Sunday, October 29, 2006

38. Seven Types of Ambiguity

by Elliot Perlman

When I was in the middle of Seven Types of Ambiguity, this is what I wrote in my commonplace book:

“I suppose I can’t say that this is the single most amazing book I’ve read this year, because I’ve read some pretty amazing books and I’d be hard-pressed to crown just one. But what I can say is that this is the single most unexpectedly amazing book I’ve read this year.”

At the time, this was true.

I first heard about this hefty Elliot Perlman tome in Esquire’s “Big Important Book of the Month” column, wherein Tyler Cabot wrote, “Perlman writes with such convincing simplicity – his sentences read like whiskey-fueled confessions – that you can’t help but imagine being locked in a room with his characters, devising a plan to palliate their woes.” (There’s actually a large chunk of this review quoted on the back cover of the paperback.) Rereading that review, I’m not sure what about it sparked my interest in the book, but I stuck in on my reading list and when I found it remaindered at Unabridged, aka The Best Bookstore Ever!, I picked it up. I didn’t start it until later when I was sitting on an Amtrak train, coming back to Chicago from Michigan. I was completely engrossed for those four and a half hours. When I wrote those words in my book, several hundred pages later, I meant them.

The story centers around one pivotal moment and the sweeping affect it has through seven lives. That moment is when Simon Heywood, our central character, picks up the child of his college girlfriend from his school, without her permission. The cops bust into his apartment and he’s taken away to jail, even though the son was not harmed in any way. That’s just the moment. What made me use the word “amazing” was the way the story went back in time and forward through the future and spanned different personalities and viewpoints to become this sweeping, massive work that can only appropriately be described as Literature. Seriously. I think we may be reading this one decades from now.

This is the way you write a story from seven different viewpoints, I thought. (Andrew Winston, that was directed at YOU.) Perlman doesn’t just give us snippets of these seven different thoughts, he actually spends time in these characters’ minds and gives us intricately fleshed out accounts of their lives. What’s most surprising is that you’re never quite sure who your narrator is going to be next. As the book opens it’s Dr. Alex Klima, the psychiatrist Simon’s father hires to treat him but who ends up far more embedded in Simon’s trials than professionally, or even personally, advisable. Perlman turns next to Joe Geraghty, father to the boy Simon takes and husband to woman for whom Simon pines. I won’t tell you who else takes a turn at narrator, because half the fun was wondering whose side of the story I was going to get next, but it was an ingenious way to keep the story alive and it drove home the point that there’s more than one side to everything. Because Perlman is a truly great writer, this usually tricky device works and it works well.

Then I came to the end. Sandra at Book World remarked that any regular reader would have seen this end coming, but I didn’t. I didn’t see it coming because it was the most predictable, neat, tied up ending there possibly could have been and I didn’t want the book to end this way. Happily. Not that it’s entirely happy, as our final narrator has much pent up anger and resentment for a father that forwent his family for an obsession, but it’s far more happy than I wanted and I was truly disappointed at this. I, otherwise, loved the book so much that I actually tried to construe the ending to convince myself Perlman was trying to tell us that the characters were far more screwed up than we even knew, but I think I was going out on a limb there. I think, maybe, they were just supposed to be happy. Unfortunately, I just don’t buy it.

In my commonplace book I also wrote down the phrase, “I believe that you can’t choose your favorite books. They choose you.” I do believe that, because when I first read the books that are now my favorites I didn’t know that one day they would be. I loved Seven Types of Ambiguity, right up until the end, but maybe it can’t be a favorite. Not right away. I do know that even though I didn’t love the end, I’ll read this again some day and we’ll see where it falls on the scale of favorites then.


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