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.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.)