The International Writers Magazine
:Book Review

J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace
Dan Schneider

J.M. Coetzee’s 1999 novel Disgrace won the Booker Prize that year (the second time he won it, which is the U.K. equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award in the United States).

On a 1-100 scale it’s a 65-70, tops. It’s the type of writing that inspires terms like solid, passable, and ok, not outstanding, great, nor memorable. It is the sort of book that should be considered for publication after all the masterpieces have been published that year, not held up as an exemplar of the best that fiction has to offer. I do not know what the rest of this Nobel Prize-wining author’s output is like, but if it’s anything like this book it’s likely to be as dull.

Coetzee’s sentences are straightforward, but not in that clear, shining way that the best of a Hemingway is. There is no poetry nor insight to his writing. His characters are marionettes involved in a too long morality play, even though the 220 page book is a small size. It has potential, but opts for the PC and easy way out. What is most disturbing, I guess, is to realize that Political Correctness has wormed its way so far over the world that no nation is immune from its intolerant grasp. This book half-heartedly tries to attack PC, but midway through merely gives up the ghost. Whether this was actively planned I do not know, but it is disturbing nonetheless.

The story follows a fiftysomething professor named David Lurie, from Cape Technical University in South Africa. The novel opens with this: ‘For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.’ Yet, sex, in its sundry forms, is what the novel is about, although only on a surface way, as it really strives to depict the changing of the guard from apartheid era South Africa to the cruel realities of the newer, black-dominated South Africa. Lurie is a twice divorced man who is obsessed with a prostitute named Soraya, and after she decides she no longer wants his business, he decided to seduce one of his students. He is, cliché alert, a professor of Romantic Poetry. His intended bed buddy is a none too bright, but sexy yet passionless, twenty year old coed and wannabe actress named Melanie Isaacs, who seems to loathe him, but figures on using him to get better grades. Here is the way they interact:  ‘All she does is avert herself; avert her lips, avert her eyes. She lets him lay her out on the bed and undress her: she even helps him, raising her arms and then her hips. Little shivers of cold run through her; as soon as she is bare, she slips under the quilted counterpane like a mole burrowing, and turns her back on him.’  She plays as many games as he does, and even has a boyfriend on the side. He makes a stink about Lurie’s affair with Melanie, her parents come town, and Lurie is brought up on sexual harassment and human rights violations. It’s a very silly charge, and Coetzee attempts to portray it, yet his scenes of the machinations by the de facto college court to extract more than the guilty plea Lurie is eager to give, is very typical of the book’s failures.

Instead of examining the perverse motives of the court, in demanding a pound of psychic flesh from Lurie- remorse and an admission of wrongdoing, Coetzee merely shows them as buffoons. Lurie, however, is above the charade. The court imposes the harshest punishment, and Lurie is asked to resign, which he does. He travels north to spend some time reconnecting with his estranged daughter Lucy, who owns a farm and dog kennel, and is a man-hating lesbian. However, her female lover has abandoned her. She does trust an elderly black worker on her place, named Petrus, yet it turns out that one night three associates of his burst into her home, attack Lurie and set him aflame, steal much, and rape Lucy, who reacts with an almost preternatural acceptance of her violation. Lucy decides not to report the attack to police, only reporting the robbery- for insurance money. She calmly tells her father the attack was not about sex, but subjection and subjugation, and here is where the novel really tanks.

Lucy becomes an unreal figure- a mere symbol, and any reality that the character has portrayed is now out the window. She is a ham-handed attempt at PC rationalizing of the horrors inflicted on some innocent whites for the brutality of the apartheid era on blacks. This is never more evident than when she explains to her father about why she will not report the rape:  ‘The reason is that, as far as I am concerned, what happened to me is a purely private matter. In another time, in another place it might be held to be a public matter. But in this place, at this time, it is not. It is my business, mine alone.’
  ‘This place being what?’
  ‘This place being South Africa.’  This is simply a wholly unnatural reaction to such an attack. What individual is going to sacrifice their own personal sovereignty as payback for crimes committed by others against others? We find out that Petrus may have orchestrated the rape, as part of a ‘tax collection’ of sorts, and that the youngest rapist is a relative of his. He slowly starts bargaining with Lucy for plots of her land, which she feels will fall into black hands no matter what.

There were ample opportunities for Coetzee to portray the utter corruption of many of the reforms the new South African government and its agencies wrought, but by de facto stating that innocent whites merely have to ‘take it’, to understand black oppression, is not only a silly and noxious political sentiment, but utterly uncompelling dramatically.

Eventually, Lurie returns to his home in Cape Town, as his daughter’s unrealistic motives confound him. When he does, even though he’s only been gone a few months, he finds his home totally stripped. He does not even bother to report it, for as he did when he dealt with the police who investigated his car, which was stolen during Lucy’s rape, he knows nothing will be done. With no place to turn, he gets a job with one of Lucy’s friends, Bev, at an Animal Humane Society, euthanizing stray dogs, then disposing of their remains. She is an unattractive woman, but eager to be his lover. He beds her, then wonders to himself:  Let me not forget this day, he tells himself, lying beside her when they are spent. After the sweet young flesh of Melanie Isaacs, this is what I have come to. This is what I will have to get used to, this and even less.   Lucy, meanwhile, refuses to go to Holland, to stay with her mother, and tells her father she is pregnant from the rape, and does not believe in abortion. By this juncture, Lucy is not even a real person in the narrative, but a symbol of the hybridized, or bastardized new South Africa, but it’s a clunky metaphor. Lurie resigns himself to failure- in life, in art (he will never finish the libretto of an opera he’s working on- libretti being the archetypal refuge of bad, but pretentious, writers), in love, and in his career. Even his attempt to apologize to Melanie’s parents goes awry, as her father is too smart for him, and twists him upon his own hypocrisy, after he is caught by the boyfriend sneaking in to see Melanie in a play. The book ends, however, with one of the most ridiculous instances of symbolism, with Lurie bringing a mutt to be euthanized, symbolic of both the new South Africa, and his white daughter, pregnant by a black rapist, who has already accepted her fatalistic position as a ‘dog’ before history. Could Coetzee have been any more explicit and condescending? It ends:
  The dog wags its crippled rear, sniffs his face, licks his cheeks, his lips, his ears. He does nothing to stop it. ‘Come.’
Bearing him in his arms like a lamb, he re-enters the surgery. ‘I thought you would give him another week,’ says Bev Shaw. ‘Are you giving him up?’
‘Yes, I am giving him up

Please, shudder along with me. I can never understand how artists can think so little of their audiences that they proffer such crap. The whole of the novel is so one dimensional. Not once does Coetzee even attempt to dig under the characters’ skins. The characters, from Lurie’s acceptance of his kangaroo court fate, to Lucy’s acceptance of rape, are not really characters, but servants to a screed of white forgiveness laid bare. No wonder it won prizes- it certainly was not for the literary merit. It is typical of the Left Wing mentality that flays Lurie for ‘abusing the human rights’ of a willing bed partner who uses him to get good grades, yet dismisses gang rape of an innocent woman for presumed prior crimes she never committed. This is what passes for great literature these days, when it really is only a passable first draft for a novel, and one that reads like it was written more by a twenty year old, than a man Coetzee’s age. I would be hard pressed to recall a work that had a better premise and worse follow through than this, and it’s the premise, itself, that is the book’s strongest suit. Life Of Pi, by Yann Martel, is a worse book, but it also has a less realistic premise. That something that would seem such a slam dunk idea could be so misused is a shame. Even worse is lauding such a failure. Ain’t prizes wonderful?

© Dan Schnieder March 2006

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