25 October, 2012

Review: Disgrace

Disgrace Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this book. It was recommended to me by a friend who is using it as one of the books she's writing her apartheid literature thesis on. Unfortunately, I just couldn't get into it.

The main character is wholly unlikeable in my eyes. I can see that the author wanted us to sympathize at least a little with him, but every successive chapter involved him doing or saying something which made me think even less of him. Even in the later chapters, where it looks as though the author is trying to portray him as growing and becoming more morally aware, the result is just that I come to fully appreciate just how backwards his thoughts truly are, if this is what counts as moral progress for him.

Of course, the fact that I dislike a character does not mean I dislike a book; there are several books that I enjoy where every character is disliked in some fashion. But, unfortunately, my inability to sympathize with the main character defeats the purpose of this novel. I'll explain, but be aware spoilers are ahead.

Lurie, the main character of the novel, goes through a journey in this book. He starts out thinking there is nothing wrong with trying to seduce a student at the college where he works. But before you can even express disgust at how nonchalantly he treats the issue, he opts to not just seduce, but actively rape the girl. In the scene where he rapes her, his inner monologue justifies it as not being rape at all. I realize that the author is not condoning rape of this kind -- in fact, the author is trying to get people to see that rape like this is wrong later on in the book. But I can't go on this journey of moral discovery because I agree already that it is wrong, without even seeing the parallels later on that show why it is wrong.

Yet this is not what makes me dislike Lurie the most. Instead, it is his idiotic view of the world. He is atheist, yet he believes in souls and continually talks about them as though they are what is truly important. His dismissal of animals is particularly cruel, which he justifies as acceptable due to them not having souls. Even later, when he starts to feel some measure of caring for animals, he STILL considers them soulless, and cannot intellectually accept his feelings of empathy. He even expresses disdain at the thought of owing moral duties to a friend of his daughter that he only just met.

All of the above is enough for me to just not get into the novel. But it gets worse. Since Lurie is a professor that's into poetry, he throws around poetry references and distinctions between declinations of words in different languages that just go completely over my head. I can't follow at all two of the chapters in the book (what they mean or are meant to portray is completely beyond my understanding) and several of his thoughts throughout the book that refer to how English words are insufficient due to baggage are ones I actively disagree with. The baggage he thinks is there is only present because he insists on infusing every word with baggage; yet if he would only take the speaker's intent into consideration rather than the specific words they use, he wouldn't have a problem. In one scene, a person speaks who has very little understanding of English, and Lurie can't get past the words the speaker happens to choose. Why can he not realize that the baggage of the words comes from Lurie's head, and not the speaker! The speaker can't possibly know all these poetic references, and is obviously meaning something quite direct that does not rely upon the connotations that Lurie insists are there.

But perhaps the most irritating to my eye were the characters that showed some level of compassion. Lucy starts out sounding great, but turns out to be an idiot. Bev seems approachable, but then it turns out she is more into new age crap than true deep thought. I was continually disappointed by all characters, but perhaps this was Cotzee's intention. Nevertheless, even if it was done on purpose, this lack of sympathy that continued throughout the entire novel really made it where I just couldn't relate. These people are just too different.

However, the book has won several awards and is apparently well liked by many critics who know much more about this kind of literature than I do. Perhaps my problem with the book is that I just didn't follow the real narrative, which I assume was lying just beneath the surface, unseen by my ignorant eyes.

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