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[409] Seven Types of Ambiguity – Elliot Perlman

” However crazy this plan was, once I had acted on it, I had no other way out but to persist with it if I wanted to get out of prison. Anna’s permission was my only possible defense. I had to hope that she retained enough of a vestige of what she had once felt for me for it to be less insane for her to go along with what I’d planned that it was for me to act on it in the first place. ” (6.6.372)

Seven Types of Ambiguity is both ingenious and fulfilling. Perlman presents seven first-person narrators, whose lives are all impacted and nudged off course by a man’s abduction of his ex-girlfriend’s young son. Each narrator unfolds the drama with sections and scenes overlapping, elaborating the nuances. As the main plot moves forward from the central event of that crime, we are reminded that the plot is not the novel’s primary pleasure; rather, Perlman’s ponderous, unadorned prose sweeps across a terrain of reflections on child psychology, parenting, personal conviction, morality, materialism, and ultimately, the meaning of sanity. But the confluence of narratives is a simple but profound theme: an affirmation of living truthfully, in the space between individual truths.

He thinks that there are far more significant ambiguities than the linguistic ones . . . The one he keeps talking about is what he calls the ambiguity of human relationships. He says that, just like a verbal expression, a relationship between two people is ambiguous if it is open to different interpretations, but that unlike most words, most relationships are seriously ambiguous. (3.12.200)

The core story is simple but rather farcical: It revolves around Simon Heywood’s brief abduction of six-year-old Samuel Geraghty, whose mother Anna is Simon’s ex-girlfriend. To the dismay of his present lover, Angelique, a prostitute who lays down her life for him, the unemployed but charismatic Simon cannot let go of his ex-girlfriend. As Simon realizes that Anna’s stultifying marriage to Joe is on the edge of collapse, for the sake of the child, whom he saves from drowning during a stalk session at the house, he decides to kidnap the little boy. Whether it is impetuous stupidity, an altruism bordering on mental illness, or misguided love, Anna would be the one on whom his fate hinges.

Most of the perspectives are linked to Simon’s shrink, Alex Klima, who writes to Anna and risks a charge of perjury in persuading her to lie about giving Simon permission to pick up the child. Alex counsels Simon, Angelique and Joe’s co-worker Dennis. Klima, who at times crosses the line within profession, agrees with Simon’s acute and (too) romantic worldview, which challenges and “makes other people’s versions of sanity appear hollow compromises, or evasions.” (7.3.573) Meanwhile it is revealed that Joe has been visiting Angelique every week for two years to make up for a passionless marriage. He spends his brokerage career on the edge of panic and that “the Deal” on managed care fell through cost him and his co-worker the job. But for Joe, the consequence is more dire.

The peculiar situations that define someone’s personality are too numerous to know, no matter how close the observer. A person we think we know can suddenly become someone else when previously hidden strands of his character are called to the fore by circumstance. (7.11.605)

Seven Types of Ambiguity is both a critique and satire of the world today. Simon is in the wrong for kidnapping, but he is also the sanest character in the book. He has within him a highly developed sense of morality, of empathy, coupled with a vigorous almost muscular rationality. What we see is madness, or creepiness, is the cost of so much time spent seeing things so clearly. Everything is a little blurred but, being always this way, people stop noticing how far we have deviated and slipped from the standard. This book is a splendid work of fiction, with distinctive passages throughout and well-developed characters. Smart and edgy, Perlman writes such that the truth emerges between perceptions that change from one generation to the next, with the later being jaundiced because of traumatic childhood.

623 pp. Softcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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10 Responses

  1. Oh, this looks sharp and terrific.

  2. I read this before blogging, and have very vague recollections of the details, but I remember LOVING it. Different perspectives of the same event offers so much potential for cleverness, and Perlman takes every advantage.

    • The story is very straight-forward, but it’s the rippling effect that the story triggers across different people who are involved. I never felt bored even when more than one narrators repeat the story.

  3. I have this book on my shelves after randomly picking it up at McKay’s during one of my early trips there. I admit that I didn’t even read the premise of the book but just started reading the opening pages and thought they were strong… I’m glad the entire book follows suit!

    • The many digressions—reflections and contemplation on psychology, marriage, reading—actually don’t upset me, nor do they compromise on the flow of the novel. This is a strong novel.

  4. Wow, you got through this one, huh? (and sandynawrot did too). I started it once and ran away. Perhaps I should try again.

  5. I’ve picked this one up sooo many times — you know how some books just seem to pop up everywhere you look — thanks for giving the idea of reading it some staying power!

    • I picked it up cold turkey without knowing the author or the story. But once I started the intrigue of the main character, who kidnaps his ex-girlfriend’s child, just totally drew me into the book.

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