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    Sobriquet 37.18

    Sunday, December 30, 2007
    A few days ago, I wrote about the acute sense of isolation I have been experiencing since I started working on the dissertation in earnest a couple of weeks ago. This uncomfortably solipsistic mood, I suspect, has intensified as a result of my single-minded push to get this thing started at a time when, since I am currently between semesters, I do have a sense of external structure within which to arrange my life. For some people--including various incarnations of myself over the years--this sort of structureless situation can be a delightfully liberating experience, pulsing with an exciting blend of possibility and adventure. For me, at this time, in this place, however, it has not been particularly enjoyable. My sleep schedule, for instance, has morphed into that of Count Dracula. And, given the relatively little amount of sunlight one is likely to encounter during a typical upstate New York winter, I am missing natural light. Two days ago, I could not sleep until well after six in the morning, which prompted me to drink fewer caffeinated sodas yesterday, and I was able to fall asleep at a comparatively early hour. Then I proceeded to wake up at noon today, eat, do a crossword puzzle or two, and promptly fall back asleep until after five. I would yell "argh" at this point to emphasize my frustration with myself, but--since this is a written medium--that would not work very well.

    In any case, Minxy was kind enough to keep me company last night, effectively lifting the heavy sense of solipsism from my existence. It really is amazing how one can allow oneself to sink into such a state with such ease and it is equally amazing how quickly a friend can help ease that feeling. So, after I read the two articles I assigned myself yesterday, and after I had finished cleaning, Minxy and I made candles. I'd picked up some basic candle making equipment a few days ago in an effort to find a creative outlet wholly unrelated to my academic work. I'd always thought it would be an interesting enterprise and, as it turns out, it's rather enjoyable. Minxy actually posted an entry about it on her blog, if anyone cares to read about our little project.

    I find that I benefit a great deal from trying my hand at certain crafts because, in doing so, I am able to A) read for pleasure, even if only a few paragraphs; B) use long-neglected parts of my brain; C) come up with elaborate money-making schemes based on the rather silly notion that I could somehow transform myself into a master craftsman; and D) feel a sense of accomplishment at a time when I battle with wanting to stop writing my dissertation--which, I must emphasize, should not be confused with a desire to quit.

    Regardless, I have been feeling somewhat strained by the dissertation. I initially thought I would have finished a good deal of writing already and would be able to take a bit of a break. Instead, I desperately want to take a break but feel that I am no where near far enough along in the procedure to justify (to myself, always to myself) taking a breather. Plus, having already read so many articles on one novel, I find myself frustrated by the fact that so many of the essays I have been reading essentially repeat one another. Still, I have made my commitment to do the work I have set out to do, so I should not complain too much. It's not like there's a gun to my head (at least as far as I know. I cannot see behind me, but I am assuming this to be the case.).

    So, after finding that I was unable to fall asleep a few nights ago, I finished listening to the audiobook version of Don DeLillo's Mao II (figuring that, if I cannot read books for fun, I can listen to books for fun when driving or laying in bed), I read Brian Macaskill and Jeanne Colleran's peculiar "Interfering with 'The Mind of Apartheid,'" a thoroughly poststructuralist essay split into the essay proper and a sprawling commentary in the form of an exceedingly long footnote clearly inspired by the sort of linguistic/structural (inter)play one finds in Derrida's Glas (the text practically overflows with references to Derrida) and reminiscent of Nabokov's Pale Fire. Not surprisingly, with language alternating between lyrical and painful, the essay dealt with linguistics to such an extent that Age of Iron, when mentioned, was almost an afterthought.

    I also read Ina Grabe's "Writing as Exploration and Revelation: Experiencing the Environment, Whether Local or Global, as Envisioned by Different Role Players in J. M. Coetzee's Latest Novels" and Kay Sulk's "'Visiting Himself on Me': The Angel, the Witness, and the Modern Subject of Enunciation in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron" yesterday, making me feel quite accomplished, relatively speaking. Having read two of her other essays on Age of Iron, I was not surprised by the content or focus of this essay, though I still marvel at the sheer length of her essay titles. A good deal of this essay sought, again, to make the same connections between Foe and Age of Iron as she did in "Fictionalization of Current Socio-Political Issues in J.M. Coetzee's Writing: Narrative Strategies in Age of Iron and Foe," though extending the connections to The Master of Petersburg and Disgrace, as well. Sulk's essay, although largely a discussion of linguistic and rhetorical aspects of the novel, does provide some interesting insights into the character of Verceuil, which I found useful.

    Each of today's readings, Annunciata Arfiero's "The Vain Quest for the Word: Redemptive Silence in Age of Iron" and Nicholas Meihuizen's "Beckett and Coetzee: The Ethics of Insularity" deal with the well-established affinities between the two Nobel Laureates, though the latter essay, as its title indicates, focuses more specifically on the connections while the former compares two writers' work in a larger discussion of Coetzee's exploration of silence in Age of Iron. While both were well-written and thoughtful studies of Coetzee's work, neither provided any new insights into the work. Given the amount of critical discussion surrounding Coetzee's work--what William Gaddis would term "an academic cottage industry"--this is to be expected. In the words with which Beckett opens Murphy, "the sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new."

    And, yes, I cleaned some more.

    For tomorrow: Read another article (there's only one left in my stack!) and enjoy the day. I need a bit of a break, especially if I am going to start writing in a few days. . .

    Works Cited

    Arfiero, Annunciata. "The Vain Quest for the Word: Redemptive Silence in Age of Iron." Annali Di Ca' Foscari: Rivista Della Facoltà Di Lingue E Letterature Straniere Dell'Università Di Venezia. 32.1-2 (1993): 5-25.

    Gr?be, Ina. "Writing as Exploration and Revelation: Experiencing the Environment, Whether Local or Global, as Envisioned by Different Role-Players in J. M. Coetzee's Latest Novels." Journal of Literary Studies/Tydskrif Vir Literatuurwetenskap. 17.3-4 (2001): 120-44.

    Macaskill, Brian, and Jeanne Colleran. "Interfering with 'The Mind of Apartheid'." Pretexts: Studies in Writing and Culture. 4.1 (1992): 67-84.

    Meihuizen, Nicholas. "Beckett and Coetzee: The Aesthetics of Insularity." Literator: Tydskrif Vir Besondere En Vergelykende Taal- En Literatuurstudie/Journal of Literary Criticism, Comparative Linguistics and Literary Studies. 17.1 (1996): 143-52.

    Sulk, Kay. "'Visiting Himself on Me'-The Angel, the Witness and the Modern Subject of Enunciation in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron." Journal of Literary Studies/Tydskrif Vir Literatuurwetenskap. 18.3-4 (2002): 313-26.

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    Since it is after three in the morning, I will keep this extremely brief. Just to report on my progress: I read three essays today, so I am quite pleased with myself. Still, in the interests of not staying up too late, I will just assign myself another two essays for tomorrow and a bit more cleaning with the promise to write more about today when I am not as tired as I am.

    On a totally random note: If anyone was wondering, Social Distortion's "Far Behind" is the band's best song in a decade.
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    Saturday, December 29, 2007
    Today was one of those eerily solipsistic days I find myself experiencing more often. Living alone, feeling the need to make use of the rare days when I do not have to wake up early to teach, I throw myself headlong into my work, forcefully cultivating a sense of urgency that seems to deemphasize the world outside of my dissertation to such a tremendous extent that my existence, for the moment, is inseparable from my work. I do not like this tendency of mine because I needlessly heap feelings of loneliness and desperation onto shoulders already stooped under the weight of a sizable (though voluntarily assumed) academic burden, producing a rather negative mood in which I refrain from socializing (saying to myself: I need to get "this" done first. . .) and fight the temptation to wallow in a self-pity in which I am wholly undeserving to wallow. When I am in such a state, I have learned, I become increasingly disorganized, allowing what might otherwise be playfully called "a little mess" to grow into a painfully ubiquitous layer of clutter taking over my living space. Accompanying this physical messiness is the rather vexing tendency to disregard healthy eating habits, the cumulative effects of which, I imagine, could very easily trigger a manic pessimism if I am not too careful. So, I am hereby resolving to clean my home tomorrow. Not entirely, perhaps, but certainly enough to make me feel in control of my life again. I have also determined to regularly take a night off to enjoy the company of my friends and family. That way, I hope, I can minimize the cumbersome weight of an unwelcome solipsism.

