03 August 2008

Seven Types of Ambiguity, by Elliot Perlman

I was so impressed with this book for the first 50 pages. I was totally enthralled. The next 80 so pages, my enthusiasm faded a bit, but I still enjoyed the book. It was around page 300 or so that I started being more annoyed by it than anything else. So, here's the thing - it's an interesting story. And it's told in a creative way, it's just that unfortunately, the writer isn't talented enough to pull it off. So there are these nice aspects to it, but ultimately, it gets way too irritating.

The book is divided into 7 sections, each with a different narrator (though some people narrate more than one section). This allows the nice effect of getting to hear different sides of the story, and when done well, allows you to see how people misunderstand each other, and the effects such misunderstandings have. It's a move I'm generally partial too, but its a tricky thing to pull off well, and most authors (and Perlman is an excellent example) who attempt it are so pleased with their own cleverness that they botch the whole thing. Perlman clearly wants to play with the idea of ambiguities in personal relationships - aside from being the title of the book, he makes his various characters talk about it so much that after awhile you're like DUDE. I GET IT. YOU'RE VERY CLEVER. It's kind of amusing, actually, that Perlman clearly thinks he's being incredibly smart by accenting this multiple perspectives story with literary theories of ambiguity, but the book fails precisely because he's unable to leave anything ambiguous - not only does he have to keep calling attention to just how clever he is, but he also insists on ultimately getting every character's perspective on everything, and telling you just what happens to pretty much everybody. 

The real problem, though, is that if you want to be a virtuoso and have seven different narrators, fine, but they have to actually be different. They can't all sound like a slightly angsty, melodramatic, intelligent but vaguely pretentious, self-absorbed guy. This is really why my ardour for the text cooled after the first section. I liked the first narrator. Sure, he dropped a lot of literary references in a vaguely pretentious way, but hey, I'm a lit dork, so I didn't really mind. The second narrator was somewhat similar, but not overly so - he actually, kind of, had a personality of his own. And he's probably the most effective character, in that he is frequently completely misperceived by others, but actually becomes likeable when you get his perspective. Though given how very likeable he is from the inside, it is a bit hard to understand how he can be so detestable to most everyone else. But after that, all of the narrators are basically similar. The female characters are particularly disastrous - their voices ring so false, it's painful. All of the characters are slightly ridiculous, "literary" types who have ridiculously eloquent conversations and thoughts, and unbearably poignant lives (it's the textual equivalent of the kind of performance in movies that makes my friend Jen assume a stiff posture and yell ACTING! in a booming voice), but the women, for me, were even worse. Although I generally believe that gender identity is a social construct rather than a biological one, and I don't think it's true that a man cannot write in the voice of a convincing female character, Elliot Perlman can't. But that's mostly because, it seems to me, Elliot Perlman can't really write ANY convincing character other than a self-absorbed, angst-ridden, over-sensitive pseudo-intellectual one, or at least, not in this book he can't.  But for some reason, it's when he tries to speak as a woman that this becomes so starkly clear. I suppose there is a kind of masculinity to a certain sort of self-absorbed melancholy. It's not that women aren't self-absorbed or depressed, it's just that they tend to do it in a slightly different way. And his women are clearly products of that kind of male imagination. I ain't sayin', I'm just sayin'. I have a sneaking suspicion that the author of this book might be kind of an annoying guy. 

All of this is very unfortunate, because actually, the story is quite interesting. Is it so interesting that it's worth 623 pages? Well... hard to say. I can't unabashedly recommend it, but I can't also say it's a waste of time. There are plenty of worse books out there. All the same, there are so many better ones...


Anonymous said...

Elliot Perlman is an outstanding writer. If you can't write your own book, you should give the people who can some credit and stop whining.

culture_vulture said...

Having a bad day, were we?

My review may have been a bit harsh, it's true. But I stand by what I said, even if I could have framed it in a more even-tempered way. I wasn't whining - I'm sorry it came off that way. There are plenty of excellent books out there for me to read, and actually, I don't begrudge the time I spent reading this one. On the other hand, some level of the enjoyment, and benefit, that I derived from reading this book was in better understanding literary technique, and I think I learned a lot by identifying the weaker points of this work. You love Perlman's books, fine. I don't think any less of you for it. A good friend of mine recommended the book to me, and although I didn't like it as much as he did, I still think he has good taste in literature. I actually did recommend 7 Types of Ambiguity to my mom (though I also told her what I didn't like about it), and I was planning on picking up the collection of his short stories that I noticed in the bookstore the other day. I suspect his short stories will be better than this novel.

