Thursday, January 28, 2010

Foe by J. M. Coetzee

'But if you cannot rid yourself of your doubts, I have something to say that may be of comfort. Let us confront bur worst fear, which is that we have all of us been called into the world from a different order (which we have now forgotten) by a conjurer unknown to us, as you say I have conjured up your daughter and her companion (I have not). Then I ask nevertheless: Have we thereby lost our freedom? Are you, for one, any less mistress of your life? Do we of necessity become puppets in a story whose end is invisible to us, and towards which we are marched like condemned felons?'

After 4 years of intense reading, having completed over 200 books ranging from Stephen King to James Joyce, it's finally happened. When I closed the covers on Foe, I realized that I just didn't get it. Not in the vague sense that I read Faulkner and feel like I'm only picking up the tip of the iceberg, but more in the "this book might as well have been in another language" sense.

Foe is built around a retelling of Robinson Crusoe, as seen through the eyes of the narrator Susan Barton, a young woman who is marooned on Crusoe's island after mutineers set her adrift. Alone with only Crusoe and his tongueless, African manservant Friday, she explicates on his life, surprised by the mundanity of it. A year after her arrival, they are rescued. Crusoe dies of homesickness on the way back to England, and Susan, along with the speechless Friday, seeks out an author, a Daniel Foe, to write down her story and make a successful novel of it.

Upon hearing her tale, Foe feels it isn't exciting enough and asks her permission to add extra episodes--a cannibal attack, romantic entanglements between Susan and Crusoe, etc.--but Susan refuses, wanting to tell her story truly or not at all.

Now, to this point I was following along, but then the story takes some strange twists. First, a young girl shows up, claiming to be Susan's lost daughter, the one for whom she was searching when she was cast away, and another woman whose exact role I couldn't pinpoint. This leads to discussions with Foe about the nature of truth and writing, and to a bizarre epilogue that further set in my mind that I'd missed something important along the way. There's also a subplot--important based on the space it's given--regarding Friday: how he lost his tongue, attempts to communicate with him, etc., and it relates in some ways to the discussions Foe and Susan have near the end of the novel. One of them is excerpted above, and concerns the nature of reality, the inability of humans to comprehend whether their actions are predestined, and a short bit about the Inferno.

Here, in summation, is what I got from Foe: the themes revolving around communication, specifically writing; the actual prose in the novel was a little dry, but well-crafted; and I really didn't get it. So there you have it.


Nihil Novum said...

Chris, you should read this.

Christopher said...

Don't tell me what to do.