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Diary of a Bad Year
by J.M. Coetzee, Viking; $24.95
Nobel winner Coetzee is a curmudgeon, and he immediately flexes his cranky muscle in his new novel, Diary of a Bad Year: The first narrator is an unabashed scold, a South African academic dissecting “what is wrong with today’s world” for a German book of essays. Thankfully, two additional narrators—the Filipina sexpot with an “angelic” derrière who types up his transcript, and her brutalizingly business-minded boyfriend—create a ménage à trois that goes a long way toward enlivening the story. Coetzee is teaching us a new way of reading: The three narratives take place simultaneously, with black lines dividing the page into unequal portions, and the reader can choose whether to read the text from top to bottom or straight across. At first the device can seem too clever by half (or a third), but slowly the tale turns into a captivating shell game: Will the typist tire of being so blatantly ogled? Will the scheming boyfriend embezzle the writer’s squirreled-away millions? Did the disgruntled academic really just defend intelligent design? By the time Coetzee sneaks suspense into the commentary section, it is apparent his tripartite novel is working a special kind of magic.
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