The Way We Don’t Quite Live Now

Photo: Teun Hocks

Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, which comes to us hailed as “Australia’s equivalent of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections,” is so bad, so incompetent, and so long, there must be broad historical currents involved. And there are. Placing it next to a better, if still limited, recent book, Stephen Amidon’s Human Capital (“for fans of The Corrections and American Beauty,”), one can notice an emerging pattern, even a mini genre: the misguided post-Corrections novel. Like Franzen’s excellent book, these novels are mostly about money and culture as these impinge on the domestic sphere. Seven Types is about the immiseration by a rapacious neoliberal order of the Australian yuppie class; Human Capital is about the more subtle immiseration of middle-class Connecticutians. These books mimic The Corrections as if nothing had happened since it came out on September 4, 2001. And they fall flat.

Strange, if understandable, that the convention of terrorists as literary characters in so many novels (Infinite Jest, Mao II, Look at Me) before 9/11 has been obliterated. Their demise in literature creates a curious lacuna: A necessary kind of counter-element in so many of those novels, these men in the dark places of the Earth watching our television and plotting our deaths are surely more, not less, important now. Amidon’s novel meets this problem honestly enough by setting its action before the attacks; Perlman’s book—well, Perlman is Australian, and though he lives part-time in New York City, he is under no particular obligation to deal with 9/11. But the entire planet is now in darkness, as if those planes had set off a permanent eclipse, and Seven Types is a book that makes some show of being immersed in its historical situation—the main character, a lovelorn schoolteacher called Simon, has a shrink who crusades against the privatization of health care and a romantic rival who tries to finance a bond issue in support of it. In fact, though, the novel’s real interest is in its own literariness. With that terrible title—the same as William Empson’s 1930 study of poetic language—it wants so much to be a novel. What for? Not in service of its stated social ideals nor, certainly, any kind of probing social verisimilitude. When Simon meets Angelique, the saintly prostitute, he takes her home and, after many, many hours of talk, makes her watch Battleship Potemkin. Only then, after the proletariat storms Odessa, do they finally have sex, “slowly and quietly on his couch.” I can’t believe this book was published.

Except I can, actually, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. It marks for all time the depth of our longing for a big novel that mirrors us back, critically, to ourselves. To read in The Corrections of Chip, the disgraced college professor, trying, at the peak of the nineties boom, to shop for Norwegian salmon at Dean & DeLuca while a banker in a Yankees cap yells into his cell phone as his child peels the tops off expensive yogurt containers—“Fuck him! Fuck that asshole! … Honey, don’t tear those, if we tear those we have to pay for them. I said it is a fucking buyer’s ball as of yesterday. We close on nuffin … ”—well, this was wonderfully clarifying. That banker—captured, satirized, demolished—wouldn’t be showing his face around here again.

But The Corrections is about a vanished world, and novels like Perlman’s and Amidon’s, which soldier on as though the domestic-historic formula were still adequate, do so at their own risk. Meanwhile, the old standbys (Roth, Updike, Wolfe) have taken passes and written of other things. In fact, so far, the closest thing to a broad post-9/11 social novel required the investment of millions of taxpayer dollars and the gathering of ten wise men and their staff, like the 70 Alexandrian translators of the Hebrew Bible.

As a work of policy, The 9/11 Commission Report was only mildly successful, its recommendations stalling in the House for a month. As history, the book barely scratched the surface of postwar American involvement in the Middle East. As art, it was essentially a potboiler, refusing any commerce with physical or psychological detail. As a campaign document, it failed to dislodge an administration that had ignored repeated and intensifying signals of an impending attack. And of course the book was not concerned with any sort of commentary on our age, our general moral situation, our culture, or the critic William Empson. Its purpose was to present a thorough narrative reconstruction of events and suggest that the FBI and CIA should coordinate their efforts better. But as the book sped along, one glimpsed, as through the window of a train, the world as it now is.

At the upper reaches stand our ridiculous rulers—just like Tolstoy’s Napoleon or Clausewitz—in all their criminal hubris: Bush with his swaggering lie that on the morning of 9/11 he ordered Cheney to give fighter jets the clearance to shoot down commercial airliners; Clinton with his gooey claim that he apologized to Bush in late 2000 that he couldn’t “get him [bin Laden] for you, because I tried to.” And at the opposite pole of the social order are the eerily drab details of the terrorists’ anonymous sojourns in the U.S.: LAX plotter Ahmed Ressam presenting his Costco card as his I.D. to Customs officials (then running for it); AA Flight 77 hijacker Nawaf al Hazmi’s loneliness in sprawling San Diego, and his online search for a wife; and then all those little apartments the hijackers rented in Paterson, New Jersey; Fairfield, Connecticut; La Mesa, California. When these people have written their awful stories in blood, and not just their own, real literature is that much more necessary. On the other hand, Perlman’s fat, pretentious “literary” novel would probably be a mild embarrassment for any age that produced it.

  September 11 has been supplying material to American fiction almost since the 12th. Writers have worked it into novels as disparate as Pete Hamill’s Forever and Joyce Maynard’s The Usual Rules, about a 9/11 victim’s young daughter. A more general terror paranoia has been fodder for Heidi Julavits (The Effect of Living Backwards) and Lorraine Adams (Harbor). Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, coming in April, will take a WTC victim’s son on a mythic Manhattan journey as spirited and quirky (some might say precious) as Everything Is Illuminated

Seven Types of Ambiguity
By Elliot Perlman.
Riverhead Books. 623 Pages. $27.95.

The Way We Don’t Quite Live Now