Saturday, February 18, 2006

Worth a Look

This novel takes its title and central theme from William Empson's classic textabout ambiguity in poetic language. Watered down, Empson believed that ambiguity--the possibility for differing interpretations of an openly structured text--was a mark of literary value, and Elliot Perlman applies this idea of ambiguity to human relationships.

The most central of the 7 central characters is Simon, who ranks with Dostoevsky's Prince Myshkin as one of the great morally admirable, intellectually brilliant, and yet pitiably naive fools in literature. Simon idealizes an ex-girlfriend so much that he becomes obsessed over her and descends into madness, eventually kidnapping her son in an attempt to renew their relationship. We get inside views of these events not only from Simon, but from his psychiatrist, his prostitute girlfriend, his ex-girlfriend, his ex-girlfriend's current husband, his ex-girlfriend's current husband's business associate, and finally from the daughter of his psychiatrist looking back on the events from much later.

The result is a challenging and interesting look at the workings of relationships between people and how expectations and subjectivity can cloud and distort reality. Are all relationships commercial? Are they more than just practical bonds? Is the whore/client relationship the purest of all? Is there a difference between such relationships and lawyer/client doctor/patient--even husband/wife bonds? There's lots to digest here in 600+ pages, and at times the characters lose their individual voices and become mouthpieces for the author's opinions about politics, academe, and other writers. But these are minor faults--despite its failings Seven Types of Ambiguity is worth the time, and perhaps deserves re-reading. Interesting stuff.

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