Seven Types of Ambiguity, by Elliot Perlman

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Take an apparently mundane, just a bit out of the ordinary, circumstance. Explore it in detail to create an over-arching, stage-setting device. And then, in much greater detail, look at how it effects the various people who were touched by the initial incident. That describes a device that has certainly long been part of fiction (and you can offer your own examples in comments) but I think it is fair to say that Australian authors have used it to good effect most often in contemporary times.

Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap is the most recent example. The “slap” of the title takes place at a Melbourne barbeque when an adult disciplines an unruly, spoiled four-year-old (not his son). Complications ensue for a couple hundred pages — for author Tsiolkas, “ensuing” included a 2010 Booker Prize longlisting and a popular TV mini-series. Two years earlier, Steve Toltz had used a variation of the form to take A Fraction of the Whole to the Booker shortlist (sorry, that is pre-blog so no review here — KfC thought it good, not great).

I am late to the game with a review of this book, but I would say that both Tsiolkas and Toltz owe a debt to Elliot Perlman for re-introducing the form. First published in 2003, Seven Types of Ambiguity is a 623-page model of the fictional device that they will come to adopt in the next few years. And in its own way it has been just as successful, even if I am almost a decade late in getting to it.

Here are the elements of the central event. Simon Heywood is an unemployed teacher, laid-off partly because of economic contractions, perhaps even more because of effects of reputation fallout based on the kidnapping of a young boy whom he was tutoring in post-school hours. In his loneliness, Simon starts obsessing about a university affair he had with the beautiful Anna — and a chance sighting of her with her young son, Sam, fuels that obsession.

The seriously-disturbed Simon has a friend, Angelique, a prostitute whom he first “engaged” in search of human contact (but didn’t sleep with) and who has now become his only friend — she both feeds and consoles him. Simon’s obsession with Anna climaxes when he arranges things so he can pick up (“kidnap”) her son after school. Angelique discovers what has happened when she drops in to Simon’s, the three enjoy cocoa and chocolate milk and Angelique calls the police. No harm, no foul, for the most part. Not in the novel, however.

Perlman, wisely, has a secondary plot. Anna’s husband, Joe, is a stock broker involved in a major deal which is dependent on Australia approving relaxed rules for U.S.-style private hospitals. An analyst colleague, Mitch, has insider political data that says unexpected approval of privatization will go ahead (which means millions in market profits) and Joe is the front-man for putting a deal together.

The primary plot supplies the ground for studying individuals, the secondary one creates opportunities for a broader look at Australian society.

That’s it as far as “action” goes for Seven Types of Ambiguity — every thing else is back story or fall-out. Don’t take that as a negative, because Perlman exploits the device in a highly effective fashion. Just as a butterfly flapping its wings in Singapore causes a snowstorm in New York City (sorry about that), the “innocent” kidnapping of a young boy has a wealth of unforeseen consequences.

As the title of the novel implies, Perlman chooses to tell his story through the voices of seven narrators with widely-varied perspectives in discrete sections:

– The psychiatrist whom Simon is seeing before the kidnapping;

– Joe, the husband/prostitute client;

– Angelique, the prostitute who is the “muse” who keeps the story together;

– the brilliant stock analyst, Mitch, first name Dennis, who consults the same psychiatrist after the central event;

– Simon — he doesn’t show up as himself until part five;

– Anna, part six;

– and the psychiatrist’s daughter who discovers his journals after his death and narrates the denouement in the final section.

The waves that ripple out from the central and secondary events have impact in a 360-degree circle, a strength of Perlman’s structural approach. It allows for different voices (and different interior structures) to explore these impacts which is certainly a positive. Here is one example: the opening section narrated by the psychiatrist, presented in the form of a journal directed towards Anna:

Your husband doesn’t always get told the whole truth. But Simon doesn’t hold that against you either. It’s just that gradually he has been gaining the impression that you have invoked Sam as a device for gaining some kind of secret autonomy from your husband. Simon’s concern is that Sam is not benefiting from this. I’m sure you’ve rationalized this to some extent. Don’t tell me. It goes along these lines: if you are happier, this will somehow trickle down to Sam and maybe even to your husband; the trickle-down theory.

That quote illustrates one of the problems of the structure, however: 623 pages is a lot of reading to be able to maintain interest in a first-person observer narrative voice, even if the voice changes seven times. And using seven different voices also means that, for every reader, some voices are better than others. For what it is worth, my favorite was Mitch/Dennis, a section done entirely in exchanges between him and the psychiatrist, tangential to the main plot, but anchored in riffs of content (specifically, how to count cards at blackjack) that caught my attention the most.

