Mike Ingram's Reviews > Elizabeth Costello

Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee
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Jan 09, 09

For maybe 3/4ths of the novel, Elizabeth Costello is an aging writer who goes around giving somewhat harangue-ing speeches to people (a university awarding her a prize, her sister, cruise ship guests, an academic conference) in which she adopts unpopular/counterintuitive positions and then does a rather poor job, logically speaking, of defending them, until she eventually gets frustrated and falls into abstraction, followed by polite clapping from her audiences, all of whom presumably expected her to give a more conventional little writer's talk, rather than her rather confrontational, preachy screeds.

I'm still not sure if her failures of reasoning are entirely intentional in the book. On the one hand, Coetzee seems to be making certain points about belief, and Costello herself, by book's end, has decided that real belief is, in fact, a problem for a writer, who should instead be a kind of secretary, trying on various beliefs in the service of her characters. On the other hand, the book at times seems to take seriously certain arguments that are just not that well-reasoned. Large chunks of the book read like Platonic dialogues, which can get a little tedious if the arguments themselves aren't entirely compelling.

The last section of the book presents a sudden change in scenery, as Elizabeth finds herself in some kind of "holding area," presumably post-death, where she has to write an acceptable statement of her own beliefs before a panel of judges will let her pass through a set of gates leading to, presumably, some sort of afterlife. So are the previous sections meant to be Costello's attempts at belief? Is the whole thing meant to be read meta-fictionally as commentary on the proper relationship between writers and belief (or, more generally, humans and belief?)

Perhaps if I were a literary criticism PhD I'd read the book again and make all sorts of notes in service of unraveling the book's mystery, but ... well, that's not really how I roll.

So, in the end I guess it comes down to this: sometimes this book was entirely engaging, and beautifully written, and sometimes it was kind of like dullish philosophy. Even in her most fully-rendered moments, Elizabeth is kind of a pain in the ass.
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