Sunday, June 9, 2013

Review: "Dusklands" by J. M. Coetzee

There is a scene early in Dusklands, J. M. Coetzee’s first and, next to The Master of Petersburg, his weakest novel, where a sex scene is described in such a detached and clinical way, that you might as well be reading a medical textbook in a Human Sexuality class. It is actually pretty funny, and if you read it out loud, it would probably be even funnier. But it is indicative of the problems with this first, rather short novel, which are really two spate novellas. It is as overwritten and tedious as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, making a sparse 125 book seem like it is three or four times that long. What kept me going, not including the length, was the moments Coetzee emerges within this novel, showing the talent that would make him a very deserving recipient of the Nobel Prize in 2003. The first section takes place in 1970, where a man is researching the effects of psychological warfare on the Vietcong. Of course, he becomes strangely affected by his research and starts showing signs of aggression toward his family, culminating in a horrific set of circumstances involving his young son. This would have been shocking if the prose wasn’t so dry. It takes a lot of the emotional impact out of what is happening to this man, especially in the last few pages, which should have a monumental effect on the reader. Luckily, the second section is a little better, although the problems still arise. A man exploring the South African wilderness becomes sick and is nursed back to health by a bushman village, but when he is cast out, he seeks radically cruel vengeance on those he feels wronged by. Still overwritten, but the ending seen of violence and torture will most likely stick with you. Overall, a book you can skip unless you really like Coetzee, since it is dwarfed by his later, more accessible, and, simply put, better novels.
Rating: 3/5

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