As holds true in the film world where action-packed blockbusters are replaced at the local multiplex by cerebral independent films and serious-minded Oscar contenders the publishing world signals the passing of summer with a shift toward gravitas. And true to pattern, J.M. Coetzee's new novel, Elizabeth Costello, is a far cry from what you would have considered taking to the beach a few months ago unless, of course, you were sharing that beach with the likes of Albert Camus' existentialist-hero narrator from The Stranger.
A native of South Africa and two-time winner of the Booker Prize, Coetzee is a writer's writer or at the very least, a serious reader's writer and as a result, he assumes a good deal of literary knowledge on the part of his readers. In-depth philosophical and literary discussions make up the core of Elizabeth Costello, which focuses on an Australian novelist who, in her old age, is making the rounds as a speaker, most likely for the last time. An impassioned animal activist, Elizabeth is smart, though jaded, and speaks her mind even when conflicted about her conclusions.
The novel has no linear plot per se, but follows Elizabeth as she visits colleges, accepts awards, goes on an “adult enrichment” cruise, etc. The lectures and debates demand concentration on the reader's part, making this a book that's quite self-consciously about ideas. Of course, Coetzee's writing style openly toys with this notion, reminding the reader with expressionistic candor that he's behind it all. (“There is a scene in the restaurant, mainly dialogue, which we will skip.”) Coetzee's manipulation thus mirrors Elizabeth's: there is great power inherent in being an author, and both use it unabashedly.
Rather than judge or mock his aging protagonist, Coetzee lends her a fragile dignity that compels readers to ponder her personal evolution, making this difficult but fascinating novel, in the spirit of James Joyce, “A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman.” Jenn McKee is a writer in Berkley, Michigan.