Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Foe - J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee (1940-)

In the novel Foe, the events of Robinson Crusoe are imagined from another point of view. While the original story cast Crusoe as an industrious hero living in a man's world, this new interpretation, from the perspective of Susan Barton, casts Cruso as an ineffectual man stripped of desire, able only to slowly over the course of fifteen years build terraces that sit idly by waiting for seeds to some day turn them into a garden.  Even after the arrival of Susan, a woman ready and willing to be the garden for the only type of seed accessible to Cruso, he lacks the gusto to pursue her even for purely physical and practical reasons.

Foe is ultimately about voice and the ability to communicate. After a year of being stranded on the island, Cruso, Susan and Friday are rescued by a passing ship, unable to sustain the journey, Cruso dies  and it is left to Susan to find a place in the world for herself and Friday. While Friday is mute, Susan is a prolific talker and yet despite her never ending verbosity, she is unheard, first by Friday who either chooses to ignore her or truly cannot understand, and then by Foe, the publisher she has taken her idea for a manuscript to.

As she fights for her voice and her identity and the right to remain true to her story, she is ultimately forced to fight for her substance as a person. Left to wander around Newington, waiting for their story to be published and they to gain monetary liberation, they exchange one island for another.

" will believe me when I say the life we lead grows less and less distinct from the life we led on Cruso's  island. Sometimes I wake up not knowing where I am. The world is full of islands, said Cruso once. His words ring truer every day."

These are the islands of the marginalized, the cast off and forgotten, able to coexist within a world that doesn't recognize them. As Susan and Friday continue to wait for Foe to respond to her letters, they take up residence in his house and live out of the little garden plot and try to avoid the debt collectors that come often to remove more and more of the articles in the house, while ignoring the presence of the squatters. When a young girl presents herself as Susan's long lost daughter, Susan responds by telling Friday:

"It is nothing Friday, it is only a poor mad girl come to join us. In Mr. Foe's house are many mansions. We are as yet only a castaway and a dumb slave and now a madwoman. There is still place yet for lepers and acrobats and pirates and whores to join our menagerie..."

Yet Susan later in a way justifies the invisibility of marginalized when she is forced to confront whether or not she believes Friday is or was a cannibal, something she ponders regularly. She tells herself it is unacceptable to shrink from disgust from our neighbors touch because she perceives or assumes there is uncleanliness. "We must cultivate, all of us, a certain ignorance, a certain blindness, or society will not be tolerable."

Yet it is exactly this ignorance and blindness that Susan must fight against to be seen. When she first boards the ship, they tell her she must refer to herself as Mrs. Cruso, otherwise society will fixate on what a single woman was doing with a single man alone on an island for a year. Next, when she tries to tell her story of that year being a castaway, when it proves less interesting than she hoped (they were not attacked by cannibals, the wild apes were relatively passive and other than the occasional inclement weather, there was little intrigue to speak of) Mr. Foe first tries to persuade her to come up with something a little more intriguing, before deciding that the castaway story should be book-ended with something more relational, her quest to find her daughter, her year on the island, her daughter's quest to find her.

While Mr. Foe continuously asks how she lost her daughter in the first place, how she survived in Bahia for two years and many other questions I was genuinely interested in knowing the answers to, Susan sticks to her guns, she is not a story that can be ameliorated to please her readers. She does not owe anyone an explanation of who she is, and she can choose to tell whatever part of her story she wants as well as choose not to tell others.

"I choose not to tell it because to no one, not even to you, do I owe proof that I am a substantial being with a substantial history in the world...I am as familiar as you with the many, many ways in which we can deceive ourselves. But how can we live if we do not believe we know who we are, and who we have been?"

Although this is true, what right to we have in asking anyone to prove the substance of their existence...her lecture comes at a bad time. I found myself wondering if she was slipping as a reliable voice...or wondering if she ever had been. While her verbosity is potentially unrivaled, its the things she omits that begin to create the story that draws you in. Who is this person? Are there unreliable, less than truthful places in her story? As she tells the part of her story she wants to over and over again there are subtle changes. Is she changing her story? Are we having a Pincher Martin moment, where her soul is trying to come to terms with her death while she wanders around one island after another?

Her only hope and aspiration is to someday have heads turn in the street as she walks by and a low murmur throughout the crowd that says "There goes Susan Barton the castaway..." But it is a dying ambition. She can play the role of mother, whether reconciled or unreconciled, she can play the role of mistress or sometime lover, she can play the role of wandering gypsy or house keeper...but she cannot play the role of Robinson Crusoe.

While she constantly struggles to have ownership of her story and have a voice, Friday has consigned himself to not communicating in any way. While Susan talks endlessly to Friday, not needing a response to prod her along, Friday never attempts to communicate back. Even when Susan thinks they are making music together, it is her constant, frenetic attempt to communicate, not his. And when she stands in front of him playing anything she can think of to cause the most discord, Friday doesn't even look up. He is lost in a world that has refused to see him, so he refuses to acknowledge it.

When Susan begins to consign herself to her fate, she has gone from "castaway" to "muse" to "whore," while Friday is being taught to write and been given the tools to finally express himself. Will he be able to? If he finally does learn to write, to have a voice and speak for himself, will he then have to fight for the right to keep his authenticity?  He emerges as a tabula rasa, and the reader is hopeful for him, while Susan, jaded seems to drift into a ineffectual silence.

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