May 24, 12
Read from May 17 to 24, 2012
I went into this with low expectations, expectations I'm now slightly ashamed of, since they were born of prejudice. Never having heard of it made me feel like it wouldn't be good (ridiculous), and with the comparisons to Roth and Franzen, I expected prose that was unimpeachable but not exciting and an ambitious story that failed to deliver. But Seven Types of Ambiguity is actually great.
Simon, the protagonist, kidnaps the son of an ex-girlfriend (though this isn't ever directly dramatized), and the rest of the novel explores the ways in which this influences the lives of everyone Simon is even remotely connected with. And each of the seven sections of the book is narrated by a different character. This sounds lame and/or gimmicky, but it works. Perlman gives us the narrators that we'd want, and none of the sections belong to children or animals. Most of the sections bear directly on Simon's story, too, so you never spend too much time talking about details that aren't important. The writing style is good, but without pyrotechnics. Perlman is a lawyer--excuse me, barrister--and you can see that from his prose. There's plenty of subordinate clauses and tortured syntax and far-removed antecedents etc. in his sentences, so they're complex without using any words that might send you to the dictionary. For example:
"...even a sterile marriage, one in which the husband gets more warmth from the prostitute he visits regularly than from his wife, one in which the wife has been too successful in utterly repudiating everything she used to be before she managed to get everything her parents had taught her she would ever want."
Does it all work? Of course not. Perlman has a number of irritating tendencies I feel obligated to mention. First, he seems to have a need to impress with either his research or his background knowledge, as if he's saying, "Look how much I know about law! And casino blackjack! And escort services! And psychiatry! And Billie Holiday! And deconstructionism!" Not kidding about that last one; we really do get a several-page intro to deconstruction. Sigh. Second, his characters are pretty often types, like, as Paul Bryant pointed out, the tart with a heart of gold. Or the tortured psychotherapist, which, third, there's more psychotherapy in this than any good book should be able to contain. Fourth, Perlman goes out of his way to make sure his characters' lives are pathetic enough to tug at the heartstrings. Is character A. not as unhappy as she should be? Let's give her MS. Is character B. having too much fun in prison? How 'bout some rape? And let's get a round of clinical depression for everyone.
But Perlman pulls it off. For one thing, he can really write, and for another, he really cares about his characters. If either of those weren't true, my guess is that Seven Types of Ambiguity would be a complete failure. But they are, and I thought it was great, and a surprisingly quick read, and I'd recommend it with almost no reservations.