This is a novel with good themes. It has you consider the reality of isolation, the value of civilization, the fallacy involved in creating compelling literature, and, of course, the great mystery of the unknown, the dissolution of knowledge, and the ever-flowing substitute of imagination. Good themes—if only they weren’t presented so poorly.
Like many, I began this book expecting a tale mostly centered on the island with the new character offering a change of perspective, and I expected that her interactions with Crusoe would result in a change of Crusoe’s character (possibly Friday too) and their overall situation. What I got, however, was a character who was Crusoe in name only and a woman who effectively accomplished nothing in terms of anything. This is the first problem. People talk about Foe as a reimagining of Robinson Crusoe, but if Crusoe—the protagonist of the original story—gets such a different character, he isn’t Crusoe anymore; he’s just some random stranded guy with a random stranded servant who just so happens to not have a tongue and be named after a weekday. Imagine if I write a book about a young wizard with a scar on his forehead who everyone calls the “Chosen One” and portray him as a narcissistic serial killer with drug problems and then call the book “a reimagining of Harry Potter.” What would the reaction be (besides lawsuits)? I guarantee you that if Defoe was still alive, he would be suing.
That aside, I understand Coetzee’s intention in creating such flat, boring characters and an even more flat and boring plot. He or she is trying to give us the theme—that reality is flat, boring, and mostly consequential. I’m fine with that. However, there are ways of doing this without being so annoyingly blatant and seeping it in melodrama. The protagonist (forgot her name) cannot go three pages without questioning some fundamental human truth or looking at the sky and going on mundane allegories about the meaning of life. Yes, so much symbolism, so much apparent subtext, so much careful use of words—but it just isn’t interesting. Even worse, this book has no pacing at all. There’s one droning text dump about the island, one even more droning text dump about the time in the Foe’s house, a somewhat less droning text dump about the journey, and finally, a nice not-as-awful-as-the-rest text dump with the ending (excluding IV, which I have no comment on).
In the end, Foe both sabotages itself and perhaps proves itself. It’s a boring book about how the world is boring and how what could be interesting (i.e. Friday) will never be revealed no matter how much we try. Perhaps I haven’t read deeply enough. Perhaps I’m missing some very subtle undertones. Perhaps I need to read it again. Unfortunately, however, I will not read this book again. A rereading is something I only grant to novels that I’m interested in, and in no way, shape, or form has this book ever really interested me.