Cross-mind traffic

It wouldn’t be fair to call Diary of a Bad Year, the latest by author J.M. Coetzee, a bad book. But then, it’s not a great story either. No, if anything, Diary of a Bad Year is an intriguing philosophical labyrinth.

It wouldn’t be fair to call Diary of a Bad Year, the latest by author J.M. Coetzee, a bad book. But then, it’s not a great story either. No, if anything, Diary of a Bad Year is an intriguing philosophical labyrinth.

The plot line is unusual. An aged author, obsessed with an attractive younger woman, hires her to type his manuscript for him. Seems normal. The twist is that his manuscript is not a novel, but rather a collection of random opinion pieces he is writing to be translated into German and included in an anthology called Strong Opinions. To add some spice to the proceedings, the young woman’s boyfriend has designs on the old author’s fortune.

The elements of an archetypical story are all here: hero, love interest, and villain. But, it’s not that kind of story. Our hero is honestly too old to get the girl, the girl is a complicated issue on her own, and the villain’s villainy never gets more extreme than a light bluster.

Diary of a Bad Year is a different kind of story all together. The reader immediately asks questions, the primary revolving around the blurred line between truth and fiction. The author in question is literally the author in real life, but at the same time, he isn’t. He goes by his own name, though is called “Senor C” by his fictional typist Anya. He is from South Africa, relocated to Australia and divorced. This burst of reality within the fiction causes readers to question its very fiction-ness.

What further confuses the situation is that the book–by very layout–must be read as three simultaneously occurring, yet separate stories. First there are the Strong Opinions, which rest at the very heart of the novel. Without the Strong Opinions project, the fictional Señor C has no bait with which to hook Anya and to reel her into his life. Yet, the opinions seem to be the real opinions of J.M. Coetzee.

The topics of the opinions vary from the war on terror and current world leaders, to pedophilia and language usage. There is an unmistakable ring of truth to them, not necessarily in the validity of the reasoning itself, but in the echo of genuine conviction on the part of the author.

However, even that is questionable. In the very same book (sometimes on the same page even), Coetzee makes the opposing argument of every controversial opinion he writes as Senor C. He does this through the characters of Anya and Alan, asserting that they hold the opposing viewpoint. Yet, isn’t he also the author of every argument that is included in the book? Because readers’ have this knowledge, he is able to make them doubt their initial assumption that Senor C’s opinion is also his.

The second storyline is the story of Senor C’s relationship with the attractive younger woman, Anya. Told from the point of view of Senor C, the obsession begins with a meeting in the apartment laundry room, which then leads to the odd partnership of the two characters. It is odd because of the strange mixture of sexual tension and familial relation between the two. He is drawn to her beautiful young body, fantasizing about what he could do “if only he were younger.” Yet, he also displays paternal leanings being both placating and patronizing when she gets offended. For her part, Anya is aware of the effect she has on Senor C. The result is a delicate balance, which both characters maintain with ease, but which many reader’s might find uncomfortable.

The final story is told from Anya’s perspective, and is her relationship with Alan. Alan is also older than Anya, though the difference is not as great as that with Senor C (notice the play on senior citizen). This storyline is the most disturbing, reading almost like pornography of the mean kind.

In this one novel, Coetzee’s brings into question the line between reality and fiction, critical issues in today’s media discourse, as well as a number of issues that are not popularly discussed on the political platform. He’s pulled off a great trick, telling all of his readers how he feels about the world, and then leaving them guessing as to which opinion is actually his. He’s convinced readers to eagerly consume his personal soapbox script. He’s made a story of depth, from elements that on their own couldn’t stand a chance. And despite the slightly manipulative characteristics of his writing, the book doesn’t leave readers with his personal propaganda so much as questions. And those questions must be answered on their own. It’s one fascinating mind-fuck.