Thursday, August 13, 2020

Book 246: Disgrace

"A risk to own anything: a car, a pair of shoes, a packet of cigarettes. Not enough to go around, not enough cars, shoes, cigarettes. Too many people, too few things. What there is must go into circulation, so that everyone can have a chance to be happy for a day. That is the theory; hold to the theory and the comforts of theory. Not human evil, just a vast circulatory system, to whose workings pity and terror are irrelevant. That is how one must see life in this country: in its schematic aspect. Otherwise one could go mad. Cars, shoes; women too. There must be some niche in the system for women and what happens to them."

Dates read: July 2-5, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/Awards: Booker Prize, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012)

Once upon a time, it seemed, there was a kind of script for powerful men who got caught behaving badly around women. There would be a statement full of vague, none-too-sincere seeming apologies for their actions and crocodile tears. There would be a trip to rehab, usually for "sex addiction" but sometimes for substances if they'd blamed that for their misdeeds. There would be an announcement of some sort of charitable contribution, often money but sometimes actual volunteer work if they wanted to really put on a show. They'd go away for a while, 6 months or a year. Then there would be a sit-down interview on a broadcast network where they talked about how much they'd changed and how they couldn't even recognize the person they used to be. The interviewer would lob softball questions designed to elicit sympathy. Then back to business as usual.

Then came Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo. You could see Harvey trying to trot out the old familiar playbook, disappearing to sex rehab. But it didn't work. The failure of the established pattern is also at issue in J.M. Coetzee's Booker Prize-winning Disgrace, except in this case it's because the man in question specifically refuses to use it. David Lurie is a white professor at a university in Cape Town in post-apartheid South Africa. A frustrated scholar of the Romantic literary tradition, interest in his classes has dwindled and he finds himself teaching Communications. He's an unhappy man, twice divorced and mostly uninterested in developing actual relationships with other people. On a whim, he decides to pursue a beautiful student in one of his classes. They sleep together a few times, all at David's initiation and at least once when he's aware that she doesn't actually want to. Suddenly her boyfriend shows up in class, and shortly thereafter he finds himself accused of misconduct against her.

He's offered the standard-issue response: an apology, counseling, a break, but an eventual return assured. He refuses, simply capitulating, and leaves Cape Town for the countryside, where his daughter Lucy owns and runs a small farm. No sooner does he get somewhat accustomed to life there, though, than an episode of violence changes things forever. Three young black men attack David and Lucy, attempting to burn him and gang-raping her. The already-strained relationship between father and daughter becomes even more tense as both try to cope with their trauma in different ways.

It's obvious fairly early on that the characters and situations aren't intended to be always read as strictly realistic. There's a lot of allegory going on here about apartheid and the wounds that it left and the violence that was a crucial part of that system continuing to resonate. I found myself wishing I had more background in the history of South Africa, because I felt like there were layers and layers of meaning and some of them were out of my grasp. Disgrace is a fairly short book, not even 250 pages, but there is a lot going on in it because Coetzee is an absolutely master of his craft. Every word of this book was obviously carefully, deliberately chosen and he evokes so much by just letting his plot and characters speak for themselves. And speaking of characters, such a sticking point for me as a reader, this was a strange experience in that I didn't find anyone especially compelling but still found the book as a whole to be something that I was invested in.

So what I'm saying is that this is a very good book, but reader be warned: it is bleak. It is a story about a terrible person, who does some awful things. You almost wonder if he deserves it on some level, but even worse things happen to his daughter and she's just trying to live on her little piece of land and doesn't seem at first blush to be culpable. Or is she? Are all of those who benefit from systemic inequality culpable? There is a note of hope at the end with the promise of the birth of a biracial child, clearly meant to be symbolic of the way forward, but honestly using a child who will also be the offspring of a violent rape of a lesbian woman to represent that hope is extremely cynical. This is a high quality book that I appreciated the experience of reading and am glad I read and have no plans to ever return to because it was hard. I would definitely recommend it, but go in expecting a downer (and be aware that there's violence toward animals/animal death in case you're sensitive to it).

One year ago, I was reading: Bright Boulevard, Bold Dreams

Two years ago, I was reading: The Informant

Three years ago, I was reading: Charity Girl

Four years ago, I was reading: A Passage to India

No comments:

Post a Comment