Monday, January 15, 2007

Everything seems to be up in the air at this time

Elliot Perlman's Seven Types of Ambiguity is a great big novel blending elements of the new and old schools. As is popular today, the book's thematic focus is perception. Unlike today's exercises in solipsism, the book has a plot and the author is interested in society. The basic plot is simple. A depressed, cashiered teacher spots the son of a former girlfriend. He thinks he can save both her and him by kidnapping the boy. The boy is unharmed, but the ripple effects of the kidnapping are harmful to all.

One of the blurbs calls the book Rashomonian, which isn't quite correct. Yes the story is told from seven different perspectives, but not in the Rashomon manner. In that movie, four narrators discuss an incident and give four versions of what happens. The ambiguity in the movie is about events. There is some ambiguity about events in this book, but the bigger issue is that few, if any, of the characters really understand what motivates the others. For example, Joe, stockbroker father of the kidnapped boy seems himself as a maligned spouse, a good business partner to Mitch and a hardworker. Others see him as withdrawn spouse, a manipulator of business partners and a violent man. What makes it interesting is that none of the people have it quite right. There is some truth in all of the descriptions, but Perlman shows the full picture to be more complex. This is one of the better explorations of the limits of self-awareness and the ability to know others.

If a 600 page novel took seven perspectives on a day's events, as Rashomon does, it would end up boring. While all the stories are tied to the weekend of the kidnapping, they are much lengthier and in-depth. The stories allow Perlman to explore his other themes, which include the parlous state of civil society in a globalized era and the damage that parents do to children.

Unfortunately this is one of those slow starting books. I found the first of the seven perspectives, that of a psychiatrist, to be the least interesting. In the grand scheme, his story is important, but this is not apparent in the chapter. If you are bogged down in this section, by all means press on.

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