    In any case, I did go over two more articles, putting me within spitting distance of actually starting to write the first chapter (though this is a bit misleading since I already published a small piece on Disgrace a few years ago, which I intend to revise and incorporate into this chapter. . .so I guess I kinda-sorta started it already). All right, to get down to business: I tackled Derek Attridge's "Trusting the Other: Ethics and Politics in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron" and another of Ina Grabe's articles on Coetzee, "Fictionalization of Current Socio-Political Issues in J. M. Coetzee's Writing: Narrative Strategies in Age of Iron and Foe." Again, as the title indicates, Grabe focuses on issues of writing, narrative structure, and socio-political content, delivering a highly theoretical though not terribly unique reading of Coetzee's fiction. I found the article to be a prolix and occasionally repetitive discussion of insights more clearly and concisely expressed in the work of other critics. I also felt that the author was somewhat ineffective in her assertions about the relationship between Foe and Age of Iron, relying at times on reed-thin theoretical connections to support her case. Still, I applaud Grabe for addressing Age of Iron's relationship to the author's earlier novels. Without the benefit of having yet read The Master of Petersburg, Disgrace, The Lives of Animals, Elizabeth Costello, or Slow Man, Grabe struggles with the same issue many of her fellow critics faced with the publication of Age of Iron: there was simply nothing like it in Coetzee's previous work and, though not altogether convincing in retrospect, Grabe's essay does probe the author's oeuvre for signs of critically neglected themes underlying his entire body of work. In doing so, it would seem, Grabe paved the way for some of the later studies which, with the benefit of having read the author's post-apartheid fiction, explore those connections.

    Attridge, like Grabe, has been recognized as one of the foremost Coetzee scholars active in the academy. In fact, when assembling the editorial board for our journal's Coetzee issue a few years back, we were delighted to have Dr. Attridge assist us in vetting submissions. Having always found Attridge's treatment of Coetzee to be insightful, I looked forward to reading "Trusting the Other." Using a discussion of the epistolarity of the novel as a departure point from which to explore Coetzee's meditations on themes such as trust, love, (un)knowing, and alterity--themes of continued critical interest in the discourse surrounding Age of Iron--Attridge lays the framework for countless subsequent studies. I found Attridge's cautious treatment of Vercueil, in particular, quite useful; like several other readers, I did not explicitly read race into Vercueil and find his undefinability to be a fundamental aspect of his character. I have always felt that the man is more significant than simply serving as the emblem of middle-aged non-white poverty some critics construe him to be--and, like Attridge, find that that importance resides, at least partially, in his "unknowable" nature (67).

    For tomorrow: Two more articles and work on extracurriculars--including cleaning. . .

    Works Cited

    Attridge, Derek. "Trusting the Other: Ethics and Politics in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron." South Atlantic Quarterly. 93.1 (1994): 59-82.

    Grabe, Ina. "Fictionalization of Current Socio-Political Issues in J.M. Coetzee's Writing: Narrative Strategies in Age of Iron and Foe." Journal of Literary Studies/Tydskrif Vir Literatuurwetenskap. 9.3-4 (1993): 284-301.

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    Friday, December 28, 2007
    Well, I am back at my apartment after a few days spent visiting my family and I'm not sure which place is more deserving of the title "home." I feel like saying "I just got home from home," but that sounds pretty stupid. . .but that is how I always feel. Everywhere I have lived since becoming an academic nomad a dozen years ago has the strange quality of feeling both like home and like a place in which I do not belong. The old adage tells us that home is where the heart is, but when our heart splinters into dozens of shards in order to be with those people that we love--especially when those people we love live in areas we have never lived in ourselves--it seems the saying does not yield the meaning we want it to provide.

    In a society where a person can conceivably fall asleep in the passenger seat of a car driving past a restaurant in one state and wake up in front of that same restaurant several hundred miles away in another state or country within a matter of hours, the meaning of home cannot carry the same connotations it once did. As we disperse, so too does the meaning of the word "home." I, for instance, am at home with my family, but miss my friends and so, feel away from home at precisely the moment I feel most at home. I feel at home when I am at work or in my apartment or at a friend's house, but miss my family. I often think that the only home I truly know is an idealized nostalgic home of the metaphysical sort, built upon memories and shaped by current dissatisfaction. Still, at this point all I know is that the entire time I was home, I wanted to come home to do work with which I feel anything but at home. And so continues the dissertation saga...

    I find that I work most efficiently in my apartment because I can isolate myself from certain distractions with which I could not otherwise prevent myself from coming into contact. Still, I dislike being away from my friends and family. As I move forward with this oh-so-isolating project, then, I think I will have to devise some way to balance the desire to return home to my family with the need to work on my research. It seems to me that the best solution will be to arrange for a visit every month or so, during which time I will not work on my dissertation and thus focus on the relationships I feel I have neglected while allowing myself not to feel guilty for ceasing the work I feel an equally pressing desire to finish. I have already made some efforts to reconnect with my friends, many of whom I have neglected for far too long, and try to socialize with more regularity than I had hitherto allowed myself to do. I think that if I can establish that sort of routine, I will feel considerably better about myself. In order to do so, however, I suspect I will need to finish this first chapter of the dissertation, if only to prove to myself that I can do the sort of work one would expect from a doctoral student on his way to a Ph.D. The difference between having some tangible evidence that one can do the sort of work one is required to do as opposed to "knowing" or "believing" one can, it seems, is very great, indeed--and certainly something I feel I need to achieve in order to quell the anxieties and fears accompanying the dissertation. Then, with that knowledge secured, I can take breaks, knowing what it is I am taking a break from.

    One of the bigger problems I find myself facing now is the rather annoying tendency of time to distort as I work on my project. If writing a dissertation can be likened to traversing a desert across which the corpses of A.B.D.s unable to finish their work lay scattered like the tumbleweed of Warner Brothers cartoons, then the projected date of completion for each section of the dissertation can be compared to a mirage. Seriously, I think to myself "I'll have the Age of Iron section written in a week," but, as I approach that date, the image of having finished the bit of writing in question still dances, teasingly, at as great a distance as it had when I first envisioned it.

    Regardless, this is where I find myself today, plodding through the sand, sweating in the sun, trying to reach that first checkpoint, that initial oasis, that first notch on my belt, and feeling utterly, totally frustrated by the fact that it seems as far away as it ever was. So I turn to Aesop, rather than Warner Brothers: I must be the tortoise, not the hare, and plod along, ignoring the meep-meep of the Roadrunner whose speed I know I cannot match and dodging the Acme anvils Wile E. Coyote keeps dropping from the edges of the cartoon cliffs dotting the barren landscape in which I find myself.

