The end of a novel is the site of particular epistemic privilege. If the form is governed by a biographical master plot, the “meaning of the life,” as Benjamin has it, is “revealed only in [the] death” that is the plot's narrative limit—and beyond this limit “the novelist . . . cannot hope to take the smallest step.” Such a limit is seemingly crossed in one of the most difficult and quite possibly the strangest of passages in J. M. Coetzee's fiction: the ending of Foe. This book's self-conscious re-presentation of the origins of the English novel (and of Defoe's inauguration of the genre's biographical pattern) culminates in a surreal encounter that Coetzee's readers have claimed limns a restorative justice or a utopic futurity. But these interpretations ignore the text's insistence on a silence that overwhelms language, the specter of mass death, and a summative darkness that attend upon this place. What might it mean, in fact, for Foe's ending to cross the Novel's thresholds only to stage a total “blackout” of the realist novel's meaning-producing mechanism and the story of individual experience the genre has valorized? This article draws on Coetzee's unpublished notebooks and the Foe ur-text to argue that the novel proposes an impossible crossing, whereby key strategies we have used to value the genre—its capacity to summon countervoices or to invoke an ethical response to alterity—are shadowed by a radical question about the limits of our readerly attention.

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