Rhonda's Reviews > Life and Times of Michael K

Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee
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's review
Mar 16, 2009

liked it

This was the first book I read by Coetzee and I wanted an introduction to his style before I tackled the great Barbarians, about which the literary world sings paeans of glory. When I finished this book, I went back to read the comments left by others because I believed that I must have picked up the wrong book. With only a handful of exceptions, the reviews I read seemed to indicate a brilliance I cannot locate.

That this books is evocative of the bleak and pointless existence of some people in South Africa, I can neither confirm nor deny, although I have no reason to doubt that it is. In fact, the book offers a wonderful social commentary about desire and effort and failure and hollowness. I am not objecting to the fact that I don’t need to be reminded of any more of this as I really haven’t seen it all that much in my relatively protected life. I just have a problem thinking that this depiction in any way approaches great literature.

I was at first captivated by Coetzee’s prose, the simple statements and descriptions of the possible, outside of which exists the life which humans truly deserve. Real life, we are told, remains out of reach and authority is there to ensure that it does. It was simple, like Michael’s thoughts of duty and existence, although surprisingly without any great emotional content. We are left to find that on our own, discover our own rage, as it were. I thought it a brilliant device.

Nevertheless, I became tired of the nefarious accoutrements with which Michael and his mother were continuously saddled in their lives. He is disfigured and his mother becomes ill and there is a great social upheaval by the military and Michael, despite his best efforts, cannot accomplish what he wants in his very simple way. I ceased to marvel at it very early and kept reading only to wince at each and every indignity imposed upon his life.

My criticism of this writing was that none of it depicted the characters very well, despite the fact that carrying someone in a wheelbarrow was perfectly depicted. The best defined personae were the couple who employed Michael K’s mother and we only see them fleshed out when we look through their belongings they leave behind. In addition, I found the doctor very real and well thought out. His decision to make no effort to recapture Michael comes across as real, although flawed, a precursor to the grand portrayal of psychology as a man in Barbarians. Still, this is the only character in the book which has any depth and I found it strangely out of place.

Michael at the end dreams of going back to the wilderness, away from society. Are we really surprised? After allof his humiliating defeats atdeaing with people, he likes growing things better. So should we all. Perhaps if he had read Sartre, he would be able to echo that hell was other people. At least he comes by his conclusions honestly.

Still, the prose I thought so starkly descriptive in the beginning became overwrought and incommunicative, reminding me much of Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Rain Man, very clever in the beginning but tiring and predictable after an hour or so. Coetzee attempts to shock us from time to time and I suppose that these efforts are intended to keep our minds off what became the droning tone. Perhaps, this is the mere monotonous tone of a spiritless life, as Paul said, the tinkling of a bell in the wilderness. It is the spiritual wasteland of mankind which believes that it is brave enough to look at by itself and still be proud. If this were true, I should think we would all be better off cultivating our own gardens like Michael. The difficulty, of course, is that we have become too civilized to believe in the life which doesn’t come to us under cellophane. Thus, though I found this book worth reading, I think it falls short of what it intended to do.
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