No man is an island, says poet John Donne. Man hands on misery to man, says poet Phillip Larkin. Presumably they can't both be right; either our society is a benefit or a detriment to our individual existence. Simon Heywood, the binding agent in Elliot Perlman's new masterwork, Seven Types of Ambiguity, would spend days ruminating over that sort of conundrum. At once an intellectual, a dreamer, a sad case and a likeable guy, Simon is obsessed with Anna, the college love who left him a decade ago. His fixation leads him, in a rare moment of action coinciding with a hyper-manic rationale, to kidnap Anna's son in an effort to rekindle the flame.
Not every writer could keep this premise from descending into melodrama. Perlman, Australian author of the critically acclaimed novel Three Dollars, artfully turns the circumstance into social commentary worthy of Dickens or Doctorow, generating an intellectual and moral heft as impressive as the physical bulk of the book. The novel's seven chapters are each told in a different character's voice. In fact, we don't hear directly from Simon until the fifth chapter, and he inhabits the page impressively. From his vivid description of solitary confinement, to a breathtaking two-page riff where he simultaneously apologizes for his actions, pleads for his life and implores his former lover to save her child, Simon claims the moral high ground in a very unexpected way.
Playing Boswell to Simon's Johnson is psychiatrist Alex Kilma, whose journal outlines the dilemma he seemingly has contracted from his patient: Fundamentalism, be it of the religious or market variety, is everywhere and everywhere there is a reaction to complexity, an attempt to ignore the contradictions and conundrums of our existence . . . any blurring, any ambiguity, is viewed with hostility. Although Perlman and his characters are Australian, the themes of Seven Types of Ambiguity could be, are being, played out in upper-middle-class America. This 672-page tome might be difficult to pick up, but it's almost impossible to put down. Thane Tierney is a record executive in Los Angeles.