This book was a hard read. I almost gave it up before the fifty-page mark because, well, it was uncomfortable. Painful. And the main character was unlikeable.
Movies and TV shows and plays and, yes, even books make much out of the constant failures of likeable protagonists. Pleasure comes through watching them fail and fail again in amusing ways and, for the most part, through no fault of their own. It’s post-modern slapstick.
And, true, some shows cause you (me) to want to hide in your (my) seat while watching (and let me tell you it’s getting a little crowded in that chair), a la the British version of The Office. But that show has people for you, the viewer, to identify with.
No so today’s shortcut, as you will see when you read
Shortcut #45: J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace
and, having finished the book, I do recommend reading it. Who knows, maybe your threshold for discomfort is higher than mine and you won’t be tempted to avert your eyes. Then again, as Megan said, the experience Coetzee seems to aim for is one of brittle discomfort, the feeling that, at any moment, something might go wrong and spiral the story into desolation.
Then again, though the situation is brittle, the characters rarely are. The father/daughter team of David and Lucy who center the novel – David’s the main character, but the story revolves around his relationship with his daughter – are monoliths. They are immovable, but the story slowly chips away at their substance to reveal more and more of who they are – even if, in some cases, that makes them more mysterious rather than less.
Disgrace is about relationships of power. David Lurie is a professor, an expert on Byron, who is twice-divorced and has troubled (and/or troubling) relationships with women. This is not a SPOILER but the first section of the novel deals with his abuse of power in two relationships: one with an escort, the other with a student, both sexual.
It was really hard for me to like David. I’m not sure that Coetzee means for me (or anyone) to like him, but it is hard to read a book where your main POV (even if in third-person) is someone whose behavior you detest.
But it becomes clear, at a certain point, that Coetzee has sympathy for David. Not that he condones his actions. Truly, Coetzee condones no actions in the book except those involving attempts to understand. Coetzee offers no judgment either. David is put in both the position of being judged (for his indiscretion with his student) and judging, and through those actions and their consequences Coetzee paints a picture of a society in the midst of flux, and the violence that flux engenders.
Coetzee is a master of creating human characters, by which I mean characters that are neither good nor bad, fully likeable or unlikeable. There are only a few characters in the novel which are presented as out-and-out evil, but even their actions – horrendous as they are – are ameliorized by other characters. In some ways, his presentation is depressing. David, Lucy, and others present competing views on life, but it is clear that the novel endorses at view that history is an unavoidable factor in who we are. The hope comes in history not being able to fully determine who we will be.
As with Crime and Punishment, I have found myself a novel which so fervently resists my reading that I almost gave up. But when I pushed through that reading wall, I discovered a story that was worth the discomfort. The novel attempts no answers. It ends on a purposely low-key scene that addresses, directly, none of the problems Coetzee presents to us.
An underwhelming epiphany, all of its weight is the result of what has come before. Which is as it should be. Our final moment is only important because it’s the last one. It’s the coda that makes sense of the life because it is the end: Everything we’ve done, regardless of our intention, has worked to get us here, to this point, to this, for lack of a better word, resolution.