Please note, this review contains mentions of sexual assault.
Several years ago during a dinner party at my home, a friend from South Africa noticed that I had a copy of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace on my bookshelf. It became an instant conversation piece. The friend reported that the book, published in 1999, had caused a fervor upon its publication, that many South Africans considered the work to be racist, and that the vitriol was believed to have prompted Coetzee’s subsequent decision to emigrate to Australia. I first read Disgrace back in college, and I remembered the book mostly for its harrowing depiction of the main character’s daughter being sexually assaulted during a home invasion on an isolated farm. I also remembered its tone; the novel is told in a flat, understated but precise prose that makes it feel impossible to argue with either the book’s literary quality or its moral authority.
I picked up my old paperback copy of Disgrace recently before diving into Fiona Snyckers’s Lacuna, a novel in deep “intertextual conversation” with Coetzee’s original work. Disgrace is told from the close third-person perspective of David Lurie, a white college professor in Cape Town who has disgraced himself in an affair with one of his students. The aforementioned rape happens while he is visiting his daughter Lucy’s farm. Lacuna is narrated from Lucy’s perspective and she herself is the lacuna, the empty space that dares to speak up and talk back, reclaiming her own story.
In Lacuna, Snyckers rewrites both the story of Disgrace and the story of the novel’s making. In Lacuna, Lucy Lurie is an aspiring academic who teaches in the same English department as the writer J.M. Coetzee. This fictional Coetzee has long been at work on a single novel (the real-life Nobel-Prize winning Coetzee is the author of over a dozen), unsure how to proceed after a promising first half. Inspiration strikes when Lucy Lurie visits her father’s farm and is viciously attacked. Snyckers’s Lucy recognizes her own mannerisms in the Lucy of Coetzee’s novel and is indignant at the appropriation of her rape for use in this man’s work.
While Coetzee writes in a kind of monotone of tragic resignation, Snyckers’s tone is ironic, rageful, cutting, and often funny, a woman writing with the hyperawareness of the social media and #MeToo era: “Every middle-class woman who gets raped has a therapist,” she quips. “If John Coetzee’s story is fountain pen on vellum, mine is menstrual blood on toilet paper.” Lucy becomes obsessed with tracking down Coetzee so she can lay her list of grievances at his feet. She is thwarted by his hermetic lifestyle and by her own traumatized inability to leave her house.
In Disgrace, Lucy accepts her rape and its resulting pregnancy with resignation. She is the book’s clear moral center, a white woman who responds to an act of black vengeance with complete abjection. Lacuna’s Lucy makes sure to take the morning after pill and finds the addition of this “messianic” mixed-race child to be an insult to her own agency. “You must see how flawed it is to liken the restoration of black power in South Africa to a group of black men gang-raping a white woman,” Lucy imagines telling Coetzee. Lucy (and Snyckers) object to Disgrace on the intersectional grounds that its allegory is both racist and sexist, recasting a peaceful transfer of power as violent usurpation and doing so using rape as its primary metaphor. “You can’t declare the country free and ready to move on from apartheid on the back of a woman who has been raped. Your analogy itself is oppressive. Can you see that?”
Most of Lacuna takes the form of dialogues, real and imagined, among Lucy and her therapist, best friend, a vegan she meets on a dating app, and Coetzee critics. Some of these conversations are real and some are imaginary; Lucy is not always a reliable narrator. Paralyzed by PTSD, she is mostly trapped at home in the front half of the novel and very much trapped in her own head. The reader starts to feel that something else needs to happen, that this novel needs to somehow change our understanding of the original. When that move arrives, it manages to feel both organic and just right, providing a meaningful and necessary twist on the Coetzee text.
What some readers might identify as Lacuna’s flaws are exactly what others could praise as its strengths. Generally, you’re the kind of reader who either goes in for a feminist revision or you’re not. Though I think of myself as the former, I have to admit that I started reading Lacuna feeling suspicious of its project. I worried that Snyckers would oversimplify the complex morality of the Coetzee novel. Most of all, I think I was won over yet again by that tone of literary and moral authority I mentioned above, and how easy it is to mistake one for the other. Because after reading Lacuna, it seemed to me that Coetzee’s moral vision is ultimately more blinkered than complex. Snyckers calls for an entirely different vision, one that doesn’t resort to using rape as a metaphor for anything.
Snyckers suggests that moral complexity is actually the acknowledgment that there is no one true perspective, no single right answer. This Lucy is aware of her privilege without being able to ever fully escape it, but neither does she relinquish her own agency. Her book is “female and angry and incoherent and messy and ugly and raw.” Three cheers for that.
by Fiona Snyckers
Published on January 11, 2022
Excellent review. I have read Coetzee’s disgrace but not Lacuna. You have piqued my interest. Disgrace was my first Coetzee novel and I have read half a dozen since. I find him to be a very good writer and I like his novels. I didn’t realize The furor of Disgrace is what prompted his move to Australia.
Fiona Snyckers and Pan Macmillan SA continues to laud this novel (as you do, which is perhaps because you do not know the background and context), which could easily be described as the work of a privileged white feminist and Islamophobe. Please check the “The Thinker” academic journal on how Pan Macmillan ‘lost/misplaced/overlooked my work “The Girl with the Red Flower”, which writes from the point of view of Soraya (the Muslim sex worker from Disgrace) while shortly afterwards publishing Lacuna. (AW Misbach)