Breaks in communication
Elliot Perlman pens intelligent and manipulative novel

by Joe Foster

The Seven Types of Ambiguity, by Elliot Perlman. Riverhead Books 2005, 672 pages.

Back in 1930, a guy named William Empson wrote a brilliant piece of literary criticism called Seven Types of Ambiguity in which he classified the ways in which a “verbal nuance, however slight … gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language.” He was speaking primarily of poetry, and he went into incredible depth to categorize those instances in great poems that have kept critics and professors employed throughout the ages. The point of this is that it would be irresponsible to review Elliot Perlman’s novel The Seven Types of Ambiguity without mentioning the obvious connection between these two works. While Empson was speaking of poetry, Perlman has, quite brilliantly, penned a fictional reply to Empson in which he constructs a study of the ambiguity present in everyday human interaction.

One of the great truths of the human condition is that none of us really knows what the hell is going on most of the time, especially when it comes to our relationships. The last person you talked to had a very different experience

during the conversation than you did, due to differing frames of reference, different internal dialogues, expectations, motivations, etc. Even our closest and most trusting friendships are plagued with frustrations and things left unsaid, with only intermittent glimpses as pressure is released in outbursts and caustic sarcasms. We generally coast along, keeping our internal lives silent and secret, keeping our judgments to ourselves, keeping the peace and saving our strength for when we need it, for when things become less ambiguous and therefore more painful. This is the reason that couples married for 30 years may suddenly feel the need to seek counseling to learn how to communicate with each other.

Depressing, right? While it may indeed be depressing in our own lives, it is endlessly fascinating to watch it play out in the lives of others. Movies, books, reality shows, people-watching at Magpies: all voyeuristic rubber-necking. The beauty of books is that we are generally privy to a person’s innermost thoughts, and their motivations are splayed out on the examining table for us. The Seven Types of Ambiguity differs from most novels in that this examination blatantly drives the plot. That said, this may very well be the most honest and intelligently manipulative novel written in decades.

The plot rundown goes thusly: A hyper-intelligent slacker is obsessed with his college girlfriend, who is unhappily married with a child. Her husband has regular appointments with a prostitute who ends up being the slacker’s girlfriend. In an act of misguided obsession to win back the ex-love, the slacker unsuccessfully kidnaps his ex-love’s kid. The slacker’s shrink, the bad husband’s coworker, the ex-love, her husband, the prostitute, and the slacker himself all have chapters in which they each tell the same story from their own unique perspectives. As in life, occurrences that rocked the world of one narrator barely flit across the radar of another. Things said get distorted, and things left unsaid are blown out of proportion or are left completely unacknowledged. Each character’s world is completely different from the others’. Each one is lonely and isolated in his or her own way, each working desperately to connect with another human being. The characters that Perlman created are human enough to be somewhat difficult to like; the honesty with which they are portrayed is brutal and beautiful all at once.

A well-crafted novel can teach us more than any work on history, biology, psychology, theology or even pirateology. The great truths of our existence, those that most evade our comprehension, dwell between such distinctions. The real truths, the ones that matter, can be seen in the struggles and interactions of strangers; people removed from ourselves and so removed from our personal filters. A writer or artist like Elliot Perlman may not be able to tell us these truths, but he can show us, and he comes as close as any writer I’ve ever read to whatever it is that this is all about. •

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