    So, I did go over an article a day the entire time I was at home: Myrtle Hooper's "'Sweets for My Daughter': Coetzee, Eliot and the Private Mode," Gilbert Yeoh's "J.M. Coetzee and Samuel Beckett: Ethics, Truth-Telling, and Self-Deception," Sheila Whittick's "In the Shadow of Last Things-The Voice of the Confessant in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron," and Mary Kinzie's "The Cure of Poetry: On the Discipline of Word and Spirit in Conditions of Dryness: An Essay with Admonishments from the Work of Louise Bogan, J. M. Coetzee, and Other Poets." Hooper's essay foregrounds the role of readership in the constitution of Age of Iron and considers how Coetzee's "personal" narrative strategy can bring readers to consider the very "public" issues some critics fault Coetzee for not explicitly addressing in his fiction. Whittick's essay considers the purpose(s) of confessional literature and shows how Mrs. Curren uses the confessional mode to absolve herself (though the author does not go so far as to assess whether or not Curren is successful in her attempts) of the guilt she feels at having lived in, benefited from, and contributed to the barbarousness of South African apartheid. Gilbert Yeoh also addresses the function of confessional literature and concludes that "[t]he self in Coetzee's fiction is irredeemably self-interested, fails to transcend itself to engage with the other as other and, in effect, is caught in an interpersonal aporia between self and the other," essentially echoing a half-dozen other critics who feel Mrs. Curren is irreversibly separated from and unable to truly comprehend the other (345). Finally, Kinzie's article explores the symbolic, allegoric, and metonymic function of several texts, including Age of Iron. Ultimately, she concludes that, as a "poet" in the truest sense of the term, Coetzee refuses to "substitut[e] an outward battle for an inward one" and "brought to the threshold of comprehension a wholeness of heart that moves surely from inward to outward, complementing the pressure of being-in-the-world in the opposing direction" (477-478). In other words, when Mrs. Curren realizes that she cannot effectively use metonymy to express "the power of love. . .to strengthen one for the journey away from the familiar and beloved" and resolves to love the unlovable, Coetzee presents the truth naked, without resorting to figurative language to serve as its vessel (476).

    For tomorrow: Although I have to work on the article I mentioned a few times, I will try to get through two additional essays on Age of Iron.

    Works Cited

    Hooper, Myrtle. "'Sweets for My Daughter': Coetzee, Eliot and the Private Mode." Critical Survey. 11.2 (1999): 31-44.

    Kinzie, Mary. "The Cure of Poetry: On the Discipline of Word and Spirit in Conditions of Dryness: An Essay with Admonishments from the Works of Louise Bogan, J. M. Coetzee, and Other Poets." Southwest Review. 76.4 (1991): 456-78.

    Whittick, Sheila C. "In the Shadow of Last Things-The Voice of the Confessant in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron." Commonwealth Essays and Studies. 19.1 (1996): 43-59.

    Yeoh, Gilbert. "J. M. Coetzee and Samuel Beckett: Ethics, Truth-Telling, and Self-Deception." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction. 44.4 (2003): 331-48.

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    Monday, December 24, 2007
    Today has been a long day and I am too exhausted to write much of substance, so I am going to try to keep this entry short.

    I am happy to report that I finished the article I have been working on the past couple of days, sent it off to my editor, and received a nice return email suggesting a few minor revisions. After spending as much time as I did on the essay, it is a tremendous relief to have some positive feedback so soon after finishing the first draft. I hope to have the revision completed soon and will provide publication information if and when the article appears.

    I also read the one article I assigned myself for the day. Ian Duncan's "Narrative Authority in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron" is another study of Mrs. Curren's ability to comment on the political landscape of South Africa in the last years of apartheid. Like many similarly-themed essays, Duncan's study considers the ways in which the elderly narrator's social position impacts her ability to speak of the atrocities she witnesses throughout the novel. Well-written and comparatively brief, Duncan's essay provides an accessible , if not wholly original, look into the some of the most discussed aspects of Age of Iron.

    On a light note, I'd just like to share a rather amusing (to me, at least) anecdote before signing off for the evening:

    So, I'm driving the four hours to my parents' house to spend a few days with my family and I decide to listen to an audiobook of Don DeLillo's Mao II. As I am driving, I notice that my cat's plaintive meowing has somehow morphed into a rather abrupt "mao! mao!" as he tries to escape from the "Pet Taxi" in which he is interred for the duration of the trip, transforming the drive into something I imagine Negativland might want to record.

    Well, Merry Christmas to those of you for whom the holiday is an important day. Since I would like to focus on my family for the next couple of days, I make no promises to post an entry until after the holiday, but I will set the goal of reading at least one article each day.

    Work Cited

    Duncan, Ian. "Narrative Authority in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron." Tydskrif Vir Letterkunde. 43.2 (2006): 174-85.

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    Sunday, December 23, 2007
    Today's entry is going to have to be a very short one. I have been writing an article all day and, as I edge closer to 3 a.m., I find that my ability to construct cogent sentences has all but evaporated. This is a good thing, though. My fatigue now is a result of having reviewed an article (and re-read another) for the dissertation and having written more than half of an article I was commissioned to write. So, yeah, I feel accomplished. Whoo-hoo, as they say, whoo-hoo!

    Ina Grabe's "Voices in Contemporary South African Narrative: An Exploration of Narrative Strategies for Engaging with Current Socio-Political Issues" did not really offer much insight into Age of Iron.
    Gr?be focuses primarily on other works, only briefly touching upon Age of Iron, but her essay does seem to support some of my own interpretations of Coetzee's novel in relation to his earlier work, which was nice.

    For tomorrow: Read one article and finish writing the one I am working on.

    Work Cited

    Gr?be, Ina. "Voices in Contemporary South African Narrative: An Exploration of Narrative Strategies for Engaging with Current Socio-Political Issues." Journal of Literary Studies/Tydskrif Vir Literatuurwetenskap. 11.2 (1995): 29-37.

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    Saturday, December 22, 2007
    Okay, so I spent the early part of the day packing up my office and helping one of my coworkers move the contents of her old office to her new one, which means that I was well-neigh tuckered out by midday. To make myself feel a bit more academically productive, though, I printed out a few hundred pages of criticism from some PDF files I'd received via the university's interlibrary loan service. Still, the printing, collating, and stapling of a dozen or so critical articles hardly qualifies as the sort of work I'd hoped to accomplish today so, after a few hours of socializing, I managed to read David E. Hoegberg's "'Where is Hope': Coetzee's Rewriting of Dante in Age of Iron."

    Having already read Sheila Roberts's essay on the same topic, I must admit that I am still not wholly convinced that Coetzee based the structure of his novel, in part, around the organization of Dante's famed poem, though Hoegberg's article does make a more compelling case than Roberts's. Though he identifies the conflict between Black and White South Africans in the nineteen-eighties as an echo of the White Guelph/Black Guelph hostilities tearing through Dante's thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Florence among other analogues, it is the emphasis upon direct experience that really forms the meat of Hoegberg's article. Both Dante and Mrs. Curren, the critic argues, must undertake a journey into the Underworld (literally in the Inferno and figuratively in Age of Iron) in order to grasp the truth about the political strife afflicting their respective societies.

    Overall, Hoegberg's essay does identify a number of parallels between Coetzee's novel and Dante's poem, a good portion of which, at the very least, seem to support the critic's assertion that Coetzee may have crafted a parody--which, according to Linda Hutcheon is an "ambivilance set up between conservative repetition and revolutionary difference"--of the Inferno (77). In the end, however, Hoegberg arrives at many of the same conclusions about Coetzee's literary purposes as quite a few fellow critics, suggesting that if Coetzee did, in fact, imbue his novel with the intertextual references the critic identifies, it is only a very minor aspect of Age of Iron, and one that merely serves as one of several ways for Coetzee to comment on the individual's struggle to preserve humanity and achieve understanding in the face of violent social struggle.

    For tomorrow: Read another article and keep working on the extra-curricular writing.

    Works Cited

    Hoegberg, David E. "'Where Is Hope?': Coetzee's Rewriting of Dante in Age of Iron." English in Africa. 25.1 (1998): 27-42.

    Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms. New York: Methuen, 1985.