Riffs are an important part of the book. As Tsiolkas and Toltz will do in their later novels, Perlman uses his structural device to maximize the opportunities it presents for a wide variety of set pieces observing modern Australian life — in many ways, they are the best part of the novel.

Those who know literary criticism better than KfC will already have identified one of the set pieces (indeed, an ongoing sub-text). Perlman has borrowed his title from William Empson’s 1930 classic work of literary criticism which defined the “New Criticism” school. The homage extends well beyond the title: Simon (himself a bit of a literary critic) has a dog named Empson, Perlman does list the seven types of literary ambiguity (I am sure those more familiar with symbolism than me will find a host of examples of each in the novel itself) and there is a great set piece in mid-book on post-modernism. Let me indulge in a quote to illustrate it — it comes when Simon is complaining to his shrink about how the post-modernists turned his university English faculty into a “cultural studies” department “with all that that implies”:

“What does it imply?” [the shrink asks].

“Where do I start? It implies a rigid doctrinaire embrace of certain amorphous schools of thought often grouped together under the mantle of post-modernism. Now, you’re probably thinking this is just another fad within the social sciences or the arts to which some people will subscribe and others won’t. Who cares?”

“That’s not quite what I was thinking but if it had been, you would have put it very well.”

“The real and grave problem with this particular fad is what it includes and what it has come to exclude. When English departments become departments of cultural studies, it means that decision makers within them embrace, adhere to, or, to put it more aptly, are under the sway of Jacques Derrida’s deconstuctionism….”

The set piece goes on for a few pages — it is entertaining throughout and I have quoted only a teaser but it is great fun, a tribute to Perlman’s ability.

That, in fact, may be my summary of the book. It ranks on the positive side of neutral overall and certainly has some superlative moments, but there is a fair bit of dross along the way. I am glad I read it, but I’d have to say I would be careful about encouraging other readers to make the time investment — for those with the right set of interests, it would be exceptionally good; for others, it would be a time-wasting chore.

KfC as Worry, the Wombat

Seven Types of Ambiguity has been sitting on my shelf for some time, following a perceptive review from Kim at Reading Matters and comments in a number of blog discussions. In fact, it was my fellow Shadow Giller Jury judge Kim who finally provoked me to get it off the shelf — on her blog, she is hosting Australian literature month — you will find a wealth of recommendations and reviews if literature from the Antipodes interests you at all. I hope to get to one or two more titles before the month is out.

(Note: Elliot Perlman has a new novel out, The Street Sweeper, — see publisher’s data here. I was interested enough in Seven Types of Ambiguity that I will be trying the 2012 release. Stay tuned.)

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23 Responses to “Seven Types of Ambiguity, by Elliot Perlman”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    You might be late coming to the book, but I’d never heard of it, so that puts you ahead of the game. Sounds interesting and I like meaty novels.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I genuinely liked the premise and, for the most part, the execution. The down side for me is that it was not only long but “slow reading” long, in the sense that even in the sections that I was most enrolled in I needed to put it down and do some thinking. It is one of those books that would have sat on the shelf for even longer if Kim’s project had not provided the impetus to pick it up. I am going to give his new one a try, simply because I saw a lot of talent in this one.

  3. Guy Savage Says:

    I took a look at Amazon (and read the first pages). I’ll admit that the style, the narration didn’t appeal too much. I’ll have to think about this one.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      A positive aspect of the seven voices approach is that some (Joe and Mitch in particular) are more lively. Unfortunately, that first page is a pretty representative sample of a number of them which is what made for the “slow reading”.

  4. Mary Gilbert Says:

    `The positive side of neutral` – a perceptive summary of a novel which rather outstayed its welcome but which was enjoyable nonetheless.. I discovered this novel in a bookshop in Brest and had never previously heard of this author. I think I was more inclined to stick with it because it was such a treat to find an English language book in a French bookshop. I might not have chosen it if I’d been browsing in London but overall I’m glad I did. I quickly became involved in the narrative and I think the idea of the differing viewpoints of the same event had a filmic quality and was skilfully done. However the main problem for me was the sheer length and number of narrators and if I remember rightly a similarity in the narrative voice so that in the end it did read as if it was the same narrator from seven different points of view. My favourite voice was that of Joe because of its satirical tone. I loved his account of the weekend business seminar. I would be interested to read other novels by Perlman – he’s a good writer and I look forward to your recommendations of other contemporary Australian novelists.

  5. kimbofo Says:

    Ah…. have been waiting for this review, Kevin!

    I was probably more enamoured of it because it was the first novel I’d ever read that was set in my home town in a contemporary time frame — until then I’d largely read Australian fiction that was historical fiction. I thought it was clever and funny and perceptive — and hugely ambitious.

