all I can say. You occurred to me—a man with a bad leg and no future and an unsuitable passion” p. 85.) How are we to understand this statement? How would you account for Elizabeth’s apparent omniscience?
When Elizabeth first arrives in Paul’s flat, she recites a passage: “The blow catches him from the right, sharp and surprising and painful, like a bolt of electricity, lifting him up off the bicycle,” which is exactly how Slow Man begins. How would you explain this? Is she writing, or has she already written, the story of Paul’s life as it appears in Slow Man?
What is the significance of Paul’s having been a photographer and of his attachment to his archival collection?
Why does Paul fall in love with Marijana? What consequences follow from the moment when he blurts out his love for her? Should he have kept such feelings to himself? How is Paul perceived by the rest of the Jokic family?
Elizabeth tells Paul, “I say it again: this is your story, not mine. The moment you decide to take charge, I will fade away” (p. 100). What would it mean for Paul to “take charge”? Why would doing so make Elizabeth “fade away”?
“Become major,” Elizabeth tells Paul. “Live like a hero. That is what the classics teach us. Be a main character. Otherwise what is life for?” (p. 229). Does Paul follow this advice? He is the main character in Slow Man, after all, but does he live like a hero?
Is Paul’s attempt to “extend a protective hand” over the Jokic family misguided? Generous? Selfish? How honest is Paul about the motives for his protectiveness?
Do you think Paul makes the right decision at the end of the novel in declining Elizabeth’s offer to go live with her? What do you imagine the rest of Paul’s life will be like?
Paul tells Elizabeth: “With a little ingenuity, it seems to me, Mrs. Costello, one can torture a lesson out of the most haphazard sequence of events. Are you trying to tell me that God had some plan in mind when he struck me down on McGill Road and turned me into a hobbler” (p. 198)? Is there a lesson for Paul to learn from what has happened to him? What might that lesson be? Or is he right in suggesting that we “torture” such lessons out of random events and perhaps out of novels as well?