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    Friday, December 21, 2007
    Today was one of those days when, prior to beginning this blog project, I would not have worked on my dissertation at all. I woke up with an earache that became a full-fledged headache by midday and I was uncommonly groggy despite having slept well. So I napped for a few hours, woke up, and napped for another few hours, essentially wasting the day. A month ago I would have declared the day "lost" and spent the rest of afternoon and evening surfing around on the internet or solving crossword puzzles or some such activity.

    Now, I am not going to lie and say I did not dawdle part of the evening away reading the Mitchell Report, but I did manage to read the two articles I set aside for myself. Granted, I did have to drive myself to the Old Country Buffet and the Barnes and Noble Cafe to find places to read far enough away from my bed to avoid the temptation to just sleep my way through the entire day.

    In any case, I picked up The Master of Petersburg at the Barnes and Noble, effectively increasing my reading list again.

    Still, I am pleased that I read what I set out to read despite the fact that today was not one of my more positive days, mood-wise. The more my head throbbed, it seemed, the more irritated I grew at the prospect of spending so much time reading critical articles, trying to squeeze a few drops of useful (to me, at least) information for the dissertation. I felt discouraged and perhaps a bit childish (more of the sense of "bud aye doan' wanna" rearing its ugly head). But I did it, largely thanks to this blog so, again, I want to thank those of you kind enough to keep reading this and checking in on me...your support really has made a significant difference.

    Today's readings, unfortunately, were largely irrelevant to my research, but did yield a few precious nuggets of critical insight into Age of Iron. The first article I read, Travis V. Mason's "Dog Gambit: Shifting the Species Boundary in J. M. Coetzee's Recent Fiction" adds another dozen or so pages to the already skyscraping pile of criticism focusing on human/animal relations in Disgrace and The Lives of Animals. Having read a good deal of the critical writing surrounding Disgrace, I am relatively familiar with the pre-existing critical miasma enveloping much of the author's recent oeuvre, and have come to appreciate many of the arguments for Coetzee's work as the author's attempt to raise concern for animal rights. Although some of the animal rights-oriented critics have made the mistake of using Coetzee as a soapbox from which to make an assortment of decidedly unliterary claims, Mason manages to stay true to the texts he discusses, though, in my opinion, he reads his own ideas too deeply into the words of another on several occasions. The most glaring example of this tendency would have to be Mason's assertion that, via what the critic rather misleadingly terms "pronominal shiftiness" (the latter term evokes an almost sinister connotation when, in fact, Mason does not mean to imply anything of the sort), Coetzee 's Disgrace "suggest[s] the possibility that the dogs are speaking to each other, or to Lucy and David" (38) in the scene preceding Lucy's rape:

    Three men are coming toward them on the path, or two men and a boy. They are walking fast, with countrymen's long strides. The dog at Lucy's side slows down, bristles.

    "Should we be nervous?" he murmers.

    "I don't know."

    She shortens the Dobermanns' leashes. The men are upon them. A nod, a greeting, and they have passed.

    "Who are they?" he asks.

    "I've never laid eyes on them before." (91)

    "Gramatically speaking," Mason observes, "the first line of dialogue is attributable to the last character mentioned. Since Coetzee "uses the pronoun 'he' to identify the speaker," Mason argues, and since "the last character mentioned" is "the dog at Lucy's side," the critic suggests the "referent-ambiguity" may imply that the male dog literally speaks in the scene (38). Admitting, however, that "the transgression of a species boundary" may be "too radical a reading," Mason does shift his focus the rather common assertion that Coetzee uses the aforementioned pronominal shiftiness to enable the novel to be read in "a political context as a challenge to a particular type of person's--white, male, human--ownership of voice," essentially echoing scores of earlier critical assessments of Coetzee's work as fundamentally dealing with the relationship between language and power (38).

    Overall, though, Mason's essay is a readable, if not altogether fresh, reading of Coetzee's interest in human/animal relationships.

    The second essay I read, Frank Schulze-Engler's "Literature and Civil Society in South Africa," deals only briefly with Age of Iron. Not having read some of the novels Schulze-Engler discusses, I cannot make any claims as to the validity of his readings, but his consideration of the ways in which the socio-political milieu of South Africa (and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the world) interact with creative works seems plausible enough.

    For tomorrow: As Friday promises to be a busy day, I will read one article tomorrow in addition to the work I will continue to do on my non-dissertation writing.

    Works Cited

    Coetzee, J. M. Disgrace. New York: Vikings, 1999.

    Mason, Travis V. "Dog Gambit: Shifting the Species Boundary in J. M. Coetzee's Recent Fiction." Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature. 39.4 (2006): 129-44.

    Schulze-Engler, Frank. "Literature and Civil Society in South Africa." ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature. 27.1 (1996): 21-40.

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    Thursday, December 20, 2007
    Since it is approaching 3:00 in the morning, I will keep today's entry brief. I did read the one article I had planned to read, but I did not manage to get the extra-curricular work done, so I will have to work doubly hard tomorrow to do so. Still, I am not too disappointed because this evening afforded me the opportunity to spend time with friends, eating gumbo and playing Apples to Apples...just the sort of re-energizing activity I need every so often to keep plugging away at this beast of a project.

    For today I read Geoffrey Baker's "The Limits of Sympathy: J.M. Coetzee's Evolving Ethics of Engagement," a rather pedestrian consideration of sympathy and compassion in Lives of Animals, Age of Iron, and Disgrace. Seeking to situate his discussion within the context of a preexisting philosophical debate, Baker arrives at precisely the same conclusion as many of Coetzee's critics: that there are no easy answers to complex questions in the author's fiction. Ultimately, Baker concludes that Coetzee aligns himself more closely with Jacques Derrida and Theodor Adorno than with Jean-Paul Sartre by attempting to effect change on "the level at which meaning and the structure of meaning that inform political praxis take shape" rather than issue "a clear call to arms, an uncomplicated recommendation for practical [political] action" depicted in "a mimetic realism" (44). This argument, essentially, taps into a dynamic related to the one Lidan Lin identifies as a "rhetoric of simultaneity": Coetzee's fiction does not overtly discuss the problems of South Africa or offer a remedy to the nation's social ills, focusing instead on deeper, more universal epistemological concerns.

    For tomorrow: Read two more essays and work on the article I didn't work on today.

    Work Cited

    Baker, Geoffrey. "The Limits of Sympathy: J. M. Coetzee's Evolving Ethics of Engagement." ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature. 36.1-2 (2005): 27-49.

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    Wednesday, December 19, 2007
    Anyone who has ever attended graduate school in the humanities, especially those folks in fields where the odds of landing a tenure-track job are not particularly high, will be familiar with the phrase "publish or perish," the unofficial motto of academia. Essentially, we are told from the moment we set foot in our first graduate seminar that if we do not publish research in our respective fields, the likelihood of securing a comfortable living teaching at a college or university is essentially that of the Miami Dolphins making the NFL playoffs this year. In other words, your dreams of a twenty hour work week perish if you do not publish a sufficient amount of research to prove your worth as a scholar. Now, for some people, research is a great joy and the primary reason for attending graduate school. For others, the research is something to do in order to secure a teaching post. I place myself in the latter camp; though I genuinely enjoy reading and researching the authors and ideas I find fascinating, I am primarily concerned with teaching. That is where I find the most joy in life and, ironically, classroom discussion often inspires the critical thinking behind the articles I write.

    In any case, I find myself at a rather interesting place in my academic career. As an ABD student, I am qualified to teach at many schools and have, fortunately, not had a great deal of difficulty finding employment. As a fifth-year doctoral student, however, I am entirely off funding at my graduate school and must teach more classes than would optimally enable me to work on my dissertation at the pace I feel it deserves. (Note: the following passage is painfully cyclical and may make the reader dizzy). As a result, I find that I have to do the thing I most want to do (teach) in order to afford to support the completion of my doctoral studies (research), which I need to finish in order to land the sort of teaching job that will give me time to research and be an effective educator. Thus, teaching becomes the means to an end (that is, in itself, essentially, another means to another end) rather than the end to a means, which can be frustrating. I feel as if I am both where I want to be and about as far from where I want to be as one can be.

