Stephanie's Reviews > Life and Times of Michael K

Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee
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Oct 15, 10

bookshelves: literary
Read on October 15, 2010

This review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com

From birth K, the titular character of JM Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K, exists outside the normal routines and regulations of society. A harelip prevents him from breastfeeding, forcing his mother to enter into a tormented, fragmented feeding routine; as he grows older, it affects his ability to communicate with others. Or at least this is what we are led to believe; as the novel progresses it is difficult to determine to what degree K’s extreme taciturnity is attributable to his mild physical abnormality, or whether it is his overwhelming desire to be left alone that is the cause. K is the very embodiment of negative face, wanting nothing more than to be left to his own devices, unquestioned, answerable to no one, undisturbed. But such a thing is impossible within a modern society, which draws its very strength from the way it pulls together citizens and makes them useful, makes them contribute. Indeed, Coetzee emphasises the inability of a society to leave someone be, highlighting the inevitable massaging of a wayward spirit into something that is societally appropriate. The very value of a person is dependent on the degree to which they can do so, and society works to imbue its citizens with whatever value can be squeezed from them: even K, mentally impaired, unambitious, and with little proclivity towards any form of participatory citizenship, is guided into special care, and eventually into an employment program.

The assertion of the impossibility of the individual’s ever truly being extricated from the grasp and influences of a society or a community is expounded upon throughout the novel, with Coetzee positioning K to demonstrate the way in which an individual can be, and inevitably is, caught up in events not of their causing, and moreover events where they are unable to effect any sort of meaningful change, but must instead allow themselves to move with the current of progress and time. K finds himself amidst the exigencies of a civil war—ostensibly one of the many struggles arising under Apartheid, but which Coetzee avoids naming presumably so as to shift the focus from matters of race and ethnicity and on to the individual instead—and is soon lost amongst a confusion of new laws, requirements, and permits, the very notion of which is entirely at odds with his (deceptively) simple desire to be able to exist without external intervention. K retreats to his mother’s childhood home, an oasis of sorts in the countryside where he is able to shake off the shackling demands of society and eke out an astoundingly solitary existence.

K, as his minimalist moniker and flight from a crowded urban environment might suggest, seems to wish to make as little an impact on the world as possible, and this is an end he pursues with what might be naiveté, or what might be the sort of enlightenment only available to those otherwise unencumbered by social and material trappings. Coetzee paints K as beneficent, beatific, a lone voice of passion and self-awareness against the illogical actions of the soldiers and medical officers who occasionally intervene in his narrative of solitude. While these individuals are painted as unreflective, allowing decisions to be made for them, and pursuing certain courses of action for no reason other than they simply should, K’s conceptually simple but demonstratively challenging desire to lead an uninhibited and unoppressed life becomes his identity, and gradually, perhaps pointedly, perhaps not, he allows the power of its ideology to consume him. K’s needs become less and less of this world, and he retreats not only socially, but physically, gradually waning due to a growing inability to stomach any sort of food, a cyclical return to his innocent infancy. His state brings to mind that of saints said not to have needed to partake of food or water: he is slowly deserting the physical elements of reality, but in doing so reaches a painful existential clarity.

Of course, Coetzee pointedly has others, usually representatives of society as a whole, intervene, trying to guide him to follow their schedules, to eat their foods, to participate in their worlds, to take on, even, a name. This all serves to craft a vivid dichotomy between the reasoned and the routine, with these scenes providing a commentary on the typically bestowed value of human life. K is seen by others as being inscrutable, as contributing nothing, and they therefore seek, through ironically nonsensical and unconsidered means, to move him to provide this value: at one point, for example, K is ordered to dig holes that are later filled in. It’s curious, though, that K never actually denies their demands; rather, he complies to the best of his ability, forcing his emaciated frame to run as commanded, or to choke down the gruel that his body can no longer digest. K’s passivity is perhaps the result of a growing disconnection from this world.

Life and Times of Michael K is for the most part exquisitely rendered, written in Coetzee’s famously sparse and disinterested prose, which at times serves to provide a chilling clinical tone that seems apt given the actions of the state towards its citizens. However, it does veer towards the didactic at times, and while K is generally a superbly realised character, there are moments where he feels like an awkwardly maneouvred vehicle for Coetzee’s pointed social and existential commentary. This is particularly the case in the latter parts of the book, which are told from the perspective of K’s doctor, and in which the two stoically face off in relation to their perspectives of what life could and should entail. The sudden introduction of the doctor’s perspective, after a finely wrought and deeply moving narrative from the viewpoint of K feels far from seamless, and it’s as though Coetzee has realised the shortcomings of casting a simpleton as his protagonist. The doctor’s role is almost that of a Greek chorus, but a thoroughly unnecessary one, and the blatant philosophising that characterises this section detracts somewhat from the quiet strength of the rest of the book.

In all, though, Coetzee has in his second Booker Prize winner crafted a world of tormented melancholy that is rich, vivid, and utterly believable, and will haunt the reader long after it has been returned to its place on the bookshelf.
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