Paul's Reviews > Life and Times of Michael K

Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee
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Jul 30, 10

bookshelves: novels
Read in February, 2009


Uh oh. Last thing I want to do is fall out with my bookfacingoodreadinfingerlickin friends such as Donald and Jessica, both of whom think this is so good you have to invent a new word for it, good just isn't good enough, brilliant is almost an insult. So as you can tell, I didn't share those views. I was so gripped by this book, couldn't wait to get back and finish it today, and then i hit the Doctor's Tale (last third) and the whole thing fell apart like an overripe pumpkin. I loved all the Robinson Crusoe-meets-Knut-Hamsun-in-apartheid-South-Africa. But I didn't love the Doctor's contorted vapourisings on the subject of lowly Michael K. In fact I wanted to Fast Forward very badly. But I had to see where all this handwringing and misunderestimating and fancypants codswallop was leading to. Seems to me that the Doctor is a horrible Sock Puppet through which the Author can write us a ghastly soft rock new age Alchemist daytime tv philosophy essay on the Lowly and Downtrodden, the Great mass of Forgotten People:

"Why? I asked myself: why will this man not eat when he is plainly starving?"

Ah, Grasshopper, why indeed. You have much to learn.

"Then as I watched you day after day I slowly began to understand the truth: that you were crying secretly, unknown to your conscious self (forgive the term), for a different kind of food, food that no camp could supply."

Ah. Yes. Oh, and then it gets Even Worse when Michael K gets a blowjob on the beach. Blimey. I may have got up on the wrong side of the bed today, but I'm quickly developing a theory that Life and Times of Michael K is the intellectual version of Pretty Woman (the movie not the Roy Orbison ballad). Sometimes you have to wonder if you're on the right planet.

Fans of the Book: "No you're not, Bryant, fuck off to your own dismal galaxy and leave us all to enjoy our Nobel Prize and Booker Prizewinner. Here's a spaceship. Now piss off. Pretty Woman? You must be on drugs."

Even now I see a crowd of literary critics and Donald with flaming torches approaching...
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Comments (showing 1-23 of 23) (23 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Oooooh! DFJ is sooo gonna kick your ass! (I wouldn't worry about Donnie Boy. He's a paper tiger.)

message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

No you're not, Bryant, fuck off to your own dismal galaxy and leave us all to enjoy our Nobel Prize and Booker Prizewinner. Pretty Woman? You must be on drugs

message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

See? What did I say? Paper tiger.

message 4: by David (new)

David Well, not that I'm a pqualified psychoanalyst or nuttin'. But it seems pretty obvious that the prospect of those flaming torches is getting you excited in a big way. The whole review drips with the drool of slobbering anticipation. You welcome the torches, the abuse, the pain. You VANT to be punished for your transgressive little vays. Or why else would you write a review that screams "over here ... I'm over here .... HURT ME ... HURT ME".

Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just, if you'd lived a few scant centuries earlier, you'd have been a natural to play a walk-on role in the exciting exploits of Torquemada and his band of merry torchers.

But maybe you were an extra in "Life of Brian"?

Just sayin'

message 5: by Paul (last edited Feb 05, 2009 03:38PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul I can't talk right at the moment, I'm busy trying to escape the fire that's engulfing Bryant Towers...I've dragged my laptop to the upper balcony and as the ancient mildewed curtains roar into a technicolour inferno I scream at my persecutors "TOP OF THE WORLD, MA! YOU SUCK, JULIA ROBERTS, AND ALL YOUR MOVIES DO TOO! EVEN THE ONE WE'RE ALL SUPPOSED TO LIKE! ESPECIALLY THAT ONE!! J M COETZEE LOOKS LIKE A GOETZEE! TOP OF THE WORLD!"

message 6: by Manny (new)

Manny At last, the voice of dissent! Vive la pluralisme! Paul, you have not died in vain!

message 7: by Manny (new)

Manny By the way, has anyone here read John Sladek's wonderfully loopy debut novel, The Reproductive System? I'm irresistibly reminded of Toto Smilax's last words:


message 8: by Matthieu (last edited Feb 06, 2009 02:50PM) (new)

Matthieu That book sounds amazing, Manny!

message 9: by Manny (new)

Manny It's very funny :)

message 10: by Alan (new)

Alan mmm, shall I bother or not? I don't know now. I liked Disgrace. Maybe I'll go for the Sladek instead.

message 11: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Sladek! he needs readers, and Mr Coetzee doesn't.

message 12: by Alan (new)

Alan OK I'll put Coetzee on the back burner for now. And after I've read through the library books I've got coming (about 20 over the summer yippee!) I'll take a look at Sladek.

