Nobel Prize winner J. M. Coetzee's novel does more than complete this theme of men and animals and gods: it lays the concepts out, dissects them, discusses them at length, from half a dozen viewpoints, conventional and otherwise, as a nearly academic exercise.
Elizabeth Costello is a series of abbreviated formal lectures and less-formal followup discussions which take place around the aging Ms. Costello, the famous (fictional) writer. It's a pretty ballsy effort, at least if your goal is to sell books, to make a story about lecturing writers and blathering academics. It's brazenly self-aware and self-referential from page one. It commits the storytelling faux pas of using characters as nothing more than expository vehicles--the novel is less about people (some character details between chapters don't even mesh, probably to flag anyone who's paying too much attention to the "plot") than it is about a novelist's ideas of people, not to mention animals and gods, rattling the bars of their hypothetical cages. Without genius, it would be laughable to package something like this as a novel. But Coetzee fascinates. I hope he teaches a class somewhere. I wish I could take it.
The opening "lesson" in Elizabeth Costello discusses Realism as an ugly modern movement, condemning it, as the characters in the novel condemn very much, as anthropocentric. Elizabeth Costello's discussion on realism selects Kafka's talking ape, Red Peter (that's realism, really?), as a fulcrum for discussion, and it's a good enough launching point for the greater theme of the novel, asking from a scholarly perspecitve (which honestly enough is one with which I'm less familiar), the age-old: what's so great about these human beings anyway? Does the focus on human-style reasoning as a distinction from the beasts ultimately lead to the answers we want to hear (that dude, we rule because it's, you know, us)? What is wrong, the characters ask, with Red Peter's ape-ness, his animal being? Who are we to impose our reason on these creatures? Who are we to impose our brutality, our inhumanity as it were?
Coetzee explores our relationship to the gods as well, asking whether gods are superior reasoning beings (like Swift's Houyhnhnms) or superior aesthetic beings, like the Greek gods or as the ennobled savages the colonial powers of a hundred years ago found everywhere. Once, we communed with animals as gods in this second sort of worship, and echoed it among the later Christian poets and scholars, what with their burning tigers and all. The rejection of the hunt, the war with animals (as the titular character would say) is recent. Interestingly, Coetzee takes the notion of gods as superior compassionate beings, such as the tortured Christ, more lightly. I found this a strange take after he lampooned our clumsy empathy for the lesser beings. He's not, I should note, looking for a unified perspective so much as looking to showcase the argument.
I suppose one is not very likely to win a Nobel, especially if you're a middle-aged white guy, by effetely touring American and European traditions. (Coetzee wryly points out that Elizabeth Costello the character was helped a great deal by her Australian heritage.) Elizabeth Costello the novel spends a good amount of time in Africa in it's exploration of human exceptionalism. He takes the time to explore the oral tradition of the continent, and though he criticizes it a little, on the meta level the reader can see an unintentional tip of the hat to Neil Gaiman's conceit: it's not the reason, it's the telling of the stories. Who else can get inside the head of an African, a woman, a bat?
Only the storyteller.
Author: J. M. Coatzee
Title: Elizabeth Costello
Genre: fiction, contemporary fiction
Wednesday, December 27, 2006