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“Never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink. Though I guess that presupposes there is a wine I wouldn’t drink.”
- From “The Magicians,” by Lev Grossman
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (1999) 220 p.
I sometimes divide my TBR pile into books that I want to read and books that I feel obligated to read, and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace – as both a Booker prize winner, and a contender for the Best of the Bookers, and the most famous novel of a Nobel Prize winner – would certainly fit into that category. The word that comes to mind is “inaccessible.” Fortunately, Disgrace turned out to be not only an easily readable book, but a deeply rich and literary one.
David Lurie, a protagonist simultaneously unlikeable and identifiable, teaches literature at a university in Cape Town. After an impulsive and unrepentant affair with a young female student, he is sent on what might be politely described as “administrative leave,” exiled to his daughter’s small farm. I already knew this was the set-up of the novel, but still found those early chapters entertaining, and was pleasantly surprised when the novel expanded into unexpected dimensions.
As an Australian – a Western Australian, for that matter – one has a certain perception of South Africa, and South Africa for white people. (90% of the new students introduced to class during my entire time at high school were white South African immigrants.) I naturally went into Disgrace assuming that it would have something to do with the state of post-apartheid South Africa and the plight of white South Africans, and then chastised myself for pigeonholing it as such. The white South African community is huge, after all, and must contain a relatively normal society and a multitude of stories, and assuming a novel written by a white South African author in the late 90s must be about race relations is like assuming that a novel written by an Australian author must be about the Outback.
I was wrong. Disgrace is very much a novel about South Africa as a nation, pivoting around an act of violence at the novel’s centre (which I won’t detail) which makes David’s affair with a student seem like an utterly pointless and irrelevant matter. The beauty of it is that it treats the event both as a symptom of a national issue, and as a personal, individual ordeal. One can be quite left-wing – as I myself am, as David’s daughter is, as David himself is more moderately implied to be – and believe that Africa is and was an African land, and that blacks are perfectly entitled to be angry after many years of oppression. (Australia, after all, has a very similar situation with crime and vengeance at the hands of our original inhabitants, and the only difference is that the weight of numbers favours whites.) But politics makes no difference in the heat of the moment. Violence is violence, and it’s a disgusting and horrific thing for whomever it is visited upon, no matter what the context.
“I don’t agree. I don’t agree with what you are doing. Do you think that by meekly accepting what happened to you, you can set yourself apart from farmers like Ettinger? Do you think what happened was an exam: if you come through, you get a diploma and safe conduct into the future, or a sign to paint on the door-lintel that will make plagues pass you by? That is not how vengeance works, Lucy. Vengeance is like a fire. The more it devours, the hungrier it gets.”
Yet the consequences of David’s affair are revisited towards the end of the novel, as he returns to Cape Town. I thought it would be washed away, but it’s an integral part of his life, no matter what may have happened on the farm. Although it’s only 220 pages long, Disgrace is a deceptively complex book, containing divers themes, from white South Africa to women’s rights to animal rights’ to the condition of growing old, and it ties them all together as part of a deeper narrative, making them more than the sum of their parts.
Certainly, Disgrace is a depressing novel. There’s one scene, literally in the last few pages, where David has to make a decision, which would have been thematically appropriate either way, but which would have been the difference between making it an optimistic or a pessimistic novel, and Coetzee chooses the latter. It reminded me of The White Tiger, a fellow Booker Prize winner, in that I can safely say that it’s a deep and outstanding novel which genuinely moved me, but one which I will never read again, because I did not enjoy living inside it. That’s not an insult. The world is a dark place. J.M. Coetzee is a novelist.
Disgrace is doubtless one of the best of the Booker Prize winners, a rich and meditative novel that I found both compelling and easy to read. It’s a mark in Coetzee’s favour to be capable of such pure literature without rendering his prose tediously esoteric, and I’ll definitely be reading more of his works.
On his first Monday he left it to them to do the incinerating. Rigor mortis had stiffened the corpses overnight. The dead legs caught in the bars of the trolley, and when the trolley came back from its trip to the furnace, the dog would as often as not come riding back too, blackened and grinning, smelling of singed fur, its plastic covering burnt away. After a while the workmen began to beat the bags with the backs of their shovels before loading them, to break the rigid limbs. It was then that he intervened and took over the job himself…
Why has he taken on the job? To lighten this burden on Bev Shaw? For this it would be enough to drop off the bags at the dump and drive away. For the sake of the dogs? But the dogs are dead; and what would dogs know of honour and dishonour anyway?
For himself, then. For his idea of the world, a world in which men do not use shovels to beat corpses into a more convenient shape for processing.
- From “Disgrace,” by J.M. Coetzee
Rowan of Rin by Emily Rodda (1993) 138 p.
After cramming down a book the size of a car battery I usually like to read something quite short, and a trip back to Perth gave me the opportunity to retrieve some of my old books (which my Dad had packed out in the shed – the shed!). Rowan of Rin is one of the earliest books I can remember reading, and this edition was, shall we say, “borrowed for an extended period of time” from Karrinyup Library.
