SEVEN TYPES OF AMBIGUITY
By Elliot Perlman
Riverhead. 628 pp. $27.95
(Jacket Art )john Halpern/nonstock)
_____Online Extra: Chapter 1_____
This feature allows you to read the first chapter of a new book. This week's selection is "Seven Types of Ambiguity" by Elliot Perlman.
Imagining the splendid array of novelistic hybrids (chick-lit horror, for example, or the Kunstlerroman à clef), one pauses, understandably, at the "legal thriller of ideas." Don't the two forms -- one plot-driven, the other thought-driven -- cancel each other out? Wouldn't the necessary discursiveness of the latter stop the all-important pacing of the former in its tracks? Honestly, aren't there any number of sound reasons why Thomas Mann stayed out of sweltering Southern courtrooms, and John Grisham steers clear of magic mountains?
Apparently, nobody has told this to Elliot Perlman, the Australian novelist whose 1998 debut, Three Dollars, made him an instant literary celebrity down under. Now Perlman, who also happens to be a barrister, has followed up on his early success with Seven Types of Ambiguity, which audaciously asks to have it both ways. On the one hand, it wants to be a fast-paced page-turner with an undeniably grabby premise: the kidnapping of a young boy by his mother's ex-lover, and the zigzagging trajectory of the ensuing trial once the kidnapper is captured. On the other hand, it's a 600-plus-page novel that borrows its title from British critic William Empson's famed 1930 essay on poetics, and it frequently interrupts its own story line to digress lengthily on the biomechanics of the human orgasm, the dynamics of money markets and the school of literary criticism known as deconstructionism. (There are also many-paged tutorials on the managed care health insurance system, the tragic life of Billie Holiday, and how to count cards at blackjack, for those who are curious.)
In short, it's a perfect book for an airplane trip -- if that trip happens to be a 20-hour ride from New York to Singapore for a conference on postmodernity. In defiance of all expectation, though, Perlman's bold experiment proves successful . . . mostly. Like a sprinter in a marathon, he dazzles early on, deftly juggling ideas, characters and points-of-view. But by the time he crosses the finish line, his fatigue is apparent, and the reader is likely to share it. Still, as in a marathon, everybody who finishes is a winner of sorts, and rare will be the reader who isn't inspired by the author's intellectual energy and storytelling stamina to stay with him until the end.
Had Perlman felt as free to borrow from Pirandello as from Empson, he might have subtitled his novel "Seven Characters in Search of a Fact Pattern." In terms of its structure, the book has been compared to "Rashomon," the classic Akira Kurosawa film in which a crime is recounted from four different points of view. For Perlman's septet of narrators, each of whom is given his or her own chapter, this much is indisputable: Simon Heywood, an unemployed teacher and the emotionally fragile ex-boyfriend of Anna Geraghty, takes Anna's son from his school playground in Melbourne one afternoon and carries the boy off to his apartment, where they are soon joined by Angelique, a prostitute who is Simon's friend. Angelique calls the police, who break into Simon's apartment and rescue the unharmed boy. The child is reunited with his parents. Simon is arrested and denied bail as he awaits trial in a hellish jail. Angelique is questioned by the police and freed.
All other circumstances -- the facts between the facts, one might say -- remain elusive, buried deep within the complicated emotional states and conflicting motivations of the characters: not only Simon, Anna and Angelique, but also Anna's husband, Simon's psychiatrist and others. Though each narrator is reliable, each is also reliably adept at keeping secrets, which is to say that they tell us everything they know. Anna's husband has been hiding from his wife the not-insignificant fact that he has been a client of Angelique's bed for years. Angelique, lovesick for Simon, has been hiding from everyone the fact that she suffers from a debilitating disease. Anna has been hiding herself away at long lunches and late nights with a male friend, in an attempt to escape her farce of a marriage. Simon's psychiatrist hides from his client an important relationship that could have a huge impact on Simon's defense at trial.
Against all this duplicity, Simon's act of madness is presented as an antidote, the teacher's altruistic (if horribly misguided) attempt to save the boy from a life of pain and disappointment. Never are we in doubt as to Simon's intentions. He's certainly no pedophile, nor is he out for ransom money. He is, however a know-it-all pedant with a messianic streak, and even he comes to acknowledge the madness of the syllogism that underlies his crime: Anna used to love me but loves me no more; Anna loves her son; ergo, if I snatch her son and treat him well, she'll love me again. Wasting away in jail, fearing daily for his life and rightly doubtful of his acquittal, Simon has time to reconsider such Hinckley-esque logic. But eventually time runs out, and Simon must stop rationalizing and face prosecutors, a judge, a jury and the parents of the little boy he stole.
Onto this perfectly well-wrought soap opera, Perlman, going for broke, superimposes a second and very different type of book, one in which characters take long walks while discussing the role of sympathy in literature, like refugees from a Thomas Bernhard novel, or find themselves trapped at absurd corporate retreats that might have sprung from the imagination of an expert satirist such as George Saunders or Jonathan Franzen. Perlman is almost, but not quite, capable of playing at their level. While his excursions can be said to add to the book's breadth, they don't necessarily add to its depth, and in the end they attenuate rather than propel the narrative. The reader who stays with Perlman through a mini-treatise on blackjack, for example, or through long Socratic dialogues on arbitrage or managed care or poststructuralist criticism, is expecting some sort of thematic or symbolic payoff -- and may be disappointed to discover that the payoff looks unmistakably like a shaggy dog.
By its final chapter, Seven Types of Ambiguity seems to realize that it has indulged its metafictional fetish at the expense of its obligation to tie up loose ends. Resolution comes hurriedly -- perhaps a shade too hurriedly given our 600-page investment. At the same time, the reader can't help but be impressed. Elliot Perlman has many things working in his favor as a novelist: curiosity, erudition, daring and a gift for seducing readers into going along with him for the ride. He'll get you where you want to go, eventually, but you'll have to forgive him his scenic detours.
Jeff Turrentine is a Washington Post staff writer and a regular reviewer for Book World.