The notion of rewriting or creatively adapting a classic text is hardly new. From Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea to Apocalypse Now or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the idea is to take a cultural ur-text from which in some way we cannot escape, and to reform it for contemporary concerns or sensibilities.
Sometimes the aim is simply to recontextualize or update a story that is now thought to be stale or over-familiar (as with the numerous reimaginings of Shakespeare such as 10 Things I Hate About You). But often these always parasitical texts also present strong misreadings that are implicit, or even explicit, critiques of the original; Rhys’s novel could be the (by now itself classic) instance of such a critical rewriting.
J. M. Coetzee’s Foe belongs to this tradition, but in some ways his text is as much an unwriting of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as it is a revision or extension of the original. Coetzee purports to reveal and so undermine the writing strategy that gives us Defoe’s book; Foe is a parasite that aims to kill its host by imaginatively troubling the very process of its production. It poses as less supplement than antidote.
Hence, then, the novel’s title. In the first instance, “Foe” is a deformation of the name by which we have come to know Robinson Crusoe‘s author. It strips him of the claim to privilege that Daniel Foe attempted to assume when he changed his name to Defoe in order to imply some kind of aristocratic lineage. But second, Coetzee’s book also treats Defoe as the enemy of the story that Coetzee, or his proxy Mary Barton, wishes to tell about desert islands, so-called savagery, but above all story-telling and writing itself.
Barton is Foe‘s protagonist and, in one way or another, its narrative voice. To remind us of this notion of voice, the first two-thirds of the novel is written, literally, in quotation marks: this contains Barton’s own account of her arrival on a desert island in which Cruso (for so she spells his name) and “his” man Friday are already established, of the trio’s rescue by an English merchantman, and of Cruso’s subsequent death on the voyage home; it also includes her increasingly anguished letters, from various lodgings in London, to the author Daniel Foe to whom she has entrusted her story with the hope that he will produce a polished account of her travails. The final third of the book (apart from a very brief section that is more of an epilogue) then consists of Barton’s conversations with Foe when she finally tracks him down to find out what kind of narrative the author is making of her experience.
The problem for Barton is that, at least initially, she doesn’t trust herself to put things into suitable words. She is told by the captain of the ship taking her to England that hers “is a story you should set down in writing and offer to the booksellers” but replies that “a liveliness is lost in the writing down which must be supplied by art, and I have no art.” To which the captain responds that “the booksellers will hire a man to set your story to rights” (40). Enter Daniel (De)Foe, then, as the man who will set Barton’s story “to rights.”
Setting Barton’s story to rights, however, introduces a series of apparent wrongs. For one thing, art seems to require embellishment. Life on the island was, after all, on the whole rather boring, not least because Cruso had been far from an entertaining conversationalist: so engaged was he in interminable agricultural labors that he had “nothing left to talk of save the weather.” Barton therefore muses at the time that “Cruso rescued will be a deep disappointment to the world; the idea of a Cruso on his island is a better thing than the true Cruso tight-lipped and sullen in an alien England” (34-5). It is Foe’s task, then, to preserve the idea of Cruso from the disappointing reality.
This embellishment, though, further requires a whole series of other changes. Passion has to be added to the mix: if there was “too little desire in Cruso and Friday: too little desire to escape, too little desire for a new life,” then something needs to be done because “without desire how is it possible to make a story?” (88). And as a counterpoint (or perhaps, prompt) to desire, Foe injects also fear of exotic difference and strangeness: the island needs to be under the threat of encroaching cannibals, even though Barton herself notes that “As for cannibals, I am not persuaded” for “I saw no cannibals; and if they came after nightfall and fled before the down, they left no footprint behind” (54). No footprint: Foe’s task, his art, is to supply signs such as the famous footprint in the sand that will conjure up the range of affects that may transform Barton’s tale into one that satisfies English readers’ desires for… well, desire itself.
His enterprise is made easier, though its result all the more troubling, by the fact that not only is the sullen Cruso no longer around to disappoint would-be interlocutors, but Friday is mute, his tongue mysteriously removed by person or persons alone (other “savages”? Cruso himself?). The subaltern subject can only have his tale told for him: “The true story will not be heard till by art we have found a means of giving voice to Friday” (118). And yet Friday’s silence pervades the book, garnering almost physical presence as it is compared to “smoke [. . .] a welling of black smoke” (118).
Soon Barton, if not Foe, realizes that Friday’s story, which will remain forever untold, “is properly not a story but a puzzle or hole in the narrative” (121). Foe is apparently set on making up for this unfillable hole at the center of his story “by inventing cannibals and pirates,” but Barton continually and resolutely rejects such narrative solutions to the problem of mute subalternity.
So if Cruso is sullenly and uninterestingly silent, and Friday is mute because of some unnameable and unlocatable violence, Barton’s own lively but resistant voice, which gives Foe its substance, will in turn have to be silenced so as to give proper literary form to the text that will become Robinson Crusoe. The third and final silence, then, is the silencing of Barton for the sake of the story. As she herself imagines it, Foe will come to think “Better had there been only Cruso and Friday. [. . .] Better without the woman” (72).
The paradox, as Barton observes it, is that she is both essential to the story (“Yet where would you be without the woman?” ) and at the same time resistant to the process of story-telling and the sureties that it seems to require: “I am not a story, Mr Foe,” she asserts (131); “But now all my life grows to be story and there is nothing of my own left to me. [. . .] Nothing is left to me but doubt. I am doubt itself. Who is speaking me?” (133).
If then, Robinson Crusoe is a tale of destitution overturned or compensated for by (male) hard work and ingenuity (though as I have suggested, some markers of the doubt that undoes its claims remain), Foe is an account of a different kind of destitution: of the way in which in which literature itself is a means by which to deny the subaltern (woman) her questioning, doubt-filled voice, and to project other desires onto the mute subaltern (savage) that remains.
Foe is a reminder, moreover, of what Barton terms “the life of a substantial body” even though that life is “abject. It is the life of a thing” (125-7). Barton consistently affirms substance and “substantial being” (90) while recognizing the power of writing and the way that even substance can be written out, written over, or lost. “Return to me the substance I have lost, Mr Foe,” she entreats (51).
Foe suggests that that only way to do justice to such loss of substance is to take up arms against the writers of the classics, to undo their claims of authorial mastery–though of course one of the many ironies of this contest is that the masterful Coetzee emerges from the fray with substantial authority himself.