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 (as well as protagonist), and all but a few elect souls are as sinners in his angry hands. As real wages continue to shrink, Keynesian principles wither into irrelevance, and social contracts get balled up and tossed in the corporate wastebasket along with hordes of outsourced jobs, Perlman has responded with a big, bulky, irate book that, to borrow the parlance of the management consultant, might have been doubly effective at half the weight. Still, Seven Types of Ambiguity amply rewards as well as frustrates the indulgent reader’s patience.
As befits a dark voyage through the free market, economic stimulus sets the wheels of Perlman’s second novel in motion. Simon, a deeply committed schoolteacher, loses his job to a massive budget overhaul, whereupon he utterly loses the plot. A poetry-loving, Derrida-loathing soapbox intellectual with a dog named after William Empson (author of the seminal 1930 critical text also titled Seven Types of Ambiguity), Simon 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, Sam, 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 wholesome, impressionable sex worker who selflessly dotes on Simon much as Elisabeth Shue nursed Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. In an erotic coincidence even Almodóvar wouldn’t try on, Angelique also services Anna’s boorish husband, Joe (who popped up as a minor character in Perlman’s 1998 debut novel, Three Dollars), as well as Joe’s analyst colleague Dennis. Apparently, even the brothels are downsizing.
Joe and Dennis have lately staked their careers on a hospital-buying scheme that depends on the Australian government introducing health maintenance organizations to its public-health sector, an innovation unfailingly referred to in the book as “U.S.-style managed care.” In contemporary corpocratic Australia, it’s the Yank way or the highway. Though Seven Types never calls him out by name, current prime minister John Howard is a man after George W. Bush’s heart: a fan of media consolidation and preemptive war, a foe of trade unions and asylum seekers. Not long after taking office, Howard cited a budget shortfall as cause for deep cuts to spending on health, education (goodbye to Simon’s job), and social services; once the money was recouped, the PM partly redirected it toward tax cuts for the rich. Ain’t that America! (Voters returned Howard to office for a fourth term this October.)
Perlman clearly has an ax to grind, and the friction produces prose at turns mellifluous, dissonant, and grating. Three Dollars, which traced how an educated, responsible young man with a small family to support ends up with three bucks to his name, also excoriated Howard-era free-market zealotry, but in the wry, self-interrogatory voice of a dry-witted softy, deeply in love with his wife and child. Seven Types of 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, one brimming with sarcastic erudition, anxious lunges at self-justification, and invocations of “the market” as if it were an abusive but sexually potent husband. Empson wrote that “ambiguity is a phenomenon of compression,” but here the application of the Rashomon principle traps what might have been a wiry protest novel beneath mounds of fat-cat flesh. Often the different accounts overlap for entire virtually identical pages, and the open-ended final section is repetitive to the point of senility.
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—a bag of boiled sweets that she gives to Sam acquires near-talismanic qualities of pathos and indelible regret.
In one of Simon’s many bibliophilic harangues, he unwinds the tale of literary hoax Ern Malley, who ascribed to Lenin the apocryphal quotation “The emotions are not skilled workers.” Needless to say, the emotions therefore have been laid off. As overstuffed as Seven Types of 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.