Seven types of Moralising
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?
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
(R) thedailystar.net 2004