Emily Rodda is an Australian childrens’ author probably more famous these days for the Deltora Quest series (which was great) and the Teen Power Inc series (which, these days, always makes me think of this). But the Rowan series is a really neat little kid’s book set in a fairly simple fantasy world. The village of Rin takes its only water supply from the Mountain that looms over the village, where a dragon is said to live. When the water dries up, some of the villagers must venture up the mountain to investigate – including, through a neat trick, the weak and frightened 10-year-old protagonist. There are riddles to solve, monsters to face, and morals to be learned. It’s typical children’s fiction, really, great for kids in the middle years of primary school, and I enjoyed the nostalgia it sparked off in the dusty corners of my brain. I might actually order the rest of the series – there were five books in total, the fifth of which I never got around to reading.
Night Shift by Stephen King (1978) 316 p.
Stephen King, back in the day, could spin a damn good yarn. It’s a shame that in the last decade or so he went a little odd – as I lamented many times while slogging through the end of the Dark Tower series – but he really had the spark in his youth. Night Shift, first published in 1978, is a collection of various short stories King had published throught the late 60s and the 1970s, at the very beginning of his long writing career.
By and large I enjoyed most of the stories in here – particularly “Grey Matter,” “Trucks,” “Children of the Corn” and “One for the Road” – and found that quite a few of them hit that sweet spot of intriguing paranormal mystery. I like King not so much because he’s a horror writer – I’m never scared by what he writes, more “creeped out” – but because I find an engaging mystery to be an excellent form of fiction. I don’t mean a whodunnit mystery, with a group of diverse and enigmatic characters discovering a murder on a train in the 1920s and trying to figure out which of them did it. Those kinds of mysteries are boring. (Spoiler – it turns out one of the characters did it!) What I love is a good speculative fiction mystery, where something bizarre and inexplicable is happening – like the TV series Lost, the Priest’s Tale in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, or the novel Inverted World.
Where King falters in Night Shift is when he tries to explain the mystery, and usually does so with the Bible/witchcraft/demons. One particularly egregious example is “The Mangler,” an otherwise excellent story about a piece of industrial laundry equipment which keeps injuring and killing people, and which an investigating police detective feels has some kind of malevolent presence inside it. It should have been left at that – an inexplicable bloodlust in an inanimate object. That, for my money, is a lot more frightening (and, in terms of suspension of disbelief, plausible) than King’s explanation, which involves a witchcraft ritual and a possessive demon and a crazy set of coincidences. Once that sort of thing starts trickling in I find myself rolling my eyes, and unfortunately a fair few of the stories in this volume could have been a lot better than they are precisely because of this over-exposition. There are also two ordinary “literary” stories towards the end of the book, and if I want to read something with no horror, sci-fi or fantasy elements, there’s a fairly long list of authors I’ll turn to before Stephen King.
Nonetheless, Night Shift is still a pretty good collection of short stories. A lot better than most anthologies I read, and a hell of a lot better than most stuff he’s written since the 1990s – although, with a lot of positive reviews for The Wind Through The Keyhole and 11/22/63, I may have to look him up again. I definitely want to read some more of his early works, and I have The Long Walk and The Running Man on my TBR pile.
A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin (1999) 1009 p.
George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice And Fire series continues well, picking up where A Game of Thrones ended: with a number of different rulers vying for power following the death of the old king. The realm is wracked with war and chaos, and the surviving viewpoint characters from A Game of Thrones are joined by a few new ones as they struggle to seize power, fight tyranny or simply survive.
Martin’s pacing is still his strongest point; unlike many 1000+ page fantasy bricks, the books in A Song of Ice and Fire actually deserve to be as thick as they are. Martin never wastes time with unneccesary clutter, and the pacing of the story rarely flags.
Characters are also considered one of his strong points, though I find a few of them to still be annoyingly dull (Jon) or inserted merely to serve as vantage points to critical plot elements (Catelyn, Davos). Theon undertakes a course of action which is a complete about-face from anything he’s done before, and which would have been a lot better if there’d been some foreshadowing for it in the first book. Bran spends too much of his time wandering about in a mythic dreamscape. Daenerys continues to be a fairly dull character, but was interesting to read about simply because she’s in the most interesting locale in the books. Sansa is a dull character in a relatively interesting situation, held captive by the book’s villains in a hostage/guest type relationship, and realising that she’s going to have to try to hide her feelings and earn their trust and play a very long game to escape. Arya is much more interesting than she was in the previous book, as she flees north and provides the reader with a perspective of what the war is like for the peasants and stickpickers of the kingdom, caught between multiple armies and suffering badly for it.
Far and away the best character is Tyrion Lannister, the cynical and conniving dwarf who is sent to the capital by his father to act as regent to the Lannister family’s villanous boy-king, Joffrey. Tyrion is technically a bad guy, but he stands out as being one of the few characters with a brain in his head, which – coupled with his dry wit – make him easily the most likeable character and the one that you find yourself rooting for. The chapters in which he consolidates his power, working simultaneously with and against his sister, are some of the best in the book.
Martin’s tertiary characters, however – of which there are hundreds, with extensive family appendices, the Freys and the Tyrells and the Tullys and so on – are much more thinly drawn. Or perhaps they aren’t, but there are so many of them, with so few distinctive names or characteristics, that it’s hard to tell them apart when their myriad sons and nephews and cousins show up in armour at various battles or parleys. No matter – they’re rarely important, and Martin does a better job than I would expect of at least keeping roughly 20 or 30 key characters memorable.
A Clash of Kings is a good, solid sophomore entry in a very engrossing fantasy series. Next up is A Storm of Swords.