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Brilliant study in character, wordplay and obsession


Seven Types of Ambiguity

By Elliot Perlman. Riverhead Books. 672 pages. $27.95.

Seventy-five years ago a brilliant young poet and critic was ignominiously dismissed from his fellowship at Cambridge University after college porters found him hiding contraceptives in his rooms and entertaining a woman there "at a late hour." Undaunted, William Empson continued his studies independently and a year later published a groundbreaking analysis of poetic language. Better known for its wonderful title than its content, Seven Types of Ambiguity celebrates the kind of strange uncertainty that delights poets and disturbs society -- especially college society of 1929-1930.

Empson died 20 years ago, but I don't think he would have objected to seeing the title of his masterpiece grace a novel as audacious and complex as Elliot Perlman's. One of the book's seven narrators acknowledges the debt to Empson, suggesting that types of poetic ambiguity are paralleled in the ways that characters view each other. "A relationship between two people, just like a sequence of words, is ambiguous if it is open to different interpretations."

The novel's central character -- Simon -- is a young unemployed teacher whose increasingly strange network of relationships seems to defy his understanding or control. Though he knows it's crazy, he can't shake his decade-long obsession with an old girlfriend -- Anna -- who has married a stockbroker and whose apparently perfect life torments the often endearingly eccentric Simon. He wants her back, and wants to be lovable and sane, but keeps going over the boundaries of love and sanity and disappearing into his own private world where idealism and disillusion battle for his mind.

While he frets over Anna, Simon stumbles almost literally into a relationship with a street prostitute, who feels sorry for him, but who is also attracted to his quirky takes on life and language. When she accosts him on a corner and asks, euphemistically, if he's looking for a date, he responds with a wild torrent of linguistic playfulness unlike anything she has heard before.

"Yes, I'm looking for a date, young lady, I'm looking for my birthday, not the anniversary of my birth, mind you, but the original day itself. I'm looking for my lost youth. ... But I'm not looking for just any lost youth. I'm looking for mine. What about you?"

Though colorful, Simon is also dark, and just when people start to grow fond of him, he becomes difficult or downright impossible and mad. He runs through all seven types of ambiguity, moving in what Empson called "advancing logical disorder."

Through its seven points of view, Perlman's novel tries to make sense of Simon's disorder, looking at it from the perspectives of both friends and foes. Of course, Simon doesn't make the job any easier when he suffers a breakdown and goes to the extreme of kidnapping Anna's young son. At that point, the reader becomes entangled in ambiguities as well, wondering whether Simon understands what he was doing or innocently thinks he can play with lives as he does with words.

Set in a grimly materialistic modern Melbourne, Australia -- Perlman's home -- the novel is much more than a study in character. It is a sprawling epic of urban life and an indictment of society worthy of a more political Empson. Simon's failures to harness his considerable mental energy and put it to good use are seen partly as society's fault for leaving people like him with so few places to turn.

This is a brilliant book, written in the unadorned style of a Raymond Carver, but with the wild metaphysical vision of a Thomas Pynchon. It is that most unusual thing -- a novel that is both intellectually fun and spiritually harrowing.

Michael Shelden has written biographies of Cyril Connolly, George Orwell and Graham Greene and is a regular contributor to The Daily Telegraph of London.

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