    Add the pressure to publish on top of all this and one may well find oneself taking on research duties unrelated to his or her dissertation in order to prove his or her scholarly value to a potential employer which, with the deadlines such extracurricular work carries with it, often pushes the deadline-free dissertation to the proverbial back burner's back burner. Having spent a significant time producing such "extra" research, I have been fortunate enough to forge good relationships with a number of publishers who occasionally solicit additional work from me. Naturally, I really want to keep writing for these publications. Unfortunately, I find that I am at a stage in my career where I actually have to decline such flattering solicitations if I am to free up the time I need to work on my own, increasingly burdensome, projects. Again, I am both where I want to be and, in being there, preventing myself from securing a comfortable position in the spot I am already in.

    This is the place I find myself in at the moment. I am slowly finishing up a few projects I took on, including a few for publications I am honored to be affiliated with. The reason I bring all this up is to justify why I will be assigning myself somewhat smaller dissertation readings for the next little while. In other words, I am not lazy, I promise! So, here's my plan: finish up the stuff pushing the dissertation back, work on the dissertation, focus on teaching. Makes sense, right?

    In any case, I did review the two essays I assigned to myself for today. The first article I read was Mike Marais's "Places of Pigs: The Tension between Implication and Transcendence in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg." This essay, like the article of Marais's I reviewed a few days ago, devotes most of its space to a discussion of several key critical debates surrounding Coetzee's writing: those dealing with power, language, and their effects on one another. What I found most interesting, however, was Marais's discussion of the ways in which Coetzee uses the physical states of his protagonists to mirror and comment upon the social and political conditions of their respective environments, an issue I found myself contemplating as I re-read Age of Iron last week.

    A year or so ago, when the tiny academic journal I edit was assembling an issue devoted to Coetzee, several noted Coetzee scholars served on our editorial advisory board. One of the critics kind enough to work with our staff, Lidan Lin, penned the second essay I read today, "J. M. Coetzee and the Postcolonial Rhetoric of Simultaneity," a fact which sparked a bit more interest in the essay than I might otherwise have had. I am pleased to share my favorable impression of Lin's scholarship. This is another of the more accessible articles I have encountered and one with a pleasingly critical tendency to engage with poststructural and postcolonial theory in such a way as to problematize some of the more sweepingly poststructural readings of Coetzee's work while simultaneously acknowledging their value. Although the essay dealt overwhelmingly with Foe, Lin's exploration of Coetzee's "rhetoric of simultaneity" provides a valuable insight into the author's entire body of work. Whereas some critics fault Coetzee for seemingly avoiding a specifically South African literature, Lin rightfully praises the author for his "willingness to de-essentialize the uniqueness of colonial oppression by bringing it to bear on similar human experiences outside the historical specificity of colonialism" (43). Though brief, Lin's discussion of Age of Iron is insightful and adds to the discussion surrounding Curren's relationship with Vercueil by focusing on the role the other (the vagrant) plays in forming the self (Curren).

    For tomorrow: Read one article, work on the aforementioned "extras," and have a delightful evening socializing with my wonderful coworkers because, hey, I deserve a break!

    Works Cited

    Lin, Lidan. "J. M. Coetzee and the Postcolonial Rhetoric of Simultaneity." International Fiction Review. 28.1-2 (2001): 42-53.

    Marais, Mike. "Places of Pigs: The Tension between Implication and Transcendence in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg." The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. 31.1 (1996): 83-95.

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    Tuesday, December 18, 2007
    Before I write anything about the dissertation tonight, I want to thank Dr. Mark "The Irascible Professor" Shapiro for linking to my blog from his popular website and for adding a review of Sobriquet Magazine to StumbleUpon. As a direct result of Dr. Shapiro's attention, Sobriquet has enjoyed a surge in traffic all afternoon.

    Why I am so grateful for the attention: One of the most frustrating aspects of dissertation writing, I feel, is the sheer isolation the endeavor requires. In addition to the time spent alone in the library reading and researching, in addition to the hours passed hermetically sealed in one's office, the scholar finds him- or herself strangely isolated even when in the company of others. Basically, as one digs deeper and deeper into a narrow academic vein, he or she finds fewer and fewer people who comprehend what he or she does, and even fewer who understand why. One of the reasons I have turned to the internet for support as I write my dissertation is to combat this solitude, essentially turning a private and isolating experience into a public and communal one. I imagine that if one were so inclined, he or she could quite literally blog a dissertation, incorporating suggestions and critical insights into the work as he or she progresses, but I will forgo that level of interactivity to focus on blogging the experience of writing a dissertation. In doing so, I hope to A) alleviate the aforementioned isolation, B) document the process of writing a dissertation in real-time to enable others to better comprehend what it means to write a doctoral thesis, and C) engage in meaningful discourse with people inside the academy and out.

    In any case, my assignment for today was to review two more articles dealing with J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron. The first essay I read, Fiona Probyn's "J. M. Coetzee: Writing With/out Authority," deals extensively with the author's relationship to feminism and postmodern feminist theory. In her readings of several of Coetzee's novels, Probyn focuses on the female narrators in In the Heart of the Country, Foe, and Age of Iron as speaking from the margins of their respective societies. As many Coetzee critics before her, Probyn concerns herself with the complex and often troubling relationship between power and communication in Coetzee's novels. Ultimately, Probyn's essay treads familiar ground, but successfully engages in the major discussions surrounding Coetzee's work. Additionally, despite a rather heavy reliance upon poststructuralist and psychoanalytic theorists, Probyn manages to avoid the all-too-common pitfall of overusing esoteric language and, instead, provides readers with a relatively accessible consideration of difficult socio-political questions of gender and marginality.

    The second essay I read--at the Old Country Buffet and Barnes & Noble's cafe, of all places--is easily one of the best pieces of literary criticism I have read in the decade or so I have been working with such writing. Michiel Heyns's excellent "Houseless Poverty in the House of Fiction: Vagrancy and Genre in Two Novels by J. M. Coetzee" initially struck me as having the potential to be one of those irritatingly abstract discussions of a vague theme one occasionally finds in academic writing. Fortunately, I was wrong. Heyns's essay is an extremely intelligent, thoughtfully-constructed, clearly-written, and tightly-focused reading of Life and Times of Michael K and Age of Iron. Drawing upon various canonical treatments of home to establish a thoroughly convincing literary lineage for Coetzee's two vagrants, Michael K and Vercueil, Heyns focuses on Coetzee's break from the traditionally picaresque depictions of vagrant-heroes and refusal to adhere to conventions of the Bildungsroman (wherein an "uncivilized" homeless person becomes civilized over the course of the novel) as a means to, again, explore the social and political significance of marginality. Furthermore, Heyns's decision to juxtapose the allegorical nature of Michael K's vagrancy to the realist nature of Vercuil's homelessness highlights various changes in Coetzee's fiction in the half-decade separating the publication of the two novels.

    For tomorrow: Well, since I have so much extra stuff I need to address, I will play it fairly conservatively and assign myself another two essays.

    Works Cited

    Heyns, Michiel. "Houseless Poverty in the House of Fiction: Vagrancy and Genre in Two Novels by J. M. Coetzee." Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa. 11.1 (1999): 20-35.

    Probyn, Fiona. "J. M. Coetzee: Writing with/out Authority." Jouvert: A Journal of Postcolonial Studies. 7.1 (2002): 45 paragraphs.