Incidentally, I think the "if you can't do it yourself then you've no call to criticize people who you think are doing it poorly" line of argument is nonsense. I can't fix a car, but if I take my car to the mechanic to get my brakes repaired and they fail to work after I've picked it up, then I certainly feel qualified to say that the mechanic did a shoddy job. That doesn't make the mechanic a bad person, but it does illustrate that I don't necessarily have to possess the skills to perform a certain task in order to be able to ascertain whether the task has been done well.

Anonymous said...

Definitely don't agree, but that isn't the problem I have with this review. It's hiding behind/wanting people to believe you're a "lit dork" with a comprehensive knowledge of literature so that your opinions appear more valid.

I'm a woman, and I thought the women, particularly Anna, were spot on. I identified with her in an insane way. I guess that makes me so false it's painful...

I've heard plenty of complaints that it was long, but when it was coming to an end, I frankly wanted 623 more. The ugly things in life became magical to read about. Books are escapes, and this one was a great one. But if you're only looking at the story/criticizing it within the context of technique and talent, you're reading books for the wrong reason. As a writer, I have to put my ego aside and just enjoy something. Because I loved it so much, it kind of breaks my heart to see it ripped on so much (people can do a lot when hiding behind a computer screen) that it might turn potential readers away.

But I guess that's why reviews are written; and read.

culture_vulture said...

Are you the same Anonymous that left the first comment? Not that it matters, I'm just curious.

First off, let me make something clear - this blog isn't really a collection of reviews. It's a blog. It's a collection of thoughts. I do occasionally write reviews, and they're very different from the stuff I write here. This blog I really write mostly for myself. I think if what I have to say is of interest to anyone, then it's to people who have already read/seen whatever I'm talking about - I hope people don't read the blog beforehand, honestly. Furthermore, I'm not trying to persuade anybody. I'm writing my opinion, take it or leave it. A lot of my closest friends totally disagree with me on some of this stuff, and that's fine by me. I'm just giving my side of the story. It's nice that people want to read it, I appreciate it, and I really like getting comments back, especially from people who disagree with me.

To me, the female characters rang false. To you, they didn't. Ok. What's the problem? Should I stop telling people who ask me what I thought of the book that the female characters seemed fake to me just because I know of at least one woman who doesn't feel that way?

I'm not just looking at the book in the context of technique/talent. This book, however, is pointedly referencing certain literary techniques. It ASKS you to think about them. Probably, a lot of the readers haven't actually read Empson, and therefore ignore that aspect. As it happens, I have. My point in what I said above was that if you insistently name-drop a given theorist and self-consciously reference certain techniques, you should probably have the chops to back up what you're saying, and I don't think this book did. I think it's a very difficult thing to do; I know of very few authors who possess critical and theoretical knowledge about literature and the creative skill to match.

In terms of "escapes", as you call it - well, this book just didn't really do it for me. There was a lot I liked about it - as I said, I recommended it to my mom, I picked up another book of his writing, etc - but ultimately, I just wasn't that into this book. My experience of reading it wasn't unenjoyable, but it wasn't amazing, either. That doesn't mean it's a bad book.

I understand that it can be kind of heartbreaking to see something you love get critiqued. I often feel that way myself. And I understand that one's impulse in such a case is to assume that the person who doesn't like the thing you love must be a total asshole. But, to use your own words, sometimes you have to "put your ego aside" and realize that just because you love something, it doesn't make it perfect. I am aware of the fact, for instance, that some of the movies I love have completely ridiculous plots. It's a totally valid critique of them. It just so happens that it doesn't bother me at all when I'm watching them, and I can perfectly well enjoy them despite that fact. That's how taste works, sometimes.

culture_vulture said...

Oooh, here's a good example - I love The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand. It's an irrational love perhaps, but goddamnit, I adore that book.

Simultaneously, I think that the philosophy it espouses is deeply unethical. I think that the characters in the book whom I love so much are themselves pretty unethical, it's just that in the book, the terms are set such that they don't seem so bad. I also know a lot of people who simply cannot enjoy the book because of the moral dimension, or lack of it.

Technique wise, it's probably not a very good book. There are long, dull speeches. A lot of people find the prose sort of ridiculous - Rad has a very specific style. I happen to find it highly enjoyable - to me, the book is a page turner, totally absorbing. But again, I can't really disagree with people who say it's badly written.

On the other hand, a lot of people object to the sex scenes in the book, because they think they're all rape scenes. Now, here, I CAN disagree, and point you to specific evidence to the contrary in given scenes, and argue that if you read all the scenes as rapes, you're misunderstanding them.

At the end of the day though, most people I know think The Fountainhead sucks, and I disagree with them. And furthermore, most people I've encountered who think it's a great book are total whackjobs who think they're supreme beings and have no sense of ethics. So there ya go.