Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Books: Seven Types of Ambiguity, by Eliot Pearlman & The Logogryph, by Thomas Wharton

When I was small, my father brought my to the library every Saturday, where he left me to wander the aisle of the young readers’ section while he did his research in the adult area. Because I had an hour or two to spend, and because I was too young to have heard of any authors to investigate (I was the most voracious reader I knew), I would walk along each shelf at a snail’s pace, reading the title and author of each book before moving to the next, pulling out the interesting ones, and adding them to my stack or putting them back on the shelf. Usually, my stack was too big to check out, and my father would make me put some back to save for the next week. I would then spend the rest of the weekend decimating the stack, finishing five, eight novels in two days, proving that I could have taken out more.

Last month, I found myself downtown with a few hours to kill, nothing to read, and in weather too brutally cold to simply wander. So, I found a library, and walked the shelves for the first time in years. I picked out two unknown volumes, one very big and one very small, both with an exciting air of mystery printed into the opening pages. They were Australian Eliot Pearlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity and Canadian Thomas Wharton's The Logogryph, respectively, and I read them, as I almost never do, in tandem, because Pearl’s book was just too big to carry around, and Wharton’s book was just too precious to gobble up in one sitting.

Pearlman’s book seemed to reminisce another I had just finished, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, both in length and scope, readability, and literary intention. But where Messued failed egregiously, giving her characters name-brand authors like Tolstoy to masticate like plastic chewing gum*, Pearlman’s obsessed protagonist Simon is obsessed equally by his ex-girlfriend Anna, who left him a decade ago, and the literary theorist William Empson (after whose tract Seven Types of Ambiguity is named). Pearlman divides his novel into seven sections that illuminate one story from seven different perspectives (that is, seven interlocking characters’ voices, though all voices have the measured, intellectual tone of Pearlman, who seems to identify best with protagonist Simon and his equally-obsessed psychiatrist (Simon becomes the doctor’s Anna). Though the cast of characters includes a prisoner, a prostitute, a gambler, a stockbroker, and a number of love-triangles connected like those infuriating twenty-five cent puzzles that come apart with a twist, so long as it’s in the right direction, the novel is never the dishy, shallow, or merely entertaining the way The Emperor’s Children constantly is. We never doubt the characters, who are the fully dimensional needy, expressing the full gamut of human desire and disappointment (Messud’s characters, on the other hand, try on lifestyles like outfits; they are needy, but their needs are skin deep.) Pearlman’s is the first happy ending that hasn’t offended me in some time.

The Logogryph, though it is tiny, contains even more than Seven Types. It’s a proposition for a book more than a mere book, a kind of literary experiment in the vein of Borges, though richly emotional and therefore much more captivating. Wharton proposes a book, unbound, that contains, well, everything. At moments, he includes lists, more myriad than those of Julie Andrews’ most favorite things. He also includes snatches of stories not his “own”—for his own story is that of his obsession with the young girl he knew as a child, who lived at “the English House,” whose mother kept a garden and gave him a suitcase full of mold-scented novels when he was a child. Some of the stories turn out to be those belonging to the English House, the story of how it was built, long before he’s born, for the woman who will come to garden its grounds, but others, like the story of a half-raving missionary who, fascinated by the new world’s natives’ storytelling practices, wanders their country, collecting their devil-inspired tales, are related only thematically. Certain of the sections, like one on the aqueous recordings of the underwater people of Atlantis, are more Borgean and less compelling, but they quickly pass, giving way to the tender lists of lost items and the poignant, suppressed longing for the girl of the English House. The book, tiny, printed on fine paper with icons stamped onto the beginnings and ends of each chapter, is a curio in itself, a spectacular library find for a blustery, empty afternoon.

*this metaphor isn’t mine—it’s too good. It comes from PK Dick.

No comments: