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Identity Crisis

Reviewed by Jonathan Carroll
Sunday, October 10, 2004; Page BW07


By José Saramago. Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa

Harcourt. 324 pp. $25

A few years ago, Michael Chabon edited a short-story anthology for McSweeney's magazine entitled Thrilling Tales. The concept for the collection was intriguing: have a bunch of mainstream and/or "literary" writers create the kind of straightforward, page-turning stories one used to find in the pulp-fiction magazines of the 1940s or 1950s.

Unfortunately the results were disappointing. By and large the stories were condescending and thinly clever: Wink wink -- I'm not taking this genre stuff seriously and neither should you, but watch me rassle with it anyway. Although they had accepted the challenge of attempting to write a good yarn that brought a sweaty brow and trembling fingertips to the pages as they were turned, too many of these writers made it plain in their various approaches that this sort of fiction was way beneath them.

In José Saramago's latest novel, The Double, much the same attitude is present. In earlier works such as Blindness, Saramago employed otherworldly elements, but here he makes them an essential part of the story.

One day a Nowhere Man named Afonso comes home from his ho-hum job as a high school history teacher. Because he's bored stiff with his life both in and out of school, he slips a video he's rented into the VCR and sits back to be mildly entertained for the next hour and a half.

Minutes later, though, he's goggle-eyed and perched on the edge of his seat because one of the actors in this otherwise forgettable B movie looks just like him. Not sort of, not a passing resemblance -- exactly like him. Afonso becomes consumed with finding out who this person is and what kind of life he lives. The teacher begins by renting piles of videos made by the same production company to see if the man appeared in their other films. Encouragingly, the actor shows up in many of them, almost always in some small forgettable role like the hotel porter who speaks one line, or a detective who gets shot in the first 10 minutes. Afonso, a timid man who has rarely made ripples in life, much less waves, decides to be a bit daring and devise a meeting with this doppelganger to find out if they share any similarities besides their identical faces.

With this plot line, we could just as easily be in a tale by Calvino, Cortazar, Borges or even Delmore Schwarz (think of his great short story "In Dreams Begin Responsibility"). All these writers loved to play with the provocative questions, "Where do I stop, and where does others' conception of me begin?" In other words, is the real me only what I perceive, or is it how others see me as well?

But the difference between them and Saramago is that no matter what the subject matter, those writers always addressed it seriously, even if it was wild and woolly. Here Saramago does not. Throughout The Double there is an obvious archness, an authorial sneer at the fantastical subject matter that quickly distances the reader from any emotional involvement with either the character or his situation. As a result, we don't care what happens to Afonso or how he ends up.

What's more, if the subject of a novel is a dull man, there must be something at least a little interesting in his everyday existence to keep us interested. Unfortunately, in The Double it takes close to half of the novel's 300 pages for the protagonist to even get up the nerve to send a letter to the film company asking about this mysterious actor. Until then, we hear only about Afonso's dry-as-a-bone daily inner and outer life, his tepid love affair with a woman, and repeatedly about the inner conflict he has trying to decide whether to eat out or stay home and rummage in the refrigerator for a meal.

In a recent Newsweek review of Philip Roth's new novel, The Plot Against America, David Gates wrote: "Literary novelists generally leave alternative history (take a big what if and go from there) to writers of pop fiction or sci fi. This is either because of its fundamental unseriousness -- who cares about an if that never happened? -- or because of the sheer drudgery involved in elaborating some counterfactual premise."

"Fundamental unseriousness" is the catchphrase here. Whether in the Chabon anthology or this Saramago novel, some writers give the distinct impression that such subject matter is fundamentally unserious. As a result, if it is to be dealt with at all then it is with a scornful smile, a postmodern twist or voluminous footnotes.

But if that is true, then what about Kafka? (What if one day a man woke up to discover that overnight he had been turned into an insect?) Or Bruno Schulz, Robert Walser, John Cheever, Gabriel Márquez, Haruki Murakami, Isak Dinesen . . . all serious writers who clearly believed that "what if" was a serious question? •

Jonathan Carroll's new novel, "Glass Soup," will be published next fall.

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