Monday, February 13, 2006

I have strong opinions

and this is a vice as well as a virtue; I had decided of this book (as I have of, oh, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas--though I keep on having second thoughts about that one too and feeling I must read it even if I am sure I won't like it) that it wasn't the kind of thing I would enjoy, these very cerebral-sounding novels never produce rabid drooling book-desire in me. And yet there I was in the bookstore & I idly picked this up and as soon as I saw how it actually looked and read the first few sentences I was absolutely hooked.

The book is Seven Types of Ambiguity by Elliot Perlman, and I completely loved it. It is a page-turner/novel-of-ideas hybrid and really highly readable and not nearly as pretentious as the title led me to imagine. (It's not the title I would have picked, especially as I'm not sure it's really apt either, for the reason sketched out below.) Here's Tyler Cabot's review for Esquire (via Powell's Review-a-Day, here's Keith Gessen absolutely hating it in New York Magazine, here are Daphne Merkin loving it in the Times and Kate Kellaway loving it even more in the Observer.

So I found the book pretty gripping, and it also gave me that great buzzing-in-the-back-of-the-head feeling I get when I read certain things (a little voice that's saying "oh, cool, i can't believe he did that this way, i bet i could do something sort of like that but even better--what if...." even as you're also completely immersed in the narrative). But almost everything I have the urge to say about the book is a criticism or cavil! I urge you to buy and read it if you like long philosophical thrillers at all. My reservations should not stop you, it really is an excellent book.

First off, things you might want to know as context for my list of complaints. (Not too many spoilers, I hope.) Seven sections narrated by seven different characters. Main story concerns Simon--obsessed ex-boyfriend of Anna, who is now married to Joe--kidnapping Anna and Joe's son Sam. Narrators (in some cases it's mainly transcriptions of conversations between the particular character and the shrink, etc., and in each case the addressee matters almost as much as the speaker): Alex Klima, Simon's psychiatrist and a central player in events (the "you" voice in which he addresses Simon in the opening chapters is particularly sinister and striking, I believe a version of this was published in Granta); thuggish stockbroker Joe; prostitute 'Angelique', farfetchedly (a) obsessed with Simon (b) sleeping with Joe for money (c) diagnosed with MS and (d) later love object of ....; Dennis Mitchell aka Mitch, a stock analyst who works with Joe; Simon himself; Anna; and Dr. Klima's grown-up daughter, who is in love with Sam.

1. I do not see why all these reviewers trumpet the Rashomon aspect! Frankly, these characters all understand things more or less the same way. We're not getting any of the thing that, say, Susan Howatch does so well, with interlocking perspectives that can't be reduced to a single narrative. (Howatch is better known in the UK than the US, deeply unfashionable I think for her Christianity, but really a superb novelist of character and point-of-view. Just an aside.) In any case, here it is always fairly clear what happened, and (see title for this post) I had no trouble deciding who was right and who was wrong and losing patience with the "oh, but those actions are justifiable if we approach them from another point of view" thing.

2. The voices also all really do sound pretty much the same; this wasn't a stumbling-block for me, for various reasons that have to do with Perlman's intelligence & unobtrusive prose style & the general satisfyingness of the book. It's more painful when it comes to the female characters, though; I thought he'd have been better off sticking with male voices.

3. Which leads me to my central objection. I absolutely hated Simon, and I found Alex almost equally offputting. Simon in particular comes across as creepy, unintelligent, self-satisfied, controlling, in short absolutely horrible. It is another one of these books where we are told of a character's charm (like Zadie Smith's Howard Belsey) without seeing it. It is true, I particularly hate this type of guy, and in that sense am not the ideal reader for book. But I couldn't stop wondering whether any of this ambiguity was calculated or whether really the text had spun out of Perlman's control. I feared the latter, obviously it is fruitless to speculate but I can't say I thought that Perlman would be very happy to hear what I thought of his dear Simon. The book also seems to let Simon completely off the hook. The man is a STALKER. And a KIDNAPPER. It seems absolutely implausible to me that Anna would not be ready to KILL him after that. (Anomalously confessional aside: I found myself at the receiving end of stalking-type behavior at one point and it was certainly the most unpleasant experience of my adult life, uniquely unpleasant in ways you cannot begin to imagine unless it has happened to you. So this seemed personal to me, this novel's failure to reckon with the creepiness of men stalking women in the manner of Simon's fixation on Anna.) I am not a huge fan of Ian McEwan's, but I thought Enduring Love really was an excellent depiction--much more psychologically plausible--of stalking from the point of view of the stalkee (in that case male on male); this novel has something of the feel of Enduring Love, only much larger in scale.

4. Just to give a more general example of the awfulness of these two guys (so smug in their liberal-humanist anti-market-critique self-satisfiedness, their conviction that having good taste and reading William Empson and Allan Ginsberg and such makes up for completely nightmarish behavior in every other respect & feel a messianic urge to educate beautiful lower-middle-class young women & inculcate these tastes in them in ways that make them painfully insecure), I especially hated the scene where Alex and Simon talk about Empson and Derrida and deconstruction. This is obtuse, not intelligent; it reproduces a particularly annoying version of the liberal-humanist argument against deconstruction in a way that makes me actually hate both of these characters.

5. Perlman's writing strongly reminds me of George Eliot, for better and for worse. This novel would be readable by a nineteenth-century novelist even though the techniques (the multiple narrators, etc.) would be unfamiliar. It's got a grand social critique going, a sometimes slightly forced set of connections between the rise of the ideology of the market and a stock-trading plot about managed care that is heavy-handedly integrated with the personal fates of various characters major and minor and while I don't mind that, I'm also not convinced it's the best way to put things together. (I thought of Kurt Andersen's novel Turn of the Century for instance which I really liked but which had a slightly ephemeral or dated quality almost even as it was published.) George Eliot always sounds sort of the same even when she's talking about different characters--no, I'm not a philistine, I do really love George Eliot but there is something a bit deadening about the way her prose sort of plumps up the characters into the same stocky roundness. Perlman has some of this quality. Interesting, striking, stimulating; not perhaps altogether appealing.

I am told I have been blogging too prolifically recently! So will stop here, if you have made it so far. Plus one afterthought below. Don't let all this stop you from getting Perlman's book, though. It really is pretty great. Look how riled up it got me....

(I haven't read Empson's book of the same name since graduate school, but I did reread the appealingly titled Some Versions of Pastoral a few years ago and had the disconcerting experience of finding it not at all the same book I thought I remembered. In short, it is written in an idiolect so peculiar as to be almost surreal; while reading you are fully persuaded of its brilliance, and yet I found its insights exceptionally un-portable, which is to say they resisted me using them for my fell purposes which are of course altogether different from Empson's.)


  1. I haven't read Perlman yet, but I am planning to, once I get War and Peace finished. Your comments haven't deterred me, but they make me very interested to see what you'd make of Cloud Atlas. Obviously, Mitchell also makes use of multiple narrators sa well, but none are really creepy, some are adorable. Mitchell's big thing is, of course, channelling other voices, and part of the fun is working out who. Or you can just enjoy the felicity with which he produces a half dozen completely different voices.

    The one big downside to the book is that while you enjoy the skill, you come away wondering if he has simply put on a big sound and light show, with the message (there is one) being rather a simple one.