*This review contains spoilers!*
In Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee artfully navigates the complicated liminal spaces that exist in a world structured by binaries: African/White, old/young, past/future, even living/dead. David Lurie, a shamed Professor of English at a Cape Town university finds himself in the consistently unsustainable position of attempting to live beyond these entrenched oppositions, and Disgrace traces the effects of his resistance.
David is an intensely unlikable protagonist – his utter lack of moral compass remains steadfast throughout the novel. When we meet him, he is perpetrating a scandal that will define the trajectory of the novel – at best, it might be called an inappropriate professor/teacher relationship, at worst a series of unapologetic date-rapes. He leaves his University after refusing to accept the terms of his punishment (therapy and perhaps more importantly, repentance) and retreats to the country to live with his daughter Lucy. There, he only gets to live a few weeks of country life before their household is violently disrupted by a break-in during which Lucy is raped by two men. The rest of the novel deals with the aftermath – both Lucy’s reaction, and David’s resistance to it.
Certainly, a large chunk of the book deals intimately with the political landscape of South Africa, and in particular focuses on the complicated race relations between the white people and the native Africans. Though this takes place long after Apartheid has ended, Coetzee makes it strikingly clear that history has a way of resisting being laid to rest. The climax of this particular trajectory occurs when Lucy reveals that she has begun to view her rape as restitution: “What if that is the price one has to pay […]? They see me as owing something” (158). This moment in which Lucy allows herself to be subjugated, to submit to a side of oppositions, is the moment in which Coetzee fully realizes the inflexible nature of the system.
In the last few pages of the novel, Coetzee writes of David’s reflections upon his volunteering job euthanizing dogs: “What the dog will not be able to work out […], what his nose will not tell him, is how one can enter what seems to be an ordinary room and never come out again. Something happens in this room, something unmentionable: here the soul is yanked out of the body; briefly it hangs about in the air, twisting and contorting; then it is sucked away and is gone” (219). With this quote, Coetzee grasps the heart of the matter that he has spent a novel untangling. Life, or at least the life that he describes, takes place within that brief liminal period. Nothing is absolute, and the ostensible binaries that structure the world are proven to fall apart under scrutiny. And yet, though nobody is actually born to live within one side of these binaries, it is a structure imposed upon all humans from birth. We see resistance to this in every action David takes: from attempting to live without age, to refusing to accept or deny his charges, to vehemently chasing down Lucy’s rapists, to moving from country to city without finding wholeness in either.
How do we resist this without falling apart? Coetzee doesn’t seem to propose an answer to that – as we watch David resist and still fail, resist and still become utterly subjugated, we are forced to come to terms with the fact that living beyond the inflexible structure of the world is absolutely unsustainable. Thus Coetzee doesn’t provide an answer, he is just here to give us the lay of the land.
However, just because he writes of an unlikable character dealing with unsolvable problems does not mean that Coetzee doesn’t speckle Disgrace with disarming moments of heart. Importantly, amongst the bigger issues that he grapples with, Coetzee also sets a narrative cadence that allows for moments of lovely reflection on particulars of life and relationships. One that is really perfect, I think, is a line describing a short car trip with Lucy: “He sits beside her, eating the sandwiches she has made. His nose drips; he hopes she does not notice” (71). Here, Coetzee’s narrative power for developing character and relationships is palpable. We still might not feel tenderness for David, but his humanity is tangible.
Unlike many other novels that begin with a morally ambiguous character, Disgrace is not about redemption or recuperation. David remains unlikable, Lucy remains subjugated, her rapists remain at large. In this way, Coetzee is able to reveal the thrust of a complicated issue without offering a solution. Thus, Disgrace becomes much more than a political statement about race relations in South Africa – it is also a portrait of the shared human condition itself. By blurring binaries that exist in absolutes almost everywhere in the world, Coetzee powerfully reveals the heart of problem everybody must learn to live around. People here can call him a misogynist, a rape-apologist, or any other number of words ending in “-ist,” but I do not think that is the case. Coetzee writes David Lurie not as an emblem, but as a warning – this is what happens when a society makes human nature itself an unsustainable condition.