    Looking back, I expect it could have done with a good, harsh edit (ie. if it lost 200 pages I don’t think the book would be any the poorer), but I loved it enough to want to read his earlier novel, Three Dollars, which was very good, if slightly overwritten, too.

    Like you, I’m looking forward to the new one. He wrote it while living in New York, so it will be interesting to see how that experience has influenced his fiction.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary, Kimbofo: I actually had the line “chop 200 pages” in my review draft but took it out since there was no where to go after saying it — let’s just say I think the three of us agree this would probably have been a better 400 page novel. I rather like Mary’s “outstaying its welcome”, since that is exactly how I felt. The contemporary parts were excellent — not just Melbourne but the aspects of the business deal, the visit to the casino, etc — but for me they tended to get lost in a drift of less focused prose (I’m not much into psychiatry diagnosis and liked the satire on literary criticism much more than Perlman’s attempts at criticism itself).

    Still, I can’t think of a North American example using the different voices approach and it did deliver on a number of fronts. And he did have to have seven to maintain the comparison with Empson although I agree that meant that a few sounded very, very similar. I knew he had written the most recent book while in New York and that is part of its appeal for me — I’ve found that Aussie writers bring a perceptive eye to America (Janet Turner Hospital comes to mind).

  7. anokatony Says:

    The only, only thing that has kept me from reading ‘Seven Types’ is its 623 pages. I was bowled over by Perlman’s ‘Three Dollars’ and his short stories. I think the new novel is another doorstop.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tony: It has not arrived yet but the publisher’s site says the Canadian version is 576 pages, which qualifies as doorstop for me.

  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I don’t see myself reading a book that could usefully lose around 200 pages, though I’ve read Neal Stephenson I admit who could routinely lose more to good effect.

    The setup sounds a bit contrived, as does the device of a journal addressed to a character. Given that, the length and the fact it just comes in on the positive side of neutral it’s a distinct pass. An interesting review though Kevin.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: While I found the novel of value, I can’t disagree with your conclusion. Perlman does have some very good parts along the way — if somehow a copy ever lands on your desk, read the Joe and Mitch sections. His understanding of the corporate world is better than most novelists and both of those have their moments. If he ever sets a novel in that world, I’ll be buying it for certain.

  11. Charlotte Says:

    I read this book last year based on Kim’s 5 star recommendation and wrote about it with great enthusiasm on my blog. I was happy to wander through the lives of the seven characters, though I agree that Joe and Dennis were the most interesting. I never felt let down by the story and read happily all the way to the end.

    My dim recollection of some Faulkner work was evoked by the device of multiple takes on a single event. I can’t remember the book but I remember loving the idea of hearing about a particular event from various viewpoints.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Charlotte: If you can engage with the characters (and I did with most of them), the device certainly works. The classic example of its previous use that comes to mind for me is Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet — by that measure, Perlman shows reserve in restricting himself to 623 pages.

  13. alison Says:

    I loved Three Dollars and had Seven Types of Ambiguity on my shelf for a long time. I, too, couldn;t face the 623 pages, and now I dont feel quite so guilty. Will definitely pick up his next one

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Alison: Because of comments here, I will be adding Three Dollars to my next book order — not sure when I will get to it, however.

  15. marco Says:

    I’ve serendipitously found a second-hand copy (in Italian) in a used book market yesterday. I suspect it will stay in my TBR for a litte while, though.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Marco: That would have been sleuthing of the first order, if you were actually looking for it. And it did stay on my pile for a fair while before I got to it.

  17. lara Says:

    I read the book last year without reading any reviews. I scanned my eyes across the books in the shop and it caught my attention, I assume because of Epsom. I have to say, it was one of the nicest fiction reads I have had in a long time. I quite reguarly hear that people say it dragged, for me it was a page turner. There must be something about Perlman’s prose that works for me. I am not sure. I am going to re-read it again soon. This is a task I only commit to novels in the category of the ‘Unbearable lightness of being’, so in my opinion it is a novel of the highest caliber.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lara: I’m glad to read that you found all of the “voices” interesting — given the book’s reputation, I was certain that many people did. I have Perlman’s new book, The Street Sweeper, on hand, but will probably wait a month or two before starting it. It seems to be attracting mixed reviews although a regular visitor here, Lisa Hill at ANZ Litlovers gave it a very positive recommendation.

  19. Dave Meader Says:

    I picked the book from the bookstore shelf because it was long.That’s how I decide which books to read.I enjoyed it very much and found I couldn’t put it down.I read it in five days..Looking
    forward to reading his latest book.

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