Clever Coetzee’s Latest Novel: Reader Assembly Required

By J.M. Coetzee
Viking, 231 pages, $24.95

Remember Roland Barthes’ distinction between “readerly” and “writerly” texts? If the answer is no—and especially if the answer is a pointed “no thank you”—then I suspect that J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year is not for you. I enjoyed it, and I admired it, but I was aware as I was reading it that this kind of novel is an acquired taste only a small minority will be interested in acquiring.

Barthes’ idea is that the writerly text enlists the creative collaboration of the reader, so that the reader is “no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text.” (The readerly text, on the other hand, is impervious, a finished object, a closed circuit—no assembly required.)

Diary of a Bad Year is writerly in the extreme. On every page it forces the reader to make choices, to be active. Mr. Coetzee provides three strands of a story and invites us to braid them in any way we see fit. Along the top we get the polished, public opinions of a distinguished elderly writer; in the middle we get an intinate account of his tentative relationship with Anya, a sexy young woman who lives on the uppermost floor of his apartment building; and down below we get Anya’s perspective. Though the narrative strands are separated on the page in the de facto hierarchy of top, middle and bottom, you’re free to decide which is most important, and in which order to read them. It’s a freedom some will find exciting, others annoying.

The old man, a South African-born novelist living in Australia, is a stand-in for J.M. Coetzee—that is, he’s J.M. Coetzee appearing as a fictional character in a novel by J.M. Coetzee. (It’s like Zuckerman and Roth, only cozier.) His opinions, solicited by his German publisher for an anthology to be called Strong Opinions, are deliberately provocative, often brilliant and at times comically pompous. “If I were called upon to give my brand of political thought a label,” he writes, “I would call it pessimistic anarchistic quietism, or anarchist quietistic pessimism, or pessimistic quietistic anarchism.” He pontificates on intelligent design, probability, pedophilia, Guantánamo Bay, Tony Blair, Tolstoy and so on.

Torture and the “war on terror” are his best topics. He argues that the crimes of the Bush administration have dishonored not just Americans but Westerners in general, which leads in turn to this little aria: “Is dishonour a state of being that comes in shades and degrees? If there is a state of deep dishonour, is there a state of mild dishonour, too, dishonour lite?”

The beguiling Anya, whom he hires as a typist, wishes he would spend less time opining about politics. “Write about cricket,” she tells him. “Write your memoirs.” She would like him to tell a story (“If you tell a story, at least people will shut up and listen to you”); she wants “gossip, sex, romance, all the juicy details.” And of course that’s what we’re getting below the line, on the bottom two-thirds of the page, in twinned, his-and-hers versions.


IT’S NOT MUCH of a story, but it just about manages to tow the narrative along. The old man and the young woman engage in an ageless dance of seduction. Anya calls him Señor C, and wags her perfect behind; he thinks of her as “this earthly incarnation of heavenly beauty,” and tries to camouflage his intermittent lecherous yearnings. “As I watched her,” he tells us, “an ache, a metaphysical ache, crept over me”; he thinks of this lust as “post-physical”—though Anya has no difficulty detecting it.

Anya lives with Alan, a clever, shallow man who earns lots of money and despises Señor C and his superannuated opinions. Here’s her more-or-less accurate summary of the situation: “The old bull and the young bull, fighting it out. And me? I am the young cow they are trying to impress, that is getting bored with their antics.” Eventually Alan and Señor C meet—a painful encounter, humiliating all around. The rest is denouement.

Clever Coetzee’s Latest Novel: Reader Assembly Required