first thoughts on coetzee’s “the childhood of jesus”
I was asked by students and others several times last week what I made of Coetzee’s new novel. I’ve been a bit annoyed with myself that I haven’t really had any good answers yet, and have been forced to make the same gestures towards “bafflement” that just about all the reviews I’ve read have made. But I’m starting to think that its our bafflement itself that we should be looking into – that there’s more to be made of it than a shoulder-shrug.
Chris Tayler, in his review of the novel in the LRB, gives us a good start at a list of the questions begged but left unanswered in the course of the narrative:
As a reading experience it’s utterly absorbing, with almost painful levels of meta-suspense as you try to work out where the story is aiming to lead you. Questions are as close as Coetzee comes to direct statements, and the novel is richly generative of these. Is the world it depicts an afterlife, a pre-life, a mere stage in an unending transmigration of souls, a realm of ideal images as discussed in Coetzee’s recent essay on Gerald Murnane in the New York Review of Books, or none of the above? How does the Jesus plot fit in with this? How come Inés has access to sausages? Do the deadpan jokes get less frequent or just ascend to a higher sphere?
One of the things that I try to teach my students is to developed a more nuanced take on literary “difficulty.” Most of us, especially when we’re starting out at reading “difficult” books and thus insecure about our ability to understand, let alone intrepret, them, take it on instinct that there always is something to figure out in such works. One acquires a “reader’s guide” to Ulysses, one takes up the challenge of the notes at the end of The Waste Land – one struggles to “solve” the riddles of the poems, to understand the allusions, etc. But what if (so I argue in my first-year seminars) we’re meant in dealing with these texts not so much to penetrate the difficult but to have an experience of difficulty’s opacity itself. (My favourite example is to use in teaching is the beginning of the second section of The Waste Land, where I think Eliot’s putting us through a sort of routine having to do with the “dissociation of sensibility.” We simply can’t see the image described, and perhaps that’s meant to make us feel our own post-lapsarianness…)
Why does Inés have access to meat – and what is La Residencia in the first place?
It has been a preoccupation of Coetzee’s for quite awhile, to tantalise the reader with the sense that there are answers to questions raised by the text, that there is an interrogate-able reality lurking behind the narrative itself, and thus, when the answers fail to arrive, perhaps to push the reader back into an awareness of her or his own need for answers in the first place. (Think for instance of Disgrace, where the reader is left in the same position as David Lurie himself – completely unable to understand the reasons why his daughter Lucy does what she does [or doesn’t do what she doesn’t do] in the wake of her rape.) In this case, why, in the end, are we bothered by Inés’s access to sausages? Why are we worried about the nature of La Residencia? It feels as though, at the beginning of the work, Simón would have asked them too – but by the end of the novel, he’s lost his appetite for questions of this sort – his appetite for questions about appetite and its fulfilment. In other words, the reader’s persistence in wondering falls out of sync with the characters in the text – it’s we readers who remain new arrivals at Novilla.
Likewise with the question “How does the Jesus plot fit in with this?” Not only is the abstraction inherent in this sort of typology or allegorical sense incompatible with the putative Jesus’s incessant refusal of such abstraction, but the question is exactly the sort that Coetzee’s fiction time and again refuses to solve for us – or stages the struggle and failure to solve on the part of his characters. Again, think of Lurie’s attempts to place is daughter into a discernable “category” of rape victim after their attack, or even more pressingly, the efforts of the administrators of the camp that Michael K ends up in at the end of his novel to deduce the “meaning” of this man who has come into their care and custody.
Michaels means something, and the meaning he has is not private to me. If it were, if the origin of this meaning were no more than a lack in myself, a lack, say, of something to believe in, since we all know how difficult it is to satisfy a hunger for belief with the vision of times to come that the way, to say nothing of the camps, presents us with, if it were a mere craving for meaning that sent me to Michaels and his story, if Michaels himself were no more than what he seems to be (what you seem to be), a skin-and-bones man with a crumpled lip (pardon me, I name only the obvious), then I would have every justification for retiring to the toilets behind the jockey’s changing-rooms and locking myself into the last cubicle and putting a bullet through my head.
With just a shift of a few details and a reduction in intensity, this passage from Michael K could stand as a rendition of what I was feeling when asked last week “what the new novel means” and probably isn’t all that far away from the sort of frustration that the reviewers felt as they worked up their pieces for the magazines, or so I guess…
Coetzee is often – with obvious justification – labelled a “meta-fictional” writer: his works build on and distort previous literary works, or are “about” the act of writing itself. But they are also books that generate – or should generate – a sort of “meta-reading.” Just as the writer is writing about writing, when we read them, we are reading about reading. Or at least that seems to be the point. Were a new (or even the first) messiah to arrive on earth, would we be so concerned with his meaning and relation to precedent, his conformity or lack of conformity to the models that we would impose, that we would fail to listen to him right from the start? With inherited instrumental logics and instinct to abstract categorization, our need to extract reified meanings from things, would we be able to read him at all?