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     Volume 4 Issue 26 | December 24, 2004 |

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Book Review

Seven types of Moralising

Steven Poole

In 1930, having been kicked out of Cambridge for keeping condoms in his room, William Empson published a seminal work of literary criticism called Seven Types of Ambiguity, about the uses of ambiguity in poetic language. He became one of the most famous critics of the 20th century and a matchless poet, leaving a satisfyingly small corpus of hard, gleaming brilliance. So, what is his famous title doing co-opted as the name for a sprawling novel set in contemporary Melbourne?

The story centres on Simon Heywood, a depressed, 32-year-old unemployed teacher who lives with his dog. (The dog, from whom we don't hear much, is called Empson.) Simon is going out with Angelique, a prostitute with a heart of gold. But he is still in love with his university girlfriend, Anna, even though they broke up 10 years ago and have not seen each other since.

The incomparably beautiful Anna is now married to crude stockbroker Joe (a regular client of Angelique's), and has a young son named Sam. Simon is also undergoing treatment with Dr Alex Klima, who is variously portrayed as a psychoanalyst, psychiatrist, psychologist or cognitive therapist (the author seems confused by or uninterested in such differences), and whose sensitive but suffering character seems rather weighed down by his surname, which the author has borrowed from the Czech novelist and Holocaust survivor Ivan Klima.

One day Simon picks Sam up from school and takes him to his flat for a few hours, giving him some chocolate milk. He is promptly arrested and charged with kidnapping. The rest of the novel is concerned to examine the ramifications of Simon's ambiguous action and to chart the interrelationships between the characters, as financial and emotional catastrophe rain down.

Early on, the novel offers what looks like a statement of its own programme. Alex, the therapist, says this: "As far as I was concerned, there were more important ambiguities than the ambiguity of poetic language that Empson talked about. There's the ambiguity of human relationships, for instance. A relationship between two people, just like a sequence of words, is ambiguous if it is open to different interpretations. And if two people do have differing views about their relationship - I don't just mean about its state, I mean about its very nature - then that difference can affect the entire course of their lives."

One of the novel's themes is the degradation of humanity by pervasive commerce. Joe, referring to his wife's contempt for him, asks helplessly: "How much money does it take to be impervious to this?" Elsewhere, Angelique refers to prostitution as "the industry", a usage that nicely points up the extent to which participation in the market is commonly assumed to be a guarantor of respectability. Thus the author gently invites us to sympathise with the ways in which money has infected the very thinking of his characters.

Unsatisfied with such subtleties, however, the novel also feels the need to hector us. Its instrument is Simon, who rails against capitalism and its manifold extrusions and even - in two separate and excruciatingly long and stupid passages - against literary deconstructionism. There are other essayistic outbursts on the iniquities of a privatised health system and on governmental education cuts. In all this story-stopping speechifying one fears authorial self-indulgence. And it's unnecessary, further, because Perlman is already doing an admirable job in dramatising most of these issues by showing the effects they have, day by day, on people's lives.

It's unclear, moreover, just how annoying Simon is meant to be. Sensitive, clever, disturbed, the novel's Hamlet, he is also pedantic and pompous. "It's the times. The times, they have changed. Where once people were told that the answers were blowing in the wind, now it's they who are blown by the wind, the wind generated by the market," he pronounces at one point, and you want to punch him for his threadbare Dylanisms and pseudo-poetry even as you agree with the sentiment. When Anna gets round to describing Simon as "my gentle, funny, quixotic, Byronesque university boyfriend", one decides that Perlman really is laying it on with a trowel. Quixotic and Byronesque? It's a good trick.

In the end, it's a measure of the novel's success as a tool to evoke imaginative sympathy that we don't come to hate Simon but instead still share some of the other characters' respect and affection for him. You don't want him to remain in prison for the rest of his life and you want to know how the other characters' stories work out, too. In this respect, the novel delivers, with an outstanding final section, a triumph of the suspenseful withholding of information, and a note-perfect final page. All's well that ends well.


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