Novels with writers as protagonists invite autobiographical readings, but J.M. Coetzee—the Nobel-winning author of Disgrace and Waiting For The Barbarians—practically challenges readers not to read his latest as autobiography. Set almost entirely in an Australian apartment tower, it focuses on a writer with the initials "J.C.", an aging, unsocial fellow of South African birth who spends most of his time writing. As Diary Of A Bad Year opens, he's working on a collection of essays under the rubric "Strong Opinions" for a German publisher. Covering an almost random series of topics, they contain just what the title promises: strong opinions on everything from Tolstoy to meat-eating. But as usual with Coetzee's novels, theories and opinions only stretch so far.
Here, they literally aren't enough to fill the page. J.C.'s opinions have to share space with J.C.'s personal thoughts, most concerning Anya, a young, attractive apartment resident with whom he strikes up an infatuated acquaintance. Wanting to keep her in his orbit, he hires her to take dictation, but finds her opinions shaping his writing. After a few chapters, her voice joins J.C.'s writings and inner musings; all three monologues run on every page, to sometimes-disorienting effect.
There's no way to read Diary gracefully, but that's seemingly by design, which connects thematically to a novel that's at least partly about the way ideas interrupt and change each other, and the competition between private thoughts and public statements. The structure only becomes problematic when the novel starts to look more engaging as a formal exercise than as a literary experience. Most of J.C.'s essays are challenging, particularly a long riff on the birth of the state as dramatized by The Seven Samurai, but J.C. and Anya's relationship never really gels, and much of the novel's back half is given over to a confrontation with Anya's lover, a straw man who shares none of J.C.'s strong opinions.
But even as a between-major-works experiment, Diary Of A Bad Year remains intriguing. As the old man keeps trying to set his thoughts on the world in order while he still has the chance, he watches the goal elude him. While elements of the novel get away from him, Coetzee's dialogic approach shows he's smart enough not to even try such a task. That's one point, at least, where the autobiographical connection ends.