Monday, December 10, 2012

Review: "The Master of Petersburg" by J. M. Coetzee

A kind of detective novel by one of my favorite writers, who brings new and interesting kinds of intrigue to a genre of fiction I find boring should be a cause for celebration, but why is The Master of Petersburg by J. M. Coetzee so boring? It has a premise full of promise, but rarely while reading it did I feel that it was reaching its full potential. While Coetzee is an undeniable master when he sticks to the African wilderness, his books set outside that terrain, with the exception of Foe, tend to be a little too tedious and not as rewarding, but I guess that comes with the kind of writer that Coetzee is. It reminds me a lot of Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet, where a writer lays out an intriguing story arc but more interested in deeper meanings and fancy language than the actual story itself. In this case, the story involves the fictional death of the son of the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The death brings Dostoyevsky to St. Petersburg to investigate the death, only to embroiled in a torrid affair with the landlord of the apartment where his son lived, as well as hearing two conflicting stories about his son’s cause of death. Was he assassinated by the group of violent activists whose ideology he shared, or was he a victim of a secret police mission to snuff out this insurgency? While it sounds interesting, it rarely is. It is easy to lose the stories power in dense prose that is too flashy to do anything but show Coetzee’s writing prowess, which is staggering in itself, but so is his storytelling ability, which seems to be taking a vacation here. Stick with Disgrace or Life & Times of Michael K for a real enriching Coetzee read.
Rating: 3/5

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