Chris Paul you're missing something very important in your review. The 2nd part is closely connected to Kafka's short story "A Hunger Artist". Read the short story and you'll see the ending in a different light.

message 14: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Thanks for the tip, but you know you can't go round writing books which depend on other books for their meaning to become clear. I'll dig up Kafka's story though.

message 15: by Chris (last edited May 17, 2010 11:38AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Chris Well, you've read Ulysses and rated it 5 stars, case closed I think ;)

message 16: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Touche!

Trevor God, I read the Hunger Artist a life time ago and can now remember nothing about it at all (well, except the 40 days of starvation biblical references, but I swear that's all I remember). But Kafka or no Kafka, I'm not sure it is enough to save the end of the book for me.

message 18: by Jennifer (aka EM) (last edited Dec 31, 2010 07:24AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Jennifer (aka EM) hahahaha!

I can't believe I missed this review. And agree with you completely, Paul -- including on Pretty Woman.

But, your reference to "The Doctor's Tale" made me now remember ANOTHER Kafka story - A Country Doctor. Yet another allusion.

I think, had I known that this was an intentional mash-up/sampling of Kafka going in, I may have had a better mind-set to appreciate it. As it was, it just pissed me off because it seemed to get in the way of the great story and character at the heart and at the beginning of this novel.

On to other things............

message 19: by Jason (new) - rated it 1 star

Jason Codswallop. lolol. But really, isn't three stars a bit generous? :P

Rayroy Yeah but the first 126 pages are well worth more the three stars, I felt different about the bj, K didn't even enjoy all that much,just wanted to tend to his garden but the war and all...

Rayroy *than three

Franki While your interpretation of Part 2 with the doctor is very interesting, I would instead argue that the second section is instead a criticism of the doctor himself. After all, he does not really understand Michael, though he appears to be using him as a guide towards a similar lifestyle or mindset. There is a condescension towards his character as he expresses a desire to provide him with “a graduated diet, gentle exercise, and physiotherapy, so that one day soon he can rejoin camp life and have a chance to march back and forth across the racetrack and shout slogans and salute the flag and practice digging holes and filling them again” (133). He does not listen to Michael when he corrects the doctor, who calls him Michaels instead of Michael (131). He is confined by and conscious of the war that is occurring around him, thereby constricted and constrained by the social rules enforced upon him.

Michael, however, is consistently lowered and limited by the same social rules. However, in the absence of others, as when he was alone in the veld and gardening, his capabilities expand and flourish.

I do not believe that the doctor’s musings of Michael are supposed to be the guiding voice of reason or how the reader is ‘supposed’ to interpret the story or him, I think it is instead a socially structured narrative designed to impose structure and rules on Michael in order to better examine why these rules and structures do not always work. Notably, the doctor is imposing on Michael’s body itself with these social rules -- what and when he should eat. However, instead of criticizing Michael through Part 2, I believe that the voice of the doctor instead criticizes the ‘norm’ through the doctor’s condescension to him.

Nevertheless, I do find your point about why that narrative must exist. It is an all-too-common trope in media that the experiences of persons of color - although seeing as Michael’s race is interestingly not mentioned in a highly racialized apartheid South Africa is very interesting - are translated and interpreted by a white, colonial voice. Interestingly, this is also done on another level by Coetzee himself, who is the writer of the story.

message 23: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul that is unfortunately an almost universal trope - that non-white people's experience has to be mediated through a white person in order to be understood by other white people. We see this all the time, such as in The Constant Gardener, The Poisonwood Bible and The Last King of England, not to mention Dances with Wolves.

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