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Like the namesake of his most recent novels, J. M. Coetzee speaks to us in parables. The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus, like Disgrace and Summertime before them, give us politically charged stories seemingly without side. This encourages the Nobel laureate’s reviewers to become Coetzeeologists, attempting to parse out whether the book before them sets opposing tensions in play for art’s sake alone, or whether we can discern a clear moral leaning beneath the tensions. We assume Coetzee came to the story with an open mind but did he leave with one too? What’s he trying to say?

Since about The Master of Petersburg, most of Coetzee’s novels have used oppositional ideas to power their dynamos. The reader’s changing sympathies fall into a sort of dance with the story itself: Each revelation shifts our allegiances, tilting the axis of the book. It’s like watching a courtroom drama where the very ideas by which we live our lives are put on trial, and we’re not yet certain whodunit. In Disgrace, a college professor in Coetzee’s native South Africa takes sexual advantage of a student and then is himself savagely victimized — in what measure has justice been served? In the underrated Elizabeth Costello, the eponymous fictional novelist accuses a fictionalized version of the real novelist Paul West of depicting the horrors of the Holocaust in a way that effectively exploits them; as we watch her argument unfold, we find ourselves first cheering her on, then recoiling. This is fiction at its best. More… “The Dancer Upstairs”

John Cotter’s first novel Under the Small Lights appeared in 2010 from Miami University Press. A founding editor at the review site Open Letters Monthly, John’s published critical work in Sculpture, Bookforum, and The The Poetry Foundation. Say hi at John [at] JohnCotter [dot] net.
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