Elliot Perlman

How do YOU see it?

Point of view is one of the most challenging and exciting (exciting in the way that sitting at your desk alone can be exciting, something non-writers might not appreciate) tools a writer has to work with, and two recent reads demonstrated very clever use of it.

One novel, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was passed on by a friend and the other I picked up in the airport, for distraction. Of the latter, I was familiar only with the title, Gone Girl. It either already has been or soon will be made into a movie. The former was published almost ten years ago, in Australia, might be twice the size, and instead of working with two points of view, that of a husband and wife  - as Gillian Flynn does in her psychological thriller - Elliot Perlman, whose more slowly-paced work is a literary psychological thriller, juggles seven perspectives: a psychiatrist, his sensitive and possibly dangerous patient, the patient's ex-girlfriend, the patient's ex-girlfriend's husband, the prostitute girl-friend of the patient,  a stock analyst, Mitch, and, finally, the psychiatrist's daughter.

Point of view is a central consideration when I begin any work. My last novel, You Again, which is not a psychological thriller, uses the standpoints of a mother, three daughters and a grandson to complete the family saga that began with Shinny's Girls. I also played with point of view in a non-fiction book, The Private Eye: Observing Snow Geese, because I wanted to deliberately explore how a given reality, in that case, the race of snow geese that annually migrate from Wrangel Island in Alaska to the coast of Washington and British Columbia, is constructed by the subjectivity of the humans that interact with it. It's fun to think about such things and writing is a good way to explore thoughts.

In their novels, Perlman and Flynn in effect ask the reader, what's really happening here, how do YOU see it? Of course both situations are  invented, the case of the kidnapped wife and the kidnapped boy, neither of them really kidnapped as it turns out. And the books have different ambitions. Flynn is crafty, never failing to entertain the reader with a twist, a sharp phrase, an insight that feels piercingly honest. Yet, by the end, I felt victimized by so much contrivance, such A-plus student wizardry. As the chapters became shorter and the characters almost seemed to meld - and I got it, her obvious purpose - it felt as if my neck were sore from being yanked this way and that for so many pages. Good distracting plane reading, though. She's a smart writer, and an excellent plotter, and knows how to keep her readers guessing.

Nevertheless, I preferred Perlman's more thoughtful use of point of view, how the first person narratives not only revealed the narrators, but also shed surprising, sometimes harsh, sometimes beneficent light on the other characters. Through this large, compelling novel, my sense of the situation expanded like intricate paper puzzles do. Trying to understand the bit of human life he presented by viewing it from various angles reinforced the difficulty of sorting through the complexity of the human predicament. As well as being an imaginative literary take on the story, Perlman's multiple point of view approach had a broader, thