Seven Types of Ambiguity

In my view Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity is a terrific novel. Perlman, an Australian writer, tells the story of 32-year-old Simon Heywood, a brilliant, widely read teacher who is also a little bit too obsessed with his former lover, Anna. The 600 plus page story is narrated from seven different points of view, including Simon himself, Anna, Alex, his psychiatrist and Angelique his “hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold girl friend.”

I found Simon an immensely likeable person whose plight I understood quite well and who I grew to care about. His life bears a certain similarity to my own, distant to be sure but close enough. In one way or another this is true of most of my fictional friends. Perlman writes: “…readers usually identify with one or other of the characters in a story…That is why most of them read fiction in the first place.”

Simon never fit in, he never found a world that accepted his quirky views or made the most of his versatile mind. Simon says of himself, “I was just not cut out for the business of living at a time like this, a time when wondering, caring, dreaming…they were just not selling, they were uncool, unhip, not sexy, past their expiration date…Some other time maybe.”

Simon read poetry at a time when not many others did. He really had no one to talk with about the poems, the music, the movies, the history and politics that meant something to him. But he longed for such a connection. Perlman writes, “Most people are alone. To not be alone somebody has to connect with you and you have to connect with them. I mean really connect. I mean that somebody has to make the emotional and intellectual effort to come with you as you ride the relentless waves of fear and hope, of pain and pleasure, of doubt and certainty, that inhabit the sea of human experience.”

Not even Anna, his one and only Anna, the Anna who had rejected him in spite of or perhaps because of his deep love for her. She says: “I wasn’t any longer feeling augmented by him but diminished.” I doubt I would have felt so diminished. Instead, I know I would have enjoyed talking with Simon about the arts, culture, and ideas that he was drawn to. But then I am not Anna.

But then Simon did something stupid. He “abducted” or so it was claimed, Anna’s son, Sam, who he had previously unbeknownst to Anna and her husband, saved from drowning in their pool. You help a friend in need. I would have liked to have helped Simon get through the consequences of what he admits was an irrational and futile act.

To my way of thinking Simon was a very bright, beguiling young man, full of ideas, many of them seemingly crazy but on analysis ever so sensible who was thoroughly misunderstood by just about everyone, even his therapist who often seemed utterly befuddled by what Simon did and thought.

I never thought Simon was depressed as others did, at least, in its clinical form. Rather I thought he was simply a little melancholic, not without justification in my view and he was unhappy, sometimes very much so, just like everyone else. As Alex, his therapist notes “Simon has always been, other than for short periods, too involved in things to be clinically depressed.”

There wasn’t any pretense to Simon; he was totally honest and up front about everything. That surely doomed him to anything approaching a normal life. Simon also knew as well as anybody else who he was and why his life was drifting aimlessly. In describing himself, he says,

“I was a man of more than average intelligence seasoned by years of wide and considered reading, a man of not unpleasing visage and of some awareness of the mighty winds and faint breezes that move the world, a man sensitive both to the plight of the many and to that of the man in his shirt sleeves ambling through the leaves in the city park during his lunch hour, desperately trying to keep his own tepid inconsequence at bay…”

He knew his best and he knew his worst, knew how perfectly rational he could be at one time and then at another fall into a web of destructive obsession. Aren’t we all a mixture of two or more selves? And so it was not difficult to admire Simon, to want to read every one of the 600 odd pages of Seven Types of Ambiguity to learn how things worked out for him. For a very long time Simon was a literary friend of mine and at times a shadowy reflection of the person I am as well. If you have already read the novel, perhaps you felt somewhat the same way; if you haven’t perhaps you will.