Perlman, Elliot: Seven Types of Ambiguity

“I don’t know how it came out so long – I just started writing and it came out like that”. No this wasn’t the author speaking but one of own members talking of an article he had written.

SEVEN Types of Ambiguity is in excess of SIX hundred pages, FIVE members gathered to discuss the book, but only FOUR managed to complete the course and get the souvenir T-shirt. TWO bottles of finest bitter were on hand to sustain the SINGLE blogger, yours truly.

The proposer introduced the book as a gift from his Australian sister-in-law. Elliot Perlman is an Australian, post-grunge (!) author and barrister. Nevermind, it is still worth a look. He informed us that in this context, “Grunge” refers to an “Australian literary genre concerned with dissatisfied and disenfranchised young people living in suburban or inner-city surroundings typically written by “new, young authors” who examined “gritty, dirty, real existences”, of lower-income young people, whose lives revolve around a nihilistic pursuit of casual sex, recreational drug use and alcohol which are used to escape boredom”. This may relate to some extent to the 80/90s Seattle rock scene, but the characters in STOA were far from penniless and I fear the book group members were far beyond their days of post-nihilistic pursuit, but hey-ho, on we go.

The proposer found the characters fascinating, believable and beautifully interlocked. The writing was clear, clever (with many interesting allusions), descriptive and amusing. He particularly enjoyed the “Shakespearian” resume making the long read well worthwhile.   The work “condemns the economic rationalism that destroys the humanity of ordinary people when they are confronted with unemployment and poverty”, to quote AusLit and many other secondary sources. You didn’t read it here first! The book has been well received, shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s most prestigious literary award in 2004. A six-part series based on Seven Types of Ambiguity was screened on ABC Television in 2017.

The title derives from the earlier work on ambiguity in poetry by the literary critic William Empson – and indeed is the name of the dog owned by Simon, the principal character in Perlman’s book. Few knew of Empson’s book, but one who had studied it as part of a literature course ventured a very poor opinion of the work. Perlman’s book revolves about the tangled relationships between the obsessive Simon who still carries a torch for Anna, his student girlfriend, now married to Joe, a dealer in stocks and shares who has formed a partnership with Mitch, a financial analyst. Add to this web Angela or Angelique, the prostitute with the heart of gold, and the psychiatrist, Dr Klima, who each provide mental and/or physical massage with a certain disdain for the rules of the game. Perhaps Dr Klima is just too empathetic for both his and his client’s good, and his eventual suicide is as a result of this. Another victim of these events is Sam, Anna’s child, who is kidnapped by Simon in a possibly, irrational act, and Rachel who plays the role of Fortinbras to Simon’s Hamlet and inherits the sorry kingdom from the elder characters.

Writing from afar, an absent member (who listened to rather than read the book) stated that despite its length, complexity and repetition, he really enjoyed it, written (narrated?) in clear and easy language. There’s a huge amount of information on relationships but there are many interesting stories, which he probably has been saving for a massive tome. For example, the complex sub-plots on share dealing with managed care in the health sector, and of card counting to beat the casino, and even the court room drama  that resulted from the complicated relationships could be considered as tangential, but opinions within the group differed on this.

We discussed the believability and motivation of the characters. One member suggested that the central flaw in the characters and indeed the book was the lack of meaningful life goals, and the struggle to achieve such goals, in which lies contentment. Not so, said another, the driving force is the pursuit of money and material wealth, certainly in the case of Joe and Mitch, who like to enjoy fast cars and prostitutes. In contrast, Anna’s father is painted as a more dogmatic personality, with fixed morals and ideas. There was a discussion of the courtroom drama, considered by some as central to the plot, although others wondered at Anna’s behaviour in letting the trial proceed at all. The text of the book seems to suggest that Anna’s change of testimony within the trial is clever, rational and pre-conceived but this does not really fit her previous behaviour. In taking the child, was Simon being protective, knowing the state of the marriage from conversations with Angelique, or was this an understandable, irrational act from a disturbed individual? This book does not lend itself to easy answers.  Everyone seems to be dysfunctional.

For some of our number who knew Australia well, there was disappointment that the book had no sense of place; it could be set anywhere, and some didn’t realise where until the text was well advanced. Does it matter? At this point someone noted that Australia had the second highest CO2 emission level per capita anywhere on the planet! The author doesn’t really care about such issues, one suspects, nor do his characters. Alas, the author is probably not wrong to emphasise this fixation on relationships when many are concerned today more that they are missing out on the latest influencer-led obsession, but can one not regret this? Another pointed out that the book contains a rant about globalisation, understandable from an Australian perspective, and that the book was an accurate portrayal of how people behave and what motivates them.

So there was much to discuss and much to disagree upon. However, we were unanimous in asserting it was too long! Thinking of his time in the civil service, one reminded us he was advised to elucidate internally and obfuscate externally. Perhaps like Churchill, Empson was apologising for writing a long book because he didn’t have time to write a short one. We were all aware of the need to curtail, be brief and to edit one’s text. Did the author take advice from an editor, who might have made it shorter? A novelist amongst us noted that more prestigious authors tended to have more control over their manuscripts, as editors dare not offend. A recent series of popular books on schoolboy wizardry was mentioned. Initially engaged, another member lost all sympathy with the characters as the book progressed.

To summarise, of the 5+1 contributors to the discussion, there was a majority who would recommend the book, but not universal approbation. We agreed that the book was clearly meant to be the Magnum Opus (“many incarnations”), but perhaps it was just too “clever”, that the characters do not have unique voices – they are mouthpieces for the author’s view. Overall, we would give four stars, if we gave ratings, but we don’t, so we won’t.