Elizabeth Lowry in TLS:
“We used to believe”, laments J. M. Coetzee’s fictional writer Elizabeth Costello, “that when the text said, ‘On the table stood a glass of water’, there was indeed a table, and a glass of water on it, and we had only to look in the word-mirror of the text to see them. But all that has ended.”
Quite. Coetzee has always avoided the flat mirror of realism in favour of the many-layered mise en abyme of metafiction, and his Elizabeth Costello (2003) is a case in point: not so much a novel as a series of infinitely regressed reflections on the nature of writing itself and the writer’s contract with the reader. Costello first appeared in 1997, in a journal article by Coetzee called “What Is Realism?”, later took centre stage in The Lives of Animals (1999) – quite literally, being Coetzee’s preferred voice for the Princeton Tanner Lectures on which that book was based – and has since featured as a deus ex machina author figure in his novel, Slow Man (2005), popping up to debate the interrelationship between the real and the literary with the book’s main character, Paul Rayment. The TLS printed a cartoon of Coetzee in drag (September 5, 2003), and even the most astute of his critics fell into the trap of accepting the outspoken Costello as a surrogate for the notoriously guarded Coetzee himself.