I first heard of Foe on someone’s blog (sadly, I forgot where), and upon looking into the author, I was amazed to learn that J.M. Coetzee is a man of considerable fame and (ostensibly) talent; I was more amazed to learn that he doesn’t seem to have written any books that break the 200-page mark. I understand that restraint is a quality inherent to some of the most talented writers in history (Poe comes to mind, as does Hemingway), but I was incredulous. Then I read Foe.
I will say that reading Foe in its entirety took me only about two hours: the book sits at 160 pages of medium print with wide margins. I think it is safe to say, however, that reading Foe and understanding Foe are two entirely different phenomena. Like other terse authors (Conrad’s Heart of Darkness springs immediately to mind), Coetzee has a special talent for making dense, meaningful prose that defies perfunctory reading. In fact, I would posit that the plot details of Foe (a post-modern evaluation of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe) are in fact of little consequence: the book doesn’t serve to tell a story. Like Frank Stockon’s “The Lady or the Tiger,” it serves as a mere vehicle for Coetzee’s question to his audience about the nature of the story and the storyteller—and serves as fodder for a laundry list of academic papers and High Concept speculation, as is the wont of much post-modern literature.
In brief, Foe is an altered retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story: in this version, the narrator is Susan Barton, an Englishwoman in search of a missing daughter who ends up stranded on an island with Crusoe (here ‘Cruso’) and his servant Friday. However, Coetzee’s characters are considerably different than Defoe’s: Cruso is an indifferent man, toiling away at useless projects, blithely unconcerned with rescue; Friday is a mute former slave, brooding and silent and reticent. When Cruso dies en route back to England after they are rescued, Barton takes up responsibility for Friday and desires to get the story of Cruso (with whom she became semi-romantically involved) into print, and so enlists the help of the famed author Daniel de Foe.
The book is told in four parts, divided by their nature.
- Concerned chiefly with Barton’s experiences on the island, her impressions of Cruso, and the telling of her personal story.
- Written in the form of letters to de Foe, who, after agreeing to take on the project, disappears with debtors on his trail. Concerned primarily with the quickly-unraveling relationship of Susan to Friday, to the memory of Cruso, and to reality itself.
- Written in standard narrative after Susan and Friday travel to Bristol to find Foe. Concerned primarily with deconstructing the novel thus far.
- A short epilogue of sorts, consisting of a stream of confusing dream imagery, which so far proved immune to all my attempts at understanding it.
You can see where my expectations about a 160-page book were knocked on their ass. As I said, Foe doesn’t really serve to give us any new information. If we were looking for details of Cruso[e]’s adventures, we could read the original. No, what Coetzee is doing is “scrutinizing the gulf between a story and its telling”1; he also brings into play questions of feminism and gender, language, and Truth-with-a-capital-T. Foe has been labeled an archetypal postmodern novel; I would have to agree, though it seems impudent to attach labels. The book is a fantastic piece of work, but requires more than a mere few hour of reading to appreciate it.
- Paul E. Hutchison, Pennsylvania State University[↩]