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.

Priestley, J. B: English Journey

The group convened in January 2013 to discuss Priestley’s record of an English Journey undertaken in the autumn of 1933, almost eighty years ago. That journey was suggested by the publisher, Gollancz, and their left wing views could be said to have coloured the excellent prose contained within the book. Not only could it be said, but it was said by more than one group member. Alas, not everything of note said by members of the group is recorded on this occasion because your humble scribe was unaware of his necessary recording role until an hour of discussion had ensued and someone noticed the lack of scribbling. What perceptive observations have been lost? (Perceptive? you must be joking, Ed.) Hence, this month’s episode is compiled from ill-remembered and prejudiced views, and the later contributed notes of other attendees.

In his summary, ‘To the End’, Priestley speaks of three Englands. Old England is defined by the cathedrals and minsters, the manor houses and inns, and quaint highways and byways. Nineteenth Century England is formed from coal, iron, steel, cotton, wool and railways. He suggests that ‘Merrie England” cannot be improved upon, at least with rose tinted spectacles. However, he does point out that there was a substantial exodus to the industrial, revolutionary cities in the nineteenth century. Vote with your feet, as they say. His third England was more universal, possibly born in America, of cinemas and Woolworth’s, of the city bypass and semi-detached bungalow, and so on. As he points out perceptively elsewhere in the book, the coming of improved transport and communications may signal the death of individual and regional character. When talking of East Durham, he talks of its strange isolation. ‘Nobody goes to East Durham’, and by implication, no-one who lives there can afford to leave. As elsewhere in the book he talks of the harsh northern environment either bringing its inhabitants to despair, or blunting their senses and clouding the mind. This is certainly harsh, and perhaps over-stated. As he observes, regional theatres flourish in the most unlikely settings, and there are merits in the enterprise and ingenuity of the sons of the industrial revolution that is not always echoed in the gentrified classes to the south of Sheffield.

Speaking of East Durham, rarely can a book have been so well illustrated by its accompanying photographs; the Bill Brandt picture of the brick house sheltering under the coal slag heap with the heavy machinery of the pulley system perched on its top is magnificent and such photographs can be as influential as the text. Although written eighty years ago, this at least was familiar from my own childhood, when part of Lanarkshire was dominated by these spoils from deep mining. However, not everyone had the same edition, and some were poorly illustrated by modern equivalents. If you buy this book, go for the Folio Society edition of 1997, and check the photographs before you buy! Of course, the power of the image is so dominant now. Think for example of the citizen in front of the tanks in Tienanmen Square.

However, our discussion became less centred on the observation, and more on the causes of what was observed, in a historical and industrial or business context. Of course, English Journey is in itself an influential work and a precursor of the Mass Observation Project that followed, which we read about earlier in “Nella Last’s War”. Although titled an English Journey, many pointed out that it was incomplete. Priestley himself acknowledged that he had not completed the task, and had failed to meet his original intentions to be more comprehensive. Rather, than three Englands, a majority though that this was really about two Englands, and that Priestley betrayed his left wing sympathies in suggesting that the industrial north had been betrayed by the allegedly (by some, not all) unproductive, parasitic south of bankers and other financial contributors to the British economy. To what extent was the plight of the North the fault of poor management by its own community, to what extent due to southern exploitation? Was it due primarily to the location of the great natural resource of coal, which spawned the associated industries? Was it due to the inventiveness of the northern mind, which we considered earlier in “The Lunar Men”, unallied to business control? These are difficult questions to answer only in the context of this possibly biased book.

In defence of the South, one pointed out that the GDP was greater than the North in 1933, and that this was not dominated by the financial sector and other service industries, citing large aircraft manufacturers west of London as an example. While he appreciated Priestley’s descriptions of England in 1933, it was a partial account in that it neglected to cover London and the south east which were doing relatively well economically. By 1933 the recession was over and GDP growth for the UK as a whole between 1934 and 1939 was 4%, a much better recovery than we have managed this recession. Would social conditions not follow economic improvement? If WWII hadn’t come, would this recovery have continued? Has anything changed? Mind you, there are lies, damned lies and ….

