J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace is a well-crafted novel that will leave any reader feeling fortunate that he is not David Laurie. Laurie, a seemingly successful professor in Africa’s Cape Town, loses almost everything through a series of questionable decisions that are then followed by a series of unfortunate events. When his life goes awry, he flees to the African countryside and his daughter, Lucy, only to find that his life’s difficulties continue to amass amidst the turmoil of South Africa. In a place where life should be simpler, easier, Laurie discovers true pain and agony—the sort that can only come from someone harming those you love and the realization that you are useless in the matter. He discovers that the danger that lurks around every corner is not exclusive to the city—perhaps even worse in the countryside where areas tend to have their own practices and hierarchies.
Coetzee seems to be reiterating the theme of a man’s “goodness” and mortality as he did in his earlier novel, Slow Man, and again in his later novel, Waiting for the Barbarians. Both of his earlier novels present the reader with a main character who has suffered greatly and personally (though the placement of the injury varies a bit between the two). Laurie has a less-than-passionate, and at brief moments confusing, affair with his student Tiffany and much like the one that occurs between the magistrate and barbarian girl in Waiting for the Barbarians, it leads him to experience a series of struggles. Laurie’s struggles begin with the loss of his career and continue to escalate after he retreats to his daughter’s smallholding in the country.
Coetzee uses a chronological structure (with a sprinkling of flashbacks) in Disgrace to heighten the tension of the plot. Laurie’s series of unfortunate circumstances comprise the girth of the novel, leaving the reader feeling as if he is barely able to tread water. There are two very significant robbery scenes in this novel that act almost as a structural framework for the story. When Lucy and Laurie experience the first robbery scene, in chapter eleven, it is a harsh blow; however, when Laurie returns to his home in chapter twenty and finds it too has been burglarized the reader cannot help but feel as if his heads are being pressed below the surface. The second robbery scene unfolds like this: “[it is]…no ordinary burglary. A raiding party moving in, cleaning out the site, retreating laden with bags, boxes, suitcases…who at this moment is wearing his shoes?…from the bathroom…a bad smell…a pigeon…expired in the basin…the lights are cut off, the telephone is dead” (176). This scene, however powerful it may be on its own, is next to devastating in its context. It also reveals the depths of sorrow that Laurie needs to reach to spur him to change—to make a commitment to something that is otherwise uncomfortable.
Coetzee excels at the development of characters with flaws and insecurities; he has proved his talent for characterization novel and novel again. It seems he has also found a niche in the troubled middle-aged man who has lost his passion and is only spurred into reality after an affair with a younger woman goes terribly wrong. Perhaps Coetzee is using such stories to warn his peers of careless decisions—or perhaps he is revealing a little something of himself and his views through a new and hopelessly defective character. Whatever Coetzee’s intentions are, his result is a deeply revelatory and moving experience for his reader, one that resonates in such an unsettling way that it is not likely to leave them for quite a while.
Crystal Miller lives in Tampa, FL with her family where she teaches writing at Hillsborough Community College. She is a voracious reader and before entering Sierra Nevada’s MFA program, she earned her Bachelor of Arts at SUNY Empire State College with a dual major in Literature and Creative Writing. Crystal is currently working on her first novel, which will be the first in a series regarding female serial killers.