Thursday, 23 July 2009

There are some that treat this as fiction, some that believe or will this to be so. A friend wants it desperately to be a fictional diary of a novel that will never be written. In more ways than one that friend is completely correct. There are others, of course, that are alienated by this perceived distance, others that stop reading after the inevitable self-questioning, introspective, indulgent first paragraph. And who can blame them?

Wasn't it the New Musical Express that Radiohead refused to grant interviews to for a number of years after the magazine had accused their later, more electronic work as being emotionally disengaged? Emotionally disengaged?, their singer raged. Who the fuck do you think you are? He had a point of course - since when does anyone else know more about someone's emotional engagement than the person in question? And, surely, taking this disengagement as grounds for casual dismissal rather than an attempt to question why - if indeed the work is disengaged - this distance might have occured is unacceptable. It's not like the work was that difficult.

Reading J.M.Coetzee's A Diary of a Bad Year, I embarked upon a similar dance with the author and the work itself. The narrative, famously split and formatted into three strands representing three voices (one section of essays and two strands of character), hinders and allows the reader in equal measures. There's a rupturing of temporal flow as the reader jumps between voices, neglects certain aspects of the story as paragraphs run on and gets disorientated during moments of unattributed reported speech.

The essay sections for me (and there has been much written about their transparency, their wilful incompetence, their deliberate fragility) were a constant blockage, an obstruction to the fast-paced, dialogue-dominated 'story' sections. This dance with voice, form and pace I appreciated, even through moments which were obtusely coincidental or metafictional, even during ugly devices (the entire 'spyware' crux was frustrating), even though it felt at times like another book about yet another writer pursuing yet another younger woman.

Because the book is - in the end - about rhetoric, about narratives of authority, about the fiction of non-fiction and novelistic triangles, the reader manages to overcome the distance that the essay sections and switching narrative installs. The dance is appreciated and the book's final section entitled Soft Opinions (in opposition to the opening Strong Opinions) imparts some sound advice about ways of reading, ways of relating to fiction.

In the last century, the birth of the reader was sentenced as being at the expense of the death of the author. Coetzee appears to be offering some flexibility to this notion. What is not important in this relationship is who is alive or dead, but that the relationship should be a soft one. Definitions of authors and readers (as no doubt a Nobel Prize winning novelist knows all too well) are often set in stone. Assumptions about voice and intention are established quickly, perhaps even more so as a response to the increasing amount of unreferenced text we absorb through our web activities. Coetzee appears to be softening this relationship, slowing it down. Those that read too quickly (me included) often miss the point. They miss that somewhere in the background of a fictional diary of a novel that will never be written, a novel is quietly being written.

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