Last night I finished Diary of a Bad Year, J.M. Coetzee's latest novel, and found myself looking beyond some of the self-indulgence that turned me off initially. Coetzee tells the story of a reclusive and somewhat lecherous old writer (a novelist and retired academic) who hires a young woman named Anya to type his latest manuscript, a collection of hyper-erudite musings on, well, the world. Senor C, Coetzee's how-autobiographical-is-he? protagonist, tackles everything from the war in Iraq to Bach's unmatched genius. Any given page of the novel is divided into three sections: a snippet of Senor C's manuscript, the writer's first-person narration of the "story," and finally Anya's version of events. Senor C is a little bit Humbert Humbert, a little bit Coetzee (obviously), and a little bit of the professor who taught the first Brit Lit survey you took as an undegraduate, which presents intriguing possibilities. But the three narrative threads--the novel's hokey conceit--keep the narrative from exploring all of these possibilities. It's probably cliche to suggest a later novel from an iconic writer reads like a draft, but that's exactly the impression I had, particularly in the early chapters.
But Coetzee redeems the story in its second half, when he allows a plot to materialize. Anya's lover, an eager young businessman named Alan, hatches a plot to rip off Senor C. Alan brings some humor. I especially liked Alan's defense of his scheme; he feels Senor C's fortunes are wasting away in low-interest accounts, which Alan finds sinful. I haven't given away anything significant and I'd recommend the novel, even with its flaws, as a somewhat interesting, self-aware critique of academic critique. One of the central ironies involves Senor C's focus on the macro-dangers of global capitalism while remaining clueless about the micro-danger of the capitalist who lives in his building.