Alas, no-one can be sure, so we await the thesis on contributions to the GDP then and now to ascertain the truth. Certainly, what the book does do is contrast the plight of the working class “up North”, where it is indisputably “grim”, with the rather diverse activities in the South and South West, for example in the description of his acquaintance on the coach to Southampton, who had in his varied CV experience of hairdressing, raincoats, wireless sets, and tea rooms. As Priestley observed, new businesses were springing up all around London, and so contributing to the aforementioned GDP in the more pleasant surroundings of the M4 (later) corridor. The industrial heartland was shifting from North to South, to be founded not on coal, but on semiconductors and plastics.

Published in 1934, there seemed little sense of awareness of events elsewhere in Europe, but then this is an English Journey and perhaps this reflects the times. There are references to the previous war. His time in the trenches obviously had a major effect on him. This was seen in the moving description of the battalion reunion, one of the strongest sections, and in the imagery he uses throughout the book. Yet even at the reunion it moves on to social comment. “We could drink to the tragedy of the dead ….this tragicomedy of the living, who had fought for a world that did not want them ….. to exchange their uniforms for rags.” Again, there is ambiguity in whether the commercial and social observations are a fault of economics, of history, or of individual lassitude.  “It is hard to look at small shops with anything but disgust. They are slovenly, dirty and inefficient. They only spoil the goods they offer for sale especially if these goods, as they usually are, happen to be foodstuffs. One large clean shed, a decent warehouse, would be better than these pitiful establishments.”

Time for a digression and a sideways swipe at Edinburgh’s current Tram Saga. Priestley states that “the people show a sound instinct when they desert the tramway for any other and newer kind of conveyance. There is something depressing about the way in which a tram lumbers and groans and grinds along like a sick elephant.”   Whoa, cowboy! Maybe Priestley was over-impressed by the wonderful motor coach, maybe he hadn’t tried to crawl past the illegally parked residents of Edinburgh tethering their own elephants (sorry, 4x4s) outside the local private school. Let’s get back to the point!                                                                                             

Some of us were not attracted by his judgemental style, common these days amongst newspaper columnists, certainly. The default mode is belligerence and knocking down straw men, and is sometimes downright rude. Consider for example his comments on the whist drive: he was rude if honest(?) about participants (all ugly); patronising (but all such decent working class people); and sneering (unlike bridge players in the south).  He made many sweeping generalisations, e.g. on the Irish, “ignorance and dirt and drunkenness and disease”. Not just the Irish. “In those days you did not sing the woes of distant Negroes, probably reduced to such misery by too much gin or cocaine. I am not sure of the new Blackpool of the weary negroid ditties.” He was similarly dismissive of the working classes and their football, but then perhaps even Priestley was too young in 1934 to have seen a Hibernian cup win. One of us opined that Orwell’s tone was equally passionate, but less judgemental, and so preferable. Some of this may be a deliberate persona Priestley is cultivating – the cantankerous, plain-dealing West Yorkshire man. This was unattractive, in one view.

Turning again to the book’s origins, more than one thought the book biased by the political agenda of both author and publisher.  It was said that Priestley’s “English Journey” and Orwell’s “Road to Wigan Pier” hugely influenced the Labour Party and popular perception of the 1930’s as a decade of depression. A historian liked and applauded the book, particularly the aforementioned regimental reunion, but had serious reservation about its influence (innocently or politically motivated?) on perceptions of the 1930s. To draw an analogy, he suggested that Neville Chamberlain’s failures in dealing with foreign affairs have also affected his reputation as an effective Chancellor.

And so we, too, moved “to the end”. I think there was universal agreement about the excellence of the writing and the evocation of time and place. He used language very effectively – a writer at the height of his powers.  Sometimes, the text was genuinely moving. Normally an outsider, it was felt that he wrote quite differently when an insider as in Bradford. However, there was much disagreement about the independence of the view and the accuracy of rendition. One quoted a comment that this was “a succession of moods rather than a succession of places.” Again, we could all agree that this was not an unbiased coverage of all Britain (omitting London and its environs); his insight into industrial development is uneven. Not everyone felt that this was necessarily a fault. Perhaps the North, in particular, was a far country of which the more affluent South, where policy was made, was not wholly aware. He was at his best when he was being descriptive, analytical, or anecdotal, at his worst when he was being judgemental, patronising or pushing a pre-devised agenda. The book is a good, if biased, historic record, and important in developing social concern for problems of unemployment and industrial squalor. There are some real flashes of insight, both into people and into the way some places have developed. Overall it was a fascinating book of abiding interest.