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    Sunday, December 16, 2007
    I'm going to keep today's entry brief because I've been up late addressing some non-dissertation work that's due tomorrow, the sort of loose ends one always finds oneself tying together at semester's end.

    In any case, I did review the four articles I assigned myself last night, which puts me in pretty good position to begin writing within a week or so...finally.

    I found Gilbert Yeoh's "Love and Indifference in J.M. Coetzee's Age of Iron" somewhat more thought-provoking than most criticism I have read regarding the novel. I also learned a new word: chiasmic, not to be confused with the equally cool "chimeric." Regardless, though I do not agree with Yeoh's almost purely negative interpretation of Mrs. Curren as a selfish, ultimately unloving woman, I do appreciate his attempts to prove the unreliability of her narration. In doing so, the author opens Coetzee's novel up to a broader range of interpretations. Additionally, in foregrounding Curren's preoccupation with literal and figurative motherhood, Yeoh rightfully invites readers to consider the metaphysical and existential importance of maternity when evaluating the relative morality of the elderly woman at the center of the novel. Furthermore, Yeoh's advocacy of Vercueil as the true hero of the novel is both refreshing and convincing.

    Both Rosemary Jolly's "Voyages in J.M. Coetzee's Novels: Narrative Conquests in Foe, Narrative Exploration in Age of Iron" and Mike Marais's "Writing With Eyes Shut: Ethics, Politics, and the Problem of the Other in the Fiction of J.M. Coetzee," on the other hand, seem to focus on many of the same issues critics regularly discuss in relation to Coetzee's fiction. Still, Jolly does identify Age of Iron as a thematic departure from Coetzee's previous work, even as she treads familiar critical ground while Marais admirably attempts to wrest Coetzee's fiction away from the postcolonial readings of Jolly and Kossew. Although neither essay seems poised to figure into my dissertation in any but the most cursory of contexts, the depth of their readings do make me question my initial evaluation of the novel as lacking universality.

    The fourth essay I read, Sheila Roberts's "'City of Man': The Appropriation of Dante's Inferno in J.M. Coetzee's Age of Iron," is an interesting specimen of good criticism taken a bit too far. Although Roberts does a nice job exploring the intertextual aspects of Age of Iron, she occasionally fails to provide adequate support for her assertions, thereby weakening what could be a very strong interpretation. Still, despite the odd unsubstantiated comment, Roberts's essay stands out as one of the better--and more sympathetic--considerations of Curren's spiritual and psychological isolation as well as a fine assessment of the mother-daughter dynamic present throughout the text. So, while some of the references to Charon and Virgil seem forced, Roberts does succeed in furthering the critical discourse surrounding two of Age of Iron's most significant themes.

    For tomorrow: Review two articles more.

    Works Cited

    Jolly, Rosemary. "Voyages in J. M. Coetzee's Novels: Narrative Conquests in Foe, Narrative Exploration in Age of Iron." Matatu: Journal for African Culture and Society. 11 (1994): 61-70.

    Marais, Mike. "Writing with Eyes Shut: Ethics, Politics, and the Problem of the Other in the Fiction of J. M. Coetzee." English in Africa. 25.1 (1998): 43-60.

    Roberts, Sheila. "'City of Man': The Appropriation of Dante's Inferno in J M Coetzee's Age of Iron." Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa. 8.1 (1996): 33-44.

    Yeoh, Gilbert. "Love and Indifference in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron." Journal of Commonwealth Literature. 38.3 (2003): 107-34.

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    Again, I find myself happy to report that this weblog project has done its job. Despite the fatigue, despite the nagging I doan wanna echoing in my mind, I did make the trek out to Ithaca and I did read two articles.

    The nice thing about the trip to Cornell today--other than the fact that their library subscribes to many of the periodicals my home library does not--is that I can now make certain lofty-sounding statements that are undeniably, if misleadingly, true. For instance:

    I worked on my doctorate at Cornell.

    Or, alternately:

    I did graduate work at Cornell.

    Granted, statements like I did graduate work at the Charlotte International Airport and I worked on my doctorate at the International House of Pancakes in Vestal, New York are also equally valid.

    I can recall visiting Cornell several years ago with my best friend and feeling absolutely miserable. Both of us had been rejected by what was, for us, the one school we most wanted to attend. Both of us had turned down the University of Chicago and other top-tier universities to take advantage of the opportunity not to go into debt by accepting a full ride from a school of lesser renown, and both of us found the grass to be considerably greener on Ithaca's side of the fence. I imagine much of my longing stemmed from the fact that I had been told, repeatedly, that a school's name matters and that a degree issued by a less well-known institution would make finding a job in an oversaturated market that much more difficult

    In any case, the impressive buildings and decidedly collegiate feel of Cornell's campus still elicits--though in a markedly duller form--that fear-tinged sense of "had I gone here, I'd get a job no problem." Still, if there's anything I learned from my thesis supervisor at the "Ivy of Canada," it is that a school's name is not nearly as important as a scholar's work, which was my reason for being in Ithaca in the first place. I decided not to dwell on the pining.

    So, I enjoyed my time at Cornell's excellent Olin Library, exploring the nooks and crannies of the venerable library and taking some satisfaction in noting that my carrel at school is much nicer than those of my peers at Cornell (is it just me, or does that scene in the film version of American Psycho when Patrick Bateman pathetically compares his business card to those of his colleagues come to mind?). Of the articles I managed to locate, I selected two to review today.

    The first, a rather brief essay called "In Pursuit of the State: Uses of the Detective Novel Form in Recent South African Fiction," examines Age of Iron alongside novels by Andre Brink and Alex La Guma and posits that Coetzee fiddles around with the conventions of detective fiction to "confound [the reader's] expectations" (29). While not terribly convincing in its assertion that any genre-specific aspect of detective fiction is actually present in the novel, Susan Thornton's article is refreshingly clear and readable and, ultimately, provides a few precious nuggets of information I may actually be able to build upon in the chapter I plan to begin later this month.

    If anything, Thornton's essay provides me with insight into two aspects of the novel's plot that I had overlooked: Vercueil, Mrs. Curren's consort, is black and Mr. Thabane, Florence's cousin, is a police informer. The latter information actually surprised me, leading me to wonder how I had been oblivious to certain--retrospectively obvious--clues while the former reminded me of a similar issue one encounters in several articles dealing with Disgrace. Although South African critics seem to take it for granted that Melanie Issacs's surname implies that she is not white, many international critics simply assumed the young woman was white, thereby missing an extremely important dimension of her and David Lurie's "affair." Here, in Age of Iron, I had envisioned Vercueil as Caucasian. Clearly, one's cultural ignorance can color what someone like myself sees in his or her mind's eye. Although the information has little bearing on my own use of the novel to discuss broader themes in Coetzee's ouevre, it is an interesting reminder that, as a reader, I must not always trust my uninterrogated interpretation of a given text, lest I overlook any number of potentially misleading subjective cultural biases.

    The second essay I read, in stark contrast to Thornton's, is one of those tediously abstruse pieces of literary criticism weighed down by unwieldy poststructuralist language. At times I felt as if Johan Geertsema was more interested in using the novel to illuminate linguistic theory than vice versa, and I found myself frustrated by the author's persistent use of theory-laden argot in lieu of equally effective, less specialized language. In the end, however, "'We Embrace to Be Embraced': Irony in an Age of Iron," despite its anfractuous prose, does provide some support for my own reading of the novel and will, in all liklihood, make an appearance in my bibliography.

    That said, it is time for bed.

    For tomorrow: Read no fewer than four articles on Age of Iron.

    Works Cited

    Geertsema, Johan. "'We Embrace To Be Embraced': Irony in an Age of Iron." English in Africa. 24.1 (1997): 89-102.

