This Week's Reads

Elliot Perlman and Neil LaBute.

Seven Types of Ambiguity

By Elliot Perlman (Riverhead, $27.95) Every novelist must hunt his great white whale before he can dock at the doorstep of the canon, and the Australian writer Elliot Perlman has chosen to sink his harpoon into laissez-faire economics. His characters live in a painfully familiar fundamentalist theocracy where the market is God, and all but a few elect souls are as sinners in his angry hands. Perlman has responded with a big, bulky, irate novel that, to borrow the parlance of the management consultant, might have been doubly effective at half the weight. Still, Ambiguity amply rewards, as well as frustrates, the indulgent reader's patience. In contemporary corpocratic Australia, it's the Yank way or the highway. Economic stimulus sets the wheels in motion as schoolteacher Simon loses his job to a massive budget overhaul. A poetry-loving, Derrida-loathing soapbox intellectual, he marinates in Scotch and self-pity long enough to reheat a collegiate romantic obsession with Anna, his fallen woman, now (gasp!) a management consultant with a stockbroker husband and a young son, whom Simon kidnaps in a lovesick fugue. A rude shove into the economic gutter has given Simon a disastrous martyr-savior complex, a condition he shares with fellow margin dweller Angelique, a prostitute. In an erotic coincidence even Almodóvar wouldn't try on, Angelique also services Anna's boorish husband, Joe. Apparently, even the brothels are downsizing. Perlman clearly has an ax to grind, and the friction produces prose at turns melli‑ fluous, dissonant, and grating. Ambiguity sounds, oddly, like a septet written for a single instrument: Each of seven narrators takes his or her turn, but all seem to speak from the same prepared testimony— brimming with sarcastic erudition, anxious lunges at self-justification, and invocations of "the market" as if it were an abusive but sexually potent husband. Where Perlman succeeds, though, is in planting ground between withering satire and empathic characterization. Joe, for one, is by any objective standard an inwardly deformed monster misbegotten of The Market, a muscle-bound, violence-prone slickster capable of networking at a SIDS support group. Yet he's also a uniquely piteous creature, embittered by a despondent childhood, humiliated by what he assumes to be his wife's adultery, and paralyzed with guilt over his lonely, declining mother. As overstuffed as Ambiguity may be, it only traces a terrifying void, one that any of us lacking a seat or a friend among the kleptocrats in the boardroom could easily fall into. JESSICA WINTER Elliot Perlman will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Tues., Jan. 11. Seconds of Pleasure

By Neil LaBute (Grove, $22) Presently pushing buttons off-Broadway with his relationship study/cauldron Fat Pig, Neil LaBute has added this slim short-story collection to his résumé as playwright, screenwriter, and film director (In the Company of Men). These 20 stories—some no more than a few pages long—hardly feel like stories for the most part. Long exchanges of dialogue cry out for stage directions; monologues feel like drama-student audition pieces, and some efforts appear to be false starts for potential plays—a sparring couple, a cheating spouse, a telling detail of male piggery—that never made it beyond his notebook. The overall effect is underwhelming, but certainly LaBute-ian. He has cornered the market on self-indicting misogyny, as if describing some evolutionary dead end of the male species. Call it homo horriblus, a creature that walks upright and thrives on Wall Street or in Hollywood but can't survive in the same ecosystem as women. The urge to fuck/destroy/betray is imperative over everything else, yet its primitive brain can't comprehend how that impulse simultaneously pollutes its own environment. Whether stalking and killing hookers (and videotaping the act), spying on teenage girls in bookstores, or scamming on wanna-be actresses in L.A., the men here are both acutely self-analytical and blindly self-insightful. They're almost autistic: great with details—the still-raw scab on an unsuspecting girl's leg, the TV episodes condensed on a Johnny Quest lunch box—without being able to synthesize them. Other people, primarily women, exist only as figures in their solipsistic imaginations. One of LaBute's typical narrators ruminates, "I think most men carry around a secret library full of films that we've shot of every woman we've met." And for LaBute's men, these fantasy movies exist only for an audience of one, with the same director, writer, and star. They're film loops, really—the same obsessive scenarios and fetishes running forever through almost reptilian brains. They're also tedious without a larger story or framework to hang them on. Unlike LaBute's plays and movies (or Nic Kelman's similar, more ambitious Girls), the reader has no narrative impetus to stick with his characters for more than a few pages at a time. Nor does LaBute. His Seconds are more like fragments. There is, however, a sense that his time in Hollywood could yield such a project; his scorn at the vanity, cruelty, and shallow self-justification of Tinseltown rivals that of Nathanael West. But if he has his own Day of the Locust brewing, it'll have to appear on stage or film, where homo horriblus is given enough room to run amok. BRIAN MILLER

 
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