On the 2007 Award for the Most Remarkably Opaque Book Review

30Dec07

Although the year — and our annual ceremony — is fast winding down, we felt that we could not let it slip by without acknowledging 2007’s most remarkably opaque book review, which today appeared — just under the wire! — in The Times Sunday Book Review. Because this was easily the most remarkably opaque book review of the year and — like Wayne Gretzky in his prime — nullified any notion of competition, we accordingly have decided to not even consider runner-ups in the category but instead turn your attention directly to the gold-medal champion: Kathryn Harrison for her review of J.M. Coetzee’s newly published Diary of Bad Year (Viking, 2007).

Before we turn to the review itself, we would first like to note the home-page call-out (and here we refer to the on-line version of The Times), which opaquely declares: “J. M. Coetzee’s latest protagonist is a mirror of the author himself,” a remarkably opaque statement (in the context of a review) we can contrast with the call-out for an AO Scott film review, which offers us language that — sadly — is far less opaque: “The Orphanage, a diverting, overwrought ghost story from Spain, relies on basic and durable horror movie techniques.”

Unable to resist, we immediately clicked through to the review, the title of which — “Strong Opinions” — gave us some concern that Harrison might actually have some opinions — and furthermore, want to convey them — but our fears were quickly assuaged as the review quickly unfolds into a masterpiece of the shadowy and abstruse: “Diary of a Bad Year is not the first among J.M. Coetzee works of fiction,” Harrison begins, “to force readers to consider the friable boundary between fiction and nonfiction. Elizabeth Costello reveals its eponymous heroine, a literary celebrity, through a series of lectures given by Costello, their content familiar from essays published previously — by J. M. Coetzee.” What an opening! Such a simple concept, but — and we had to read it three times to get the gist — such incredible opaqueness!

Harrison spends the rest of the review describing the machinations by which Coetzee has managed in his past works to include thinly veiled essays (written by him) on all sorts of topics along with the skeleton of the plot. [Briefly, we learn that the main character is a Coetzee stand-in (namely, an old man) who hires a nurse with “a derrière so near to perfect as to be angelic,” (Coetzee’s language, quoted by Harrison) and basically lusts after her while subjecting her to his boring essays (this from a writer who won the Nobel and the Booker twice, but we digress: our subject is the review, not the underlying book, annoying as it sounds).]

What does Harrison think of the book (namely, did she like it)? Obviously she works hard to give us no hint, although at one point she asserts: “[T]he book compels us to ponder the relationship between Coetzee and his characters.” While this statement is not so remarkably opaque, the genius of Harrison is that even with regard to this bland generality she backtracks and contradicts, so that nothing is ultimately made clear: “In this most recent ‘novel’,” Harrison tells us, “… it’s hard not to conclude Coetzee is more invested in his relationship with his readers than in his characters’ credibility and interactions with one another.”

What does it all mean? Should we read this book? Harrison gives us absolutely no clue as we head into her concluding paragraph, which appropriately enough is even more opaque than all the rest: “Diary of a Bad Year coerces us to harden what Coleridge identified as ‘that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith’ into a willed suspension of disbelief, an act that is conscious, purposeful and informed. To want to be told a story built up ‘out of nothing,’ to have our edification with a spoonful of fiction, would seem to be an old-fashioned, even prelapsarian desire. This novel’s fall from the grace of a purely imagined world is a matter of self-conscious nakedness, of insisting we see undisguised rhetorical tricks we might prefer cloaked with artifice.”

Perhaps in recognition of the stature of Harrison’s accomplishment here, The Book Review editors offer us a separate “Up Front” article about Harrison, in which she is quoted as saying that “Coetzee is never sentimental, and he pushes his characters right up against the problem of mortality and the inescapable cruelty of life. It’s not so much that he doesn’t spare the reader from pain as that he doesn’t spare himself. And then there’s the writing, which is clean and stark, beautiful as the desert is beautiful, an ecosystem in which nothing is wasted. Coetzee understands that a writer’s restraint is the catalyst for a reader’s emotional response, and his sentences feel less written than rendered, subjected to a heat or pressure that removes all but the essential.”

While this translation is disappointingly clear — we not only are made to understand that Harrison admires Coetzee, but also why — it really serves to highlight the true accomplishment of her review, in which — like a dimly lit jungle full of shadows and specters — we were left with only the murkiest understanding of what confronted us! Congratulations, Kathryn, on your unexpected but very deserving victory!

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