    Thornton, Susan. "In Pursuit of the State: Uses of the Detective Novel Form in Recent South African Fiction." Griot: Official Journal of the Southern Conference on Afro-American Studies, Inc. 10.2 (1992): 29-39.

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    Friday, December 14, 2007
    First of all, I want to thank all my friends who have been stopping by and reading Sobriquet Magazine, sending encouraging emails, and otherwise supporting me. I am pleased to report that, despite a poor night's rest and an awfully strong temptation to hit snooze until the alarm simply stopped buzzing, I managed to pull myself out of bed and make the hour-long drive to the library, as planned. I even read the one essay--albeit a brief one--I had assigned myself for the day. In all honesty, I think it was knowing that I would have to report on my progress here that really helped me resist succumbing to the lure of closing my leaden eyelids. So, again, thank you for reading!

    One of the best parts of library research is the photocopying. Seriously. Since it takes so long to locate, copy, collate, and staple journal articles, one has the delightful sense of having worked without exerting any significant amount of effort in the process.

    On the other hand, I find myself frustrated by the fact that the library I use does not subscribe to every single serial ever published. Thus, of the forty articles listed in the MLA database pertaining to Age of Iron, only a dozen or so were to be found in the library, forcing me to resort to the library's cleverly-dubbed "Iliad" inter-library loan service to request help from afar (because, you know, requesting books and articles from distant libraries is an awful lot like the Trojan War).

    So, after I collected the articles, I decided to read Georg M. Gugelberger's "'Heralding' the New 'Age of Iron': J. M. Coetzee's Homelessness, Migrancy, and Nomadology," an essay both interesting and frustrating. I say "frustrating" because the article is riddled with the sort of errors one hates to find in a peer-reviewed academic journal. First of all, Gugelberger erroneously refers to Coetzee's novel as "The Age of Iron" throughout the paper, adding the definite article to the title for no apparent reason. In a similar vein, Mrs. Curren, the novel's protagonist, becomes "Mrs. Cullen" by the essay's end (134). Furthermore, the author calls Curren "an old spinster," a designation that might mislead readers unfamiliar with Coetzee's novel into believing that the woman has never been married (although it is not explicitly stated that Curren was, in fact, married, the novel is in the form of an epistolary novel to her daughter in which she makes several comments suggesting she had lost a husband to illness some time prior to the opening of the book). Strangely, while Gugelberger does use the elderly woman's correct surname at this stage in his essay, he dubs her "Ellen," when her name is actually Elizabeth (130). I realize I am playing semantic games here, but little errors like these make me doubt the author's grasp of the novel and, as a result, cast a shadow of doubt over the interpretations and claims in the article.

    Additionally, for an essay appearing in a journal called "Christianity and Literature," there is no mention of Christianity and--oddly--hardly any discussion of Coetzee's literature. Instead, Gugelberger speaks in broad terms of a paradigm shift he imagines will take place in the humanities. Drawing on Edward Said's discussions of exile, the author posits that a concern with metaphysical homelessness will take the place of the Other as the locus of postcolonial discourse, and suggests that Coetzee, constantly at the vanguard of the literary imagination, serves as the harbinger for this new movement. Despite his careless errors, however, Gugelberger is right to identify a somewhat broader conception of homelessness as a major--not necessarily the major--concern of writers caught under the umbrella of postcolonialism. One need look no further than Slow Man for evidence of this concern: Elizabeth Costello is "homeless" when separated from Paul Rayment, who has spent his life living in homes, but never feeling "at home" (159). Still, the article adds little to the body of criticism surrounding Coetzee and, despite its overtures towards redefining a literary-cultural epoch, merely repeats, to greater or lesser degrees, the same conceptions of homelessness one encounters in Said's discussions of exile, Steinbeck's depiction of Okies, Rushdie's notion of an "imaginary homeland," or Camus's vision of l'etranger.

    For tomorrow: Read a minimum of two more essays and see if any of the articles I could not find in my library are available at Cornell's library.

    How nerdy am I? This nerdy:

    Works Cited
    Coetzee, J. M. Slow Man. New York: Viking, 2005.

    Gugelberger, Georg M. "'Heralding' the New 'Age of Iron': J. M. Coetzee, Homelessness, Migrancy, and Nomadology." Christianity and Literature. 45.1 (1995): 129-36.

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    Thursday, December 13, 2007
    Given the difficulty I had focusing yesterday, I was not sure how long it would take me to complete the rather modest reading I assigned myself last night. Having struggled to harness my hyperactive mind while re-reading Age of Iron yesterday, I decided to split the final fifty pages into two very manageable twenty-five page assignments to complete over the next two days. I am pleased to report that, despite encountering a good deal of the same struggles as I faced yesterday, I actually finished the novel today, plowing through the text with the distinct goal of presenting that fact here. It would seem that the first few days of this dissertation-by-blogging project, then, has been effective.

    Having read Age of Iron twice now, and having recently read Elizabeth Costello and re-read both Slow Man and Disgrace, I can say that, of all the Coetzee I have read, this novel is the one I find least engrossing. I do not know whether it is a matter of my difficulty relating to the subject of the book, but I simply could not feel Coetzee's story as viscerally as I do his later work. To be honest, though, I imagine my position as an American who has never visited the South Africa Coetzee describes in Age of Iron has a lot to do with my reaction. I have vague memories of learning about apartheid in grade school but, just as my memories of a bifurcated Germany have dissolved into little more than a knowledge of a historical fact after the Berlin Wall crumbled into pieces small enough to sell to tourists, my sense of racial segregation in South Africa has been dulled by images of a grinning Nelson Mandela vigorously shaking hands with F. W. de Klerk on the covers of countless newsweeklies.

    To an extent, I suppose, I can try to draw upon my own experience with racial tension in my own country to attempt to understand some of the novel's more salient episodes, but if I cannot understand the depth and complexity of the racial struggles that tore through my own culture a quarter century prior to my birth, I cannot imagine how I can truly grasp the struggles of South Africans in the middle-to-late 1980s. In fact, I think it would be presumptuous for me to say that I "get" anything of the sort. In other words, my historical situation barring me from the ability to emphathize with South Africans fighting the effects of apartheid, the best I can muster is a dulled, over-intellectualized sympathy. And, it would seem, that is not enough for me to enjoy the novel.

    That said, I do feel Age of Iron is as typically thoughtful a book as one would expect from a writer of Coetzee's caliber. Through her musings on death, disease, race relations, and (meta)physical isolation, Mrs. Curren establishes herself as one of the author's more appealing creations, and one that marks a turning point in the author's career. In her, we find David Lurie's brooding fixation on physical decline, Elizabeth Costello's struggle to connect with her children, and Paul Rayment's dogged attempts to preserve both dignity and history in the face of inevitable, indelible dissolution.

    I refuse to say Age of Iron does not equal, say, Disgrace in terms of quality, but I do suspect its audience will not be as broad for as long a period of time as that of the latter novel or even of Slow Man. Put simply, Age of Iron is the type of novel I imagine a History teacher might include in a course on apartheid, the sort of literary work that illuminates and adds dimension to a dry historical textbook, but not a book one would find as universally accessible as Disgrace, Slow Man, or Waiting for the Barbarians. But, then again, I don't suppose Coetzee was trying to write anything other than what he wrote--namely a book that captures a particular mood of a particular type of person living in a particular place at a particular time. And that, too, I would argue, is as important as any literary endeavor, if not as appealing.

    Note: I welcome any and all comments about what I have written; I would love to discuss the nuances of this book with fellow fans of Coetzee.

    For tomorrow: Depending on the weather, I would like to make the trek to the university library to collect secondary materials on Coetzee, with a focus on Age of Iron. In terms of reading, I will again be fairly conservative and assign myself--bearing in mind the piles of grading and hours of driving--one critical article.

