J. M. Coetzee's Slow Man considers “care” in contemporary liberal-capitalist societies, including the ostensibly frivolous care of and care for literature. In contrast to grander affects and occupations, care often seems to be “just care,” as if it fails to live up to certain criteria of reality in much the same way that one says something is “just fiction.” If in its literary investigation of such serious issues as disability, aging, and immigration, Slow Man turns into a reflection on the ontology of fiction, this is not mere metafictional frivolity—for care shares the disparaged form of fiction. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello writings, of which Slow Man appears to be the last, advocate in fiction an “ethics of care.” They are concerned with modes of attention that lack the categorical determinacy of the discourse of rights and of justice and are instead characterized by what I propose to call “justness.” In this light, the novel can be read as examining the skepticism and disappointment with which, on account of this justness, earnest pleas for an ethics of care, or apologies for fiction, are met. The advocacy of care, as of fiction, requires not only good will but also good humor, even if this comes at the cost of being taken seriously. Accordingly, Slow Man proves to be one of the most heavy-going but also lighthearted of Coetzee's novels. It is, after all, “just a joke.”

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