Drew's Reviews > Seven Types of Ambiguity

Seven Types of Ambiguity by Elliot Perlman
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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.

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Reading Progress

05/18/2012 page 175
27.0% "Pretty damn good so far."

Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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Kirstie I read this one a long time ago but I found it to be deeply absorbing in a good way.

Drew Good to know! I hadn't heard of it until recently.

Kirstie I just realized he published a new one because you added this as to read. I haven't heard anything about The Street Sweeper but I am excited about reading another one of his!

Kirstie I am so glad you are enjoying it! I should read it again

Steve Great review, Drew. You summed it up well.

I thought it was interesting that you mentioned the tart with the cliched heart of gold. If I recall, there was something else made of gold (view spoiler) that I thought was a weakness in the plot when Anna had, completely out of the blue, asked her husband about it.

Drew That's Paul's phrase, actually, and I might never have even had the thought about Angelique if I hadn't read his review.

Yeah, there are certainly a few weaknesses in the plot, but nothing crippling. I was really worried almost throughout that we were going to get no Simon POV and, more importantly, no Anna POV. And that Perlman was going to do something like a section in Sam's. Which, no thanks. But everything went better than expected.

Steve I liked your point, too, that the structure might have seemed gimmicky in a less talented writer's hands. Perlman made it work. The psychology angle was effective, as well, I thought. It was a device used well in The Sopranos, where Dr. Melfi got to a side of Tony that would have seemed unnatural to uncover any other way.

Jason It's so interesting that we both liked this book, but for entirely different reasons. I love that different people can get different things from the same book. For me, the characters sucked—all of them. But I liked the psychology. I liked the insight into human motivation.

Jason Even though Tony was a sociopath, his character in The Sopranos felt real to me. Simon just feels like a fabrication, a vehicle to explain some Perls of wisdom.

See, I can make nice with puns, too, Steve. I'm just not as good at it as you are. :)

Steve This is all of the sudden one of the in books, at least in this corner of Goodreads. Contagions like this can be fun.

"Perls of wisdom." I like it!

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