Yours in social justice,


Pirsig Robert M. : Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (An Inquiry into Values)

This book was published in 1974, after many rejections and more than four years of re-drafting supported and encouraged by Pirsig’s editor James Landis at William Morrow and Co.  It went on to become an enormous international success, translated into many languages and described by the press as ‘the most widely read philosophy book ever’.

In common with the majority of the book group members who attended the discussion, the proposer had first read the book in the decade when it first came out.  All agreed that it had profoundly affected their thinking at the time, and that many of the book’s themes and ideas had become assimilated into their own ways of thinking.  Of the two readers who had read the book for the first time only recently, one was equally enthusiastic, while the other, although still positive, had more reservations. 

There was some initial discussion about how best to define the book.  It reads in some respects like a novel, and in other respects like a philosophical tract.  The author’s own introductory note states explicitly that ‘it must be regarded in its essence as fact’.  We agreed that the ‘road novel’ structure was essentially a vehicle (to mix metaphors) for a philosophical and psychological journey.

Our first lay-by on our own journey through the book was a discussion about teaching in higher education.  This was sparked by the fact that there were several academics in the room, and Pirsig devotes quite substantial parts of his book to a critique of North American university and college education.  The narrator’s own experiments as a teacher – for example the withholding of grades – had resonance for some, and there was also some sympathy for his position as a difficult outsider trying to make a complacent system wake up to its own blind assumptions.  We commented on the current use of one of Pirsig’s key words ‘Quality’ in the jargon of contemporary British education-speak.  Perhaps Phaedrus’s battles have to be re-fought in every generation.

Before re-mounting our hogs, we kicked around how even research students might be pre-conditioned by their national cultures into seeking to be told what to do, or wanting to go off at obscure tangents.  We speculated as to whether innovative thought declined with age, discussed how students questioned teachers’ established paradigms, and discovered that no-one in the room had a degree in Philosophy.

Our band of Uneasy Riders set off again on the highway we had left briefly.  We discussed the relationship at the centre of the narrative between the narrator and his son Chris.  Everyone felt that in spite of our enforced identification with the first-person voice, our sympathies were much more with Chris.  It turns out that this is very much what Pirsig intended.  In the 25th Anniversary edition of the book which some of us had, Pirsig clarified his intentions regarding the way the narrative ends, and in respect of the narrator.  Phaedrus is not the threatening ‘ghost’ that the narrator portrays, but – in spite of his earlier destructiveness – a positive part of the narrator’s personality which he must accept and re-embrace in order to establish again the connection with his son that has been lost.  One reader pointed out the relationship of this new ‘I’ in the last two chapters to the concept of the Japanese number ‘mu’ discussed earlier in the book.  That is to say, the narrator must cease to think of himself as either his earlier ‘Phaedrus’ self or his new self, but must ‘unask the question’ and see himself as a whole.

Having thundered noisily along this main highway, we turned into various byways, for some more leisurely meandering:

Did Pirsig write the book primarily for himself, or for his audience?  There was clearly an urgent need for personal catharsis, but also more mixed motives such as a desire for revenge on his antagonists in higher education.

To what extent was the book of its time?  Other works of the era that dealt with society’s efforts to make people conform by means of medical treatment were brought up for comparison, such as ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’.  Was contemporary post-hippie western society less hung-up about conformity?

How insightful was the book into the people met ‘on the way’?  Positive remarks were made about the vivid characters glimpsed, such as the mechanic Bill of the ‘photographic mind’ school, with all his tools lying in a clutter.  The perceptive remarks on the difference between ‘coastal people’ and ‘inland people’ were also admired.

The treatment of women in the book was remarked upon – they were largely absent, and Sylvia was to some degree set up as a straightforward anti-technology patsy to be knocked down.  Apparently the real Sylvia complained that she got some pretty bad lines in the book!  Was it a ‘man’s book’?

One reader commented that the book’s philosophical approach to fixing practical problems had inspired him with the patience to discover – in the face of a 140 page instruction manual – how to delete a programme from his digital TV recorder.

At last we reached a road house, where among slops of beer we ended up in discussion of the size and weight of the various editions we had bought, agreed on the superiority of the 1970s cover design over the 25th Anniversary edition’s faux-hippie graphics, and concluded that we had enjoyed a thoroughly stimulating ride with Mr Pirsig.