Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Summertime by J M Coetzee

In around twenty-five minutes we'll know the 2009 Man Booker winner, so I thought it would be well to get my last shortlist review up before then, event though thus far I've posted in reading order.

Summertime is a novel that operates on many levels. At its most simple, it's an account of a specific period in a man's life, told from five different points of view. It gets more complicated as we make the connections between the 'fictional character' and the author; the author apparently refers to the book as an 'autre biography'. Perhaps at its deepest and most intellectual level it's a novel about writing, about creation and creativity, about truth and about the fiction that is inherently tied up with, an inextricable from, life.

As such, it's incredibly difficult to review, because my response to this book is, in many ways, inarticulable!

At its story level, it's somewhat unclear why this man has been written about - he's portrayed as socially inept, callous and aloof - but he is described as an award winning novelist in the latter half of the book. The story level points an accusatory and scrutinising finger at our collective obsession with probing the creator of a work of art as though they are an engine, as though we are trying to understand how such work can be created. Despite the novel being about the fictitious John, the five perspectives do not make a three dimensional picture and we actually learn more about the five characters that describe him. The 'reporters' are an interesting bunch - though each one seems to hold such a fixed opinion of themselves that they become caricatures.

Summertime is deftly put together and is exceptionally crafty - I felt, rather uncomfortably, as though I were being led by the nose through a set of responses or inferences. I 'tackled' the book in a structured way, making notes at the end of each report - and the book seemed designed to trip me up. I would make a notes in my own hand at the end of a section, and the comment, or its sentiment was then echoed, in print, in the proceeding section. The effect this had on me was one I can only imagine to be like discombobulating...

To summarise, it feels a little empty to review this book, because my response has either been mapped out and elicited in a very deliberate way, or else it doesn't matter. Still, in the spirit of bloody-mindedness, if you give yourself a clear head to read this book, you will be rewarded. For all the conflicted feelings I have about it, it certainly exercised the grey matter.

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