    Thanks for reading and thanks for the moral support you've all been giving me!

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    Wednesday, December 12, 2007
    For someone who would probably have been diagnosed as ADHD had he attended grade school ten years after he did, struggling to maintain my focus on a given task has always been something of an academic albatross around my neck, but not something that has prevented me from succeeding in my scholarly pursuits. As an undergraduate, for instance, I simply compensated for my zig-zagging thoughts by spending more time in the library than did many of my peers. Still, despite the coping mechanisms I have developed, I find there are days when I struggle much more than others and today was one of those frustratingly unfocused days.

    When I woke up this morning, I attempted to write a blog entry in which I was intending to set out my goals for the day, but felt I had not slept enough and, rather than risk drowsily slogging through the day, I decided to sleep a bit longer. Waking up a few hours later, pleasingly alert and energized, I found that my kitten and cockatiel were uncommonly hyperactive, chirruping and meowing to such an extent that any attempts I made to read were futile. Not to be discouraged, I decided to head over to a coffee shop and read there. And I did, but very slowly and with a painful amount of re-reading.

    I detest the days when I find myself reading every line of text two or three times before moving on because in the time it would normally take me to read five or ten pages, I am a mere paragraph or two into the reading. Naturally, this frustrates the living shit out of me, especially since I must fight off the urge to silently lament my slow progress. The lure of checking email and Facebook, too, becomes unbearably strong and I begin wondering whether so-and-so emailed me while I am straining to read the same sentence I have been working on for five minutes.

    One reason for the constant re-reading, I imagine, is the stress I put myself under to know "everything" about the text I plan to write about. I want to ensure that my eyes not only pass over the words in whatever book I am reading but that I fully process each and every word and image the author sets before me. This has been a concern for me every since I first realized, as an undergraduate, that I had somehow developed a nasty habit of hastily skimming text in lieu or actually reading it. With some genuine effort, I managed to read more slowly and with greater attention, until I was able to process the texts I worked with at the level I felt was appropriate for a college student attending a competitive school.

    After college, however, some of the old habits returned. I assume that as I encountered increasing amounts of literary criticism (which, for me, is much less interesting than primary sources) and piles of student writing, I burned myself out processing material considerably less interesting and thought-provoking than the sort of texts I would have chosen to read outside of the institutionalized setting in which I placed myself.

    In any case, my initial goal for today was to read fifty pages in J.M. Coetzee's Age of Iron, a book I first read earlier this autumn and which I hope to devote some space in the first chapter of my dissertation (a chapter, not surprisingly, devoted to Coetzee's work) as well as travel an hour to the university library to pick up some critical articles. Although I did not make an official declaration of the assignment in the blog, I did elect to approach the day as if I had made the assignment, though I opted to save the drive for Friday.

    And, boy, did I struggle to push myself through the text. Granted, Age of Iron does not strike me as nearly as strong a book as Disgrace, Elizabeth Costello, or Slow Man, but it is a good read and should not strike me as so tough to get through, especially since I had so recently read it. But I pushed through and, ultimately, read what I set out to do. The way I see it, I will encounter days like this, but I have to work in spite of the difficulties if I am to make any progress on my project. Today, I hope, will serve as proof that it is possible to work on "bad days." It just took much longer than I would have liked. Much, much longer.

    I suspect a good deal of my struggle originates in the fact that I want to begin writing this chapter soon. As I prepared to write, however, I found that I did not recall Age of Iron as clearly as I felt I should, so I put off the pre-writing for the chapter until I finish re-reading the book. I think I am annoyed at myself for stupidly assuming that reading four or five novels, a bunch of criticism, and some philosophy while teaching at two different colleges for over fifty hours a week would be a good idea. Thus, the baby steps I mentioned in the previous post.

    In other words, after reading enough additional material to forget Age of Iron, I have come to the conclusion that I should read up one novel, write about it, then move on to another rather than try to work with such a large body of material all at once. This way, I imagine, I will maintain a stronger grasp on material as I work with it, resulting in a stronger end product. We'll see how that goes.

    For tomorrow: Since I have a packed day tomorrow, and since I have to administer and begin grading final exams, I will not say that I should finish the novel. I will, however, say that I should read 25 pages by bedtime tomorrow, enabling me to finish the book on Friday and begin reading the criticism I will need to start writing the chapter. Wish me luck.

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    Clov: Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished [Pause.] Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day suddenly, there's a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.
    -Samuel Beckett, Endgame

    One of the biggest problems I have had with writing my dissertation has been the tendency to feel that I must know everything about the topic of my research before I begin writing. Strangely, though, the one lesson I thought I had learned while writing my Master's thesis is that such encyclopedic knowledge requires considerably more reading than can reasonably fit into the time period I have to work with. Therefore, I must conclude, I should take the project in small stages--the "baby steps" Bill Murray's character must make in What About Bob? Doing so, I imagine, will enable me to focus on more manageable tasks like researching and writing on a single novel, which will eventually join with other equally small and manageable pieces to form a dissertation.

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    Monday, December 10, 2007
    I am not going to deceive myself pretending that this weblog has a large audience, but I would like to address any readers I may have because I am changing the direction--at least temporarily--of Sobriquet Magazine: my weblog will chronicle my journey from A.B.D. to Ph.D.

    For anyone interested in knowing who I am or why I write what I do, I am a 29 year-old doctoral candidate in English literature, struggling to write a dissertation. I know that the I am at the point in my studies where a higher percentage of budding scholars hit a wall than at any other stage higher education, and I do not want to add my name to that list.

    The primary reason I will blog about the experience is because I believe having to report my progress to a theoretical reader will light a proverbial match under my not-so-proverbial rear end, giving me the tiny bit of motivation I may need to read that extra fifty pages or type those next five pages.

    Secondly, I hope that my plight will both inspire other budding scholars to push through the Slough of Despond that is the terminal phase of a terminal degree as well as encourage sympathetic readers to share their experiences with me and foster a positive, motivational sort of discourse that will contradict the often negative attitudes one tends to encounter when among graduate students. To an extent, then, I am trying to create something of a dissertation support group. I hope it works.

    Having thought a bit about this project, I feel I should state a few of my core beliefs at the outset:

    1. I am lucky. Above all, I need to remember that I am fortunate to have the opportunity to study literature at such an advanced level. With so many people around the world unable to obtain even the most rudimentary of educations, I must be thankful for the situation I find myself in. Whenever I begin to feel sorry for myself, I have to remind myself that others work much harder, in considerably worse circumstances, on significantly less pleasant tasks, for much less money or prestige.

    2. What I do is not vital. Although there is much to be said about the benefits of intellectual discussion and inquiry, I am not teaching students basic skills they will need to survive nor am I studying the sort of material that will enable me to save lives the way a cardiologist might. I am not necessary in the same way; I am a luxury. In other words, I should exude humility rather than the complacent air some scholars seem to give off.

    3. That said, it isn't an easy life. I am not a wealthy person, so I need to work while studying. It's all right to feel stressed and frustrated, even if I am lucky.

    Furthermore, I want to set a few ground rules for myself:

    1. Be positive. The blog is my way to escape from the negativity that I feel may pull me down and prevent me from completing my studies.

    2. Be reasonable. I should not expect to complete my dissertation overnight.

    3. Be strict. Set a goal and work towards it.

    4. Accept failure as part of success. I will not finish every assignment I set for myself in the time I expect to do so. That's fine.

    5. Blogging about procrastination is fine; procrastinating by blogging is not. Again, I should use this space as a positive part of the writing process. If, for instance, I really want to write something here, use it as a motivation to complete the work I need to finish first.

    6. Write about other things in moderation. The focal point of this blog is working on my dissertation, not how poorly the Bengals are playing this year.

    All right, then. Here I go.
    -Erik Grayson


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