Seven Types of Ambiguity, by Elliot Perlman

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 As I know from writing a similarly structured (unpublished) novel myself, there are pitfalls with this type of framework.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 For another, the problem that’s plagued me as a writer, and has kept my unpublished novel unpublished, is that if you give equal airtime to several diverse characters you run the risk of losing readers when they hit a character they find unsympathetic or just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.



Filed under Fiction -- general

10 responses to “Seven Types of Ambiguity, by Elliot Perlman

  1. shuggie


    Sounds like an interesting read. You’ve reminded me that I read an Elliot Pearlman book once. It was called ‘Three Dollars’. I don’t remember a huge amount about it, except that it was one of a number of books I picked up, knowing nothing about the author, hoping to expand my reading – which at the time ran to mainly SciFi and Fantasy fiction, and mainly the same few writers.

    Anyway, the thing I liked about Three Dollars was that it was an engaging and funny book that I got 2/3rds of the way through before I realised it was actually all about economics. It was a little preachy, especially near the end, but it could easily have been so much worse. It was saved from that because it showed you the issues through the lives of characters you cared about.

    Sounds like he’s still doing a similar kind of thing. I am tempted to go add Seven Types of Ambiguity to my reading list, and probably I will, but given that I’m still reading the book I started at Christmas it might be a while til I get to it.

  2. Mary

    I found the first chapter intriguing…the language was absolutely superb… and I rather sadly empathised with Simon alot… the description of his love for Anna reminded of me of myself (not that I stalk my lovers or anything)… and the way he saw things as they were… with simplicity yet complexity all at once… Throughout the novel I still sided with simon even though I was able to feel the others get a little fed up the way lounged around and I felt very very sorry for angelique the way joe treated her. I thought Simon’s, Sam’s and Alex’s characters were so well done they made the book worthwhile, however the lengthiness was a bummer… and Simon and Angelique contradicted simon’s character so much that I’m afraid I am utterly dissapointed… it had alot of potential… just got bogged down in all the side scandals… the lesbian mother… retarded brother…horrible dads… Alex, Sam and Rachael seemed the only decent people by the end.

  3. Morgan

    I read Seven Types of Ambiguity roughly 8 months ago, and fell madly in love with it. While I do agree with parts of your criticism, the book quickly reached the heights of my “favorite books” list and has remained there. It’s nice to see other people like it as well, seeing as reading such a large book is not a common practice in the mass media circus that is America. The bulk of it I read during a trip to visit family in Colorado, and to be honest, I probably spent more time with this book than I did with them. You have a great voice for criticism though–accurate, yet soft. Too often literary critiques are filled with harsh jabs at an author’s capabilities. I’m not sure if you’ve ever been published, but being a fellow writer myself, I sense that I would enjoy reading your work. I’ll be visiting your site again.


  4. Thanks for the comments, folks. Morgan, I am a published author myself, which may explain why I try not to be too harsh even when I do have criticisms — I know how much work goes into a book of this scope and I can’t bear to be too negative even if there were aspects of it I didn’t like! (and I love long books, though I’ve just been told by an editor that my latest has to lose 1/3 of its word count before publication, because, as you say, long books simply don’t sell as well in the current market).

  5. tika

    I read your explain about 7 types ambiguity when I have assignment from my lecturer…And be honest you help me….thank’s

  6. Pier

    I read the Perlman’s book in its Italian translation, I was attracted by it reading the comments by the Observer. I found the book terrific, I loved all the characters and remained astonished by the deep insights that the book gives. It is a rare type of interesting book, giving a lot of clues of Australian way of thinking/living, which make me feel not so interested in that country. The preachy style is simply what we are so far used (at least in Europe) by leftist intelletuactuals, but who gives a s…t?
    Very well done job, instead

  7. Justin

    I’m still a bit confused by the ambiguous ending with Sam still “missing” as Rachel says. She also says in the same sentence that she says she is “missing her father” who is of course dead. There’s the jab about Simon seeming to know where Sam is when others don’t, but I guess I just feel a little stupid not grasping whether Sam committed suicide, and Pearlman simply speaks euphemistically about it, or if he’s literally missing, run away from it all, as Rachel seemed to think when she followed Simon to Angela’s. His suicide makes sense of course and seems the most fitting since someone needed to directly pay the price for Simon’s choices; he certainly didn’t have to (though Nazim’s sodomy of him of course wasn’t pleasant) there seemed to need to be a sacrifice, and Alex doesn’t seem like the right one since so much of his story is action on his own accord. I feel Sam just being ‘missing’ is of course a crappy, and unsatisfying ending, so I’m inclined to believe it was suicide, but anyway, what are your thoughts about the ending?

    • I think this is the ultimate test of the fact that the book, while intriguing to read at the time, didn’t really stick with me, because reading this comment 3 years after reading the book … I can’t remember anything about the ending, or indeed much about the plot, at all! But perhaps someone who’s read it more recently (or upon whom it made a bigger impression) will stumble across this post and be better able to respond to your comments about the ending.

  8. Graham G.

    Definitely Sam committed suicide. Or did he? Is seem ambiguous….


  9. sandra allan

    I think Sam committed suicide after discovering Alex’s diary and finding out the truth about his mother and Simon.


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