Before leaving Australia I was given a small (but heavy, for a person who only travels with carry-on) packet of Australian fiction so that I would have the opportunity to learn a little about the literature of the country in which I’d just spent two weeks. One of the books included in the package was Seven Types of Ambiguity, which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award (the Aussie version of our Giller or GG — in fact, given the money involved, it’s more like their version of the Giller PLUS the GG).
Perlman steals the title from a work of literary criticism with which his main character, Simon, is a little obsessed. Simon is a little obsessive anyway, and I’m not sure it’s even accurate to call him the main character of the novel, but the 600+ page story centres around an impulsive (and stupid) act by which Simon attempts to win back the attention of his ex-girlfriend Anna, who has long since left him, moved on to someone else, married and had a child. Ten years after their relationship, Simon — an unemployed, brilliant but directionless ex-teacher — can’t move on. And when he does make a move, his action has consequences for Anna, for her husband, for Simon’s psychiatrist, for Simon’s hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold girlfriend, and of course for Simon himself. And for a couple of other random people who are basically needed to make up the number seven.
Seven Types of Ambiguity is not just the title, it’s the organizing principle of this novel. Each of the seven sections is narrated by a different character and gives us a slightly different angle on the central story, and all these angles explore the ambiguities of human relationships. As I know from writing a similarly structured (unpublished) novel myself, there are pitfalls with this type of framework. For one thing, you’ve got the problem of keeping all the characters’ voices distinct and unique, which Perlman doesn’t always do well. For another, the problem that’s plagued me as a writer, and has kept my unpublished novel unpublished, is that if you give equal airtime to several diverse characters you run the risk of losing readers when they hit a character they find unsympathetic or just boring. In reading Perlman’s novel, I hit this point when a peripheral character named Dennis Mitchell starts narrating the middle section of Seven Types of Ambiguity — I found him annoying and only tangentially related to the Simon plot, and couldn’t care less what happened to him. Although some of the funniest passages of the book are in this section (describing a corporate retreat dominated by touchy-feely group-building activities of the type most of us have had more than enough of), I still would have happily ripped it out of the book; I felt it was only in there to make up the magical number seven.
There are a lot of annoying things about this book. It’s too long, it’s almost unbelievably preachy (and that criticism comes from someone who totally shares the author’s left-wing political and social views; even I get tired of being preached at), and it’s often pretentious. But I still found a lot of it compelling. I really cared about Simon and wished there had been more of him (and the two women in his life, Anna and Angelique) and less of the other characters commenting on the action. The long read was worth it and I wasn’t disappointed at the end; there were some beautiful moments along the way. But a little editing would not have gone astray here.