05 March 2010

Ur-story: Second Story Pt. 3

(cont'd from previous posts)

Summertime, J.M. Coetzee's latest work of fiction, presents the reader with a portrait of the absent character 'John Coetzee' (deceased) from a "range of independent perspectives"—none of which can lay claim to perfect reliability. J.M. Coetzee, the author, dispenses with the elements of traditional dramatic structure in favor of pastiche. Though he is able to achieve a coherent portrayal of this fictional 'John Coetzee'—who resembles in many ways, but not every way, the writer—it comes at the cost of plot.

For this maneuver to be more than mere gimmickry or the gamesmanship of a Nobel laureate who is entitled to publish whatever the hell he pleases because of who he is, something must be gained. What, if any, benefits does the work gain as a result of this trade-off?

[Side Note: In the Comments, long-time blogger and lit blog-friend Richard [Yo! la Crary {Tengo?}] of The Existence Machine, one of WoW's most influential reads, chides WoW for use of the term "metafictional games" w/r/t Summertime. He makes a good point, but not necessarily the one, I believe, he intends. I think there can be no question that J.M. Coetzee is engaging in some sort of gamesmanship here. Upon reflection, the games may not be precisely 'metafictional'; rather, they are metabiographical or metacritical games. Every other review I've seen, to the best of my memory, focuses on how J.M. Coetzee is commenting on the nature of how people read his books and how they look for episodes from his book in incidents from his biographical life and how he is attempting to set up his legacy. This is certainly a form of gamesmanship, and that stuff is all in Summertime. But I believe it is peripheral to the core of the book. [See infra]

Summertime never takes us into the emotional interior of John Coetzee; we always see him as others see him—except, presumably, in his notebook fragments. And they clue us into the emotional core of the book.

A quick recap:

The first entry shows us John Coetzee's father's disdain for the brutality of African politics: "He resolves the problem by immersing himself in the cricket scores. As a response to a moral dilemma it is feeble; yet is his own [John's] response—fits of rage and despair—any better?" p.5

The second deals with John's conflict over his own mortality: does one seek immortality by constructing a perfect concrete slab around "[t]he house that he shares with his father ... [though] [t]o insulate them from the damp is an impossible task" [p. 6] or "persist[-ing] in inscribing marks on paper, in the faint hope that people not yet born will take the trouble to decipher them?" [p. 7]

The third deals with a different type of patrimony: "Zoom lenses capture every intimate moment as they [Breytan Breytanbach, the ex-pat S.African writer back to visit his ailing parents, and his Vietnamese (that is to say 'colored' in the parlance of the times) wife] picnic with friends ... . Breyten calls Afrikaners a bastard people." [p.8-9]

The fourth is a response to a "stodgy bureaucrat's" pathetic plea in an early Kurosawa film. John [?] Coetzee wonders "[h]ow would he react if his father were to grip his arm like this." [p.9]

The fifth fragment deals with John Coetzee's refusal to provide expert testimony on behalf of a widow who seeks to lodge a ridiculous challenge her husband's clearly expressed last will and testament.

The sixth fragment contemplates the politics of the day: "The old rallying cries—Uphold white Christian civilization! Honour the sacrifices of the forefathers!—lack all force. ... How to live one's life outside politics, and one's death too: that was the example he [Jesus] set for his followers." [p.12]

In the seventh fragment, an old school chum, Truscott, moves into the house across from John. Though Truscott was a bit of an mediocre student, he now is a successful marketing executive while John is somewhat of a schlub. The irony is palpable. Truscott asks John: "'Do you have children?' 'I am a child. I mean, I live with my father. My father is getting on in years. He needs looking after. ...'" [p.14]

In the last fragment in the introductory section of the book, John points out the irony that the white suburbs of Capetown where he lives have grown out and swallowed up the land around the notorious Pollsmoor Prison, eventual home of Nelson Mandela.

In the series of undated fragments at the end of the book, he takes his father to a rugby game. His father is aging and has no friends, and "[c]lub rugby is on its last legs." [p. 246] John seeks his father's forgiveness for his emotional coldnesses of the past, but his father, a deeply unhappy man, does not recognize the effort—nor the need for it. "Theme to carry further: his father and why he lives with him. The reaction of the women in his life (bafflement)." He locates his sense of resistance to the world in his mother (one of the few times she is mentioned) and his Montessori education. Theme to be developed: "His attested incompetence in matters of the heart; transference in the classroom and his repeated failures to manage it." [p.255]. [Sounds vaguely like the set-up to Disgrace, no?] John helps his father, a disbarred lawyer, in a menial bookkeeping job. He imagines ways of committing suicide to escape the misery of his life. And he confronts the decision that has hovered over the entire book: his father contracts cancer of the larynx and John, finally, comes to this:
"It used to be that he, John had too little employment. Now that is about to change. Now he will have as much employment as he can handle, as much and more. He is going to have to abandon some of his personal projects and be a nurse. Alternatively, if he will not be a nurse, he must announce to his father: I cannot face the prospect of ministering to you day and night. I am going to abandon you. Goodbye. One or the other: there is no third way." [p.266]
John once abandoned his country and his father and went to America and is now returned. At the end of Summertime, John is facing a crisis: he has an ethical decision to make, a decision that goes to the heart of the theme of patrimony that threads through nearly every page of this book. It is a decision with such overwhelming impact, it is enshrined as one-tenth of the Laws that JHWH JHWH's Self actually enscribed on Moshe's stone tablets: "Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you." Indeed, as I pointed out in my first post in this series: this is the first relationship. It is the first of the Ten Commandments having to do with interpersonal relationships, coming after those having to do with honoring god himself (god, of course, being the great 'I am', the subject of the Ur-story).

It would be facile to state that John's father is, of course, a symbol, thus taking interpretation of Summertime down a sociological or political or ethnocentric alley. And J.M. Coetzee brilliantly controls all the symbolic meaning by means of the episodes he chooses to include in this book. But, because the relationship between an adult child and an aging parent is so fraught with emotional significance it is sufficient to indicate that this is the emotional, humanitarian heart of the book which all the various episodes serve to elaborate.

Thus, in answer to my question at the top of this post, J.M. Coetzee is able to achieve a certain systematic ramification of the theme of patrimony by focusing strictly on the relationship between John Coetzee and his father.

The five 'witnesses' to this relationship are not necessarily aware that this is the reality they are testifying to; they believe they are commenting on the writer John Coetzee they knew peripherally during the 1970s. But John's father is integral to all their accounts; they just don't know it. And neither, apparently, does Vincent.

From a technical, writerly standpoint, J.M. Coetzee, then, is also able to achieve a remarkable six unreliable narrators in one very post-modern pastiche. It is up to the individual reader to say whether it was worth the cost of the plot, and that would, most likely, depend on how hard the reader cares to work to mine the text. If the reader wants to be spoonfed meaning, then probably not.

One last point: Summertime finds J.M. Coetzee impersonating five different interviewees and one interviewer (plus John). This gives rise to another question, more nebulous and more difficult to answer: Is J.M. Coetzee dramatizing his own personal search for an authentic 'voice' in Summertime? This is a question I cannot answer. It entails a precise, systematic understanding of the nature of fictional 'voice'. It requires a fairly comprehensive knowledge of J.M.'s actual writing at the time—published and unpublished. And, most importantly, it demands a knowledge of what J.M. himself thought about his own writing and his sense of his own development as a writer, something I simply do not have access to. However, as you (I) (re-)read Summertime, it might pay to keep this thought in mind.


Richard said...

Hi Jim - First, thank you for the very kind words.

This is a fascinating series of posts. You've made me want to go back and re-read the book already, though I only just read it last month. When I do, I'll certainly have what you've written in mind.

I should say that I wasn't quite chiding you for using the phrase "metafictional games". The phrase makes me unhappy, mainly because the word "games" is so often used to dismiss fiction the reviewer doesn't like. I know you weren't doing that, but I still felt the need to register that discomfort. (I don't have much problem with the meta-whatever label as applied here--though I don't find the term "post-modern" helpful at all, and especially dislike "po-mo", in part because it's, again, often used dismissively, but also because they have little descriptive utility, in my view.)

(And, yes the yola is a reference to Yo La Tengo.... I was a huge, semi-obsessive fan of the band back when I was coming up with screen names and userids, and it's stuck. I still love 'em, but not quite to the same extent.)

Frances Madeson said...

If I were J.M. I'd be heart-poundingly terrified right about now. Now he gets to look in the mirror and ask himself--uh-oh, did I really want to be read this well? Should I have been more careful about what I asked for? Who is this Jim H. feller who can look at black marks on a white page and see, really read and see...?

Jim H. said...

FM: If I were J.M., I'd contact WoW and ask Jim H. to read my latest manuscript, and in exchange I'd offer to read his unpublished, unagented novel, EULOGY, which just so happens to explore some of the self-same themes as SUMMERTIME: euthanasia of mother, dilemma over whether and how to care for declining father, except EULOGY's protagonist is a different sort of asshole—an American one, driven, narcissistic—and he has a relationship that is teetering and a mentor who is abandoning him. I could go on.

And this feeds into Richard's comment: perhaps one reason I picked up this theme of patrimony in SUMMERTIME is that I've explored it at novel length in my own fiction.

I get the sense that you, Richard, had a different take on the book which I am eager for you to articulate either here or at you own blog. I understand completely your discomfort. I agree that my post lapsed a bit into jargon.

BTW: I saw YLT in concert here in ATL about two years ago. I hadn't seen them since I saw them up in Hoboken back in the 90s. They're still amazing in concert. Did you catch this annual FUNdrasiser thing they do over at WFMU.org:


Robert M. Detman said...

I enjoyed coming across this post. I also just read and wrote a brief review of Coetzee's latest, here: http://robertmdetman.blogspot.com/2010/03/coetzee-reduction.html

I suppose, even if you consider it lacks plot, one thing Coetzee doesn't lack is consistency in his writing style.