Alex Garland’s first novel, The Beach, was and is great escape literature in every sense of the term. Written with the twenty-twentysomething clarity of a Windex-blue lagoon, Garland’s tragic tale of tropical paradise found and subsequently lost in a My Laiesque marijuana haze resonates far beyond the Gen Xtraveler milieu with which it was identified. I read it as a Spenserian pastoral gone terribly amiss, and savored every ambivalent, plot-churning sentence. And while The Beach is maintaining its escapist trajectory as a forthcoming film directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Garland is on to something more ambitious, less immediately crowd-pleasing, but nearly as intelligently entertaining in The Tesseract, which is set in a different tropics altogether.
Garland’s second novel takes both title and structure from the topological abstraction of an unraveled four-dimensional hypercube, represented usually in the shape of a crucifix. Like Claude Simon’s Triptych, it wears its experimentalism on its dust jacket, but this potential turnoff is belied by a riveting noir-influenced opening section that introduces the themes that link the novel’s three main parts. Sean, serving as intermediary between a freighter and the local thuggery in Manila, sweats, fantasizes, and chain-smokes while awaiting the arrival of Don Pedro (a paragon of ancient evil) and his three lackeys in a seedy and colorless hotel room.
Upon their arrival, Sean’s paranoia peaks and explodes into kinetic Hong Kongstyle ultraviolence. He takes to the streets, with Don Pedro’s men in pursuit, and the scene changes to a finer adjacent neighborhood.
The Tesseract‘s second and more ambitiously surprising section reveals a colorful world as emotionally nuanced as its predecessor was all danger and sharp edges. The sound of gunshots grows louder as Sean and company draw nearer. Garland changes keys and— with a sympathy not unlike that of his friend and advocate Kazuo Ishiguro— strobes back and forth between the present and bittersweet past of Rosa, a resilient village girl who has made a very successful life for herself and her family in Manila. Rosa’s prospects were inauspicious, however, and she still resides under the shadow of love transformed into violence. Barrio Sarap, writes Garland of her hometown, “was as unlike Manila as a shark was a milkfish,” a feeling upheld by an old man who notes, “Nobody comes to this city with a happy story.” As ER mumbles in the background (echoing both Rosa’s medical career and the violence in store), she recalls her first lover, Lito, a young fisher lacking his right pectoral muscle. Shamed by his deformity, Rosa’s parents exiled her to Manila. While visiting Sarap to attend her father’s funeral, Rosa is accosted by Lito, who, having never recovered from their separation, pours acid on her infant son. About which point in her memory Sean bursts through the kitchen window.
If Sean’s place in The Tesseract concerns the body, and Rosa’s the heart, then the book’s final section flails about for answers in the mind.
Alfredo, a wealthy and depressed psychologist, pays street kids to recount their dreams to him as data for his perpetually deferred doctoral thesis on “Narratives of Breakdown and Change” amid Filipino juveniles. His favorite dreamer is
13-year-old Vicente, a fatherless boy who, with his friend Totoy, ends up tailing Sean’s pursuers in the Manila night until they, too, converge upon Rosa’s house. Garland waxes philosophical through Alfredo, who sits alone at home debating whether or not to go out with friends. Meanwhile, resonating images (a statue of Ronald McDonald, a man running scared through Manila streets) bubble up in Vicente, accompanied by feelings of loss, betrayal, and deformity.
But The Tesseract works against moral or psychological interpretation. Like its predecessor, in which escape was judged and found wanting, The Tesseract suggests we inhabit an ultimately lethal world in which the boundaries dividing characters and locations are at best temporary and ad hoc. “We can see the thing unraveled,” decides Alfredo, “but not the thing itself.” When Garland lays out each character’s final thoughts in his novel’s eponymous coda, that of Rosa’s expiring mother, Corazon, who “was spared all bloody conclusions, except, eventually, her own,” seems most apt. Things are just what they are— and are not. You can walk away from the scene of the crime, but you can never escape.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 16, 1999