Archive for the ‘Perlman, Elliot (2)’ Category

The Street Sweeper, by Elliot Perlman

April 27, 2012

Review copy courtesy Bond Street Books

Let me start this review with a warning: The Street Sweeper contains some of the most disturbing, heart-breaking prose that I can recall reading. As author Elliot Perlman brings his novel towards its conclusion, more and more of the book recounts the stories of the Sonderkommando, the death camp Jews who, on pain of an instant death, were required instead to load and unload the gas ovens, stockpile any final items of value and, finally, incinerate the bodies. It makes for dramatic reading but brings with it much more pain than joy.

How the author gets there, however, is an indication of the scope of this book. While the 544-page novel has an extensive cast of characters, the principal narrative threads are focused on two contemporary Americans — the street sweeper of the title and an historian who is about to lose his job at Columbia University — and how they discover their own versions of the story of the Holocaust.

Lamont Williams is the street sweeper. He is black, just out of prison after six years for his involvement in an armed robbery in which he was an unknowing participant as the driver of the getaway car. When we first meet him, he has just got the first good break of his life as the initial member of a new outreach program at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre, a program designed to provide a job for “non-violent offenders with exemplary prison records”. The following quote is chosen more to illustrate Perlman’s painstaking, deliberate prose style than anything else — how stories get told are a very important sub-theme in this novel:

Probation lasts six months. This was the first hour of day four, and the supervisor wasn’t to be found outside either. Maybe Lamont was meant to see the job at hand, to identify the problem himself and show some initiative. He looked outside to see if there was anything that looked like an obvious job for someone in Building Services. Everyone outside was smoking under the hospital awning — paramedics, anxious family members, even patients themselves. It didn’t make sense. Maybe they were all just about to quit. Maybe the patients among the smokers had a cancer other than lung cancer, and need the comfort of cigarettes to get them through it.

One patient sitting outside in a wheelchair is not smoking and he’s been deserted by Patient Escort Services. We will discover later that his name is Mandelbrot and he demands that Lamont return him to his room, even though that is clearly a PES responsibility, not one that a Building Services probationer is allowed to carry out. Lamont eventually acquiesces and, when the two get back to Mandelbrot’s room, the patient offers the opening lines of his story:

‘There were six death camps.’


‘There were six death camps.’

‘Six what?’

‘Death camps.’

‘What do you mean, “death camp”?’

‘There were exactly six death camps but you could die more than once in any of them.’

The importance of oral history in keeping alive both the story of the Holocaust and the state of American blacks post-WWII is another one of Perlman’s subtexts and he has just introduced it. Neither Holocaust survivors nor black freedom fighters had any other option to tell their stories. As the book unfolds, Mandelbrot’s decision to adopt Lamont as the recepient and caretaker of his story will occupy more and more of the narrative — a device that underlines why we all need to be listeners to the tragic stories that can be conveyed in no other way.

Adam Zignelik is the Columbia University professor and we meet him in the form of one of his dreams — it starts with the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, moves on to the deaths of four girls in the segragationist Birmingham bombing and concludes with the story of fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine black students who were attempting to become the first of their race to attend school in Little Rock.

Adam Zignelik hadn’t been born when this happened, when some young men in the crowd who had followed her back to the bus stop and were now behind Elizabeth Eckford started calling, ‘Lynch her! No nigger bitch is going to get into our school. We gotta lynch her! Lynch her! Lynch her!’ Jake Zignelik had been born but he wasn’t there. Who was there for Elizabeth Eckford at the bench at the bus stop near the tree in Little Rock, Arkansas, on the morning of 4 September 1957? Thousands of people were there. Was there anyone else there for her?

Adam comes by that dream legitimately — his father, Jake, was part of Thurgood Marshall’s team which won the Brown versus Board of Education decision that supposedly guaranteed the right of black students to go to that school. When Marshall moved on to the Supreme Court, Jake (a Jew) took over leadership of the NAACP-backed Legal Defense Fund, the legal arm of the civil rights movement. Alas, Jake was a better activist than he was a father — Adam’s mother left him when the boy was a young child and he was raised in Australia.

Adam had an early success as an historian with a book that turned him, however briefly, into a television talking head. That lead to the Columbia appointment (where a childhood friend, the son of one of his father’s colleagues at the LDF, now heads the department). His career has stalled and the lack of published articles means that not only will there not be tenure, he will be asked to leave.

It is a conversation with the department head’s father, Jake’s former colleague William McCray, that starts Adam on what will turn out to be his own Holocaust voyage. William is certain that black GIs were among the first to arrive at the Nazi death camps, although the official record conveniently ignores any mention. While Adam makes little progress on that front, he does discover the work of a Chicago psychologist who arrived at the death camps shortly after liberation and taped scores of survivor stories, many of which have remained undiscovered in the archives in the ensuing decades.

The first half of The Street Sweeper develops those narrative lines — the second half is dominated by the Holocaust memories that I mentioned in my opening paragraph. Both Lamont and Adam have their personal stories as well — it is perhaps a weakness of the book that in the final pages Perlman needs to bring all that together in a rather tidy conclusion that seems hollow given the gut-wrenching stories that immediately precede it.

On the other hand, that is consistent with the nature of oral history — often the stories that are told are grotesque compared to the mundane challenges of current reality. Yet, if we are to appreciate the horrific lessons of the past, some way has to be found to strike a balance between the two — ignoring the stories because they are too terrible is simply not an option.

The Street Sweeper won’t be to everyone’s taste and readers who have Holocaust fatigue (yes, at times I am one of them) may find it particularly challenging. Yet, Perlman’s decision to contrast the stories of American blacks and the Holocaust (even though he is careful not to draw direct comparisons) has value — some people’s stories can only be heard not read. The aging survivors of the two threads of his story are becoming fewer and fewer every year — if we don’t listen now, soon there will be no one left to tell the stories.


Seven Types of Ambiguity, by Elliot Perlman

January 9, 2012

Purchased at

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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