Friday evening. The start of the weekend. He heads home early, knowing the new Coetzee novel is waiting for him. A quick coffee, a moment spent re-arranging his blankets, and he slips quietly into bed (it is still 5 pm, but who cares) and opens his book. As he drifts into the deliberate flow of Coetzee's prose (cautiously, feet gingerly testing the invisible rocks that lie at the bottom of the writing) an image comes to him unbidden (or at least not consciously sought) of a thin leaf trembling in the clutches of a slow yet mighty river, borne along helplessly and against its will. (Eliot writes: "I think that the river/ Is a strong brown god - sullen, untamed and intractable").
He stares into the stillness of Coetzee's pages as though they were water. As a face slowly emerges from their depths, the suspicion takes him that it is his own. He is taken aback. He starts away, then returns for a closer look. The man in the book (in the mirror that the book is) is older of course, more decrepit, yet the features are unmistakable. Here is Dorian Grey in reverse, the terrible visage of crimes he is yet to commit, of neglect he is yet to live through.
Unable to take any more, he shuts the book, lies in bed staring at the ceiling. What has happened to him, he wonders? Paul Rayment was knocked off his bike by a moving car, but what accident has he suffered, what terrible collision has left him crippled? For crippled he undoubtedly is, if only in a deeper, more inward way. Like Rayment, he is inert, stagnant. His entire self nothing more than a still puddle that clings desperately to the shrinking light of the day. He has never been like this before - he has always been strong, decisive, he has made courageous choices, he has broken away from the straight and narrow. His entire life has been a long sequence of unconventional, almost outrageous decisions, decisions that seemed inexplicable to others, but that he himself never shied away from. Why then is he now so hesitant to act? Why is he content to sit here, in this tiny room, doing nothing, trying to be nothing but what he already is, to possess nothing that he does not already have? Why does he not send the manuscripts that are piling up in his desk drawer to a publisher? Why will he not get his computer fixed, or go on a diet, or tell some woman that he loves her? Lines from Tagore come back to him:
Obstinate are the trammels, but my heart aches when I try to break them.
Freedom is all I want, but to hope for it I feel ashamed.
I am certain that priceless wealth is in thee, and that thou art my best friend,
but I have not the heart to sweep away the tinsel that fills my room
The shroud that covers me is a shroud of dust and death; I hate it, yet
hug it in love. My debts are large, my failures great, my shame secret and heavy;
yet when I come to ask for my good, I quake in fear lest my prayer be granted.
What is he afraid of?
Or is he afraid at all? He holds the word in his mouth for a moment, testing its weight as though it were a pebble, small and smooth. Is that what is wrong with him? Is it just that he has lost all his confidence? He spits the word out. No, he is not afraid. What he is experiencing is not fear, but reluctance. In Franny and Zooey, Franny says "I am not afraid of competing, I am afraid that I will compete". That is it, exactly. He has not ceased to believe in his own abilities, he has ceased to believe in his need to have abilities, ceased to believe in himself as a person who has the right, or the obligation, to have needs. What he has lost is not courage, but will. To desire happiness for himself is an arrogance he is no longer capable of. In the world as he sees it now, the need to insist upon his own presence seems childish, an exercise in mere attention seeking. He has no illusions about justice, he no longer believes that there may be things he actually deserves. If he refuses to act now, it is because he has a clear vision of himself and all his desires as trite and laughable.
But so what? What if ambition makes him ridiculous? Is this inertia, this sitting around, waiting to be murdered by Time, any less absurd? Is his refusal not merely a form of juvenile obstinacy, a different way of insisting upon his own independence? Is the problem not perhaps that there are no truly unconventional choices left for him to make, that no one would question or doubt any action he were to take now, no matter how bizarre? Like a climber who has reached the summit of his rebellion, he has nowhere to go but down. Could it not be that in denying choice itself he is trying once again to astonish and puzzle, seeking attention for the things he does not do because he can no longer get it for the things he does?
Or is he just making too much of this? Isn't all this gloomy philosophising simply the effect of reading a dark and thoughtful book? Is his life really that stagnant? He reads prodigiously, he goes for concerts, movies, plays, dance performances, he travels, he has a widening social circle. Most people would say he leads an active and interesting life. He would say it, has said it, himself. (A line from Eliot returns: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins"). Is he imagining it then, this void he feels? Making it up, because he must either believe that his life is somehow incomplete, or be left with no reason for living it (it's possible; he has great faith in his imagination, it's the one thing he still prides himself on). And what if he genuinely is unhappy, is discontented? He is not old, he has made no decisions that cannot be revoked. Even if this vertigo of ambition is real, could it not be simply (that most ludicrous of epithets) a phase? Perhaps he is like a cyclist who, having pedaled furiously for a while, is now cruising along on the momentum of his past; perhaps when the pace of his journey slows sufficiently, the motivation to pedal will return. Is this then, the final indignity - that even his thoughts of being ridiculous are ridiculous themselves?
Or is this, perhaps, what satisfaction feels like? Could it be that this lethargy he feels, this weariness, is actually just a form of contentment? Perhaps the only form? What does it mean when you can think of nothing your life lacks but feel that there should be, must be something it does? Like an amputee, imagining pains in a leg he no longer has. What if this state, this slack restlessness, this blankness of having nothing left to prove (no, that is not quite correct - it is not that he has nothing left to prove, it is just that he has no one left to prove it to, and no real need to prove anything anyway) is happiness?
He sits at the window, staring out over the empty streets of the city, trying to organise his own thoughts. Slowly his mind refocusses on the book, slow tentacles of curiosity curl their way towards him, he can feel himself been drawn back to the narrative. As he thinks of the book again, the temptation to think of himself in fictional terms becomes stronger, he begins to imagine his life, past and future, as the plot of some larger novel. He is young, he has said, he can change. But what if the book of his life has already been written elsewhere, and what he holds in his hand is only the published version, impossible to rewrite, impossible to alter. Is that not the real source of his ennui, the rationale for his disquiet? Not that he cannot change his life (that would be a relief to know) but that he can and mustn't. Is he not simply waiting for time to come and take these choices that are offered him out of his hands? Is that why he finds it so difficult to believe in an alternate reality where he too has settled into the coma of domestic bliss, where he has become like everyone else? Is his abiding conviction that he will end up alone and (probably) bitter, not in itself a form of fidelity?
Perhaps this is how a character in a book feels, seeing the plot carry him forward, knowing that there is no escape, intuiting already the bitter end that is to follow. One thing is for certain, there will be no happy endings here (this is Coetzee after all), no blessed reprieves. The thought is comforting - he does not think he could deal with the violence that such happiness would involve.
All this talk about the book has turned his thoughts to writing. He can feel the urge to write slowly taking hold of him, can see the phrases, obedient like legions, starting to mass into their own formidable army. Writing is the last form of magic he permits himself ("Now my charms are all o'erthrown,/ And what strength I have's mine own,/ Which is most faint"), his only mode of hope. In the absence of his laptop, he picks up pen, paper. He sits down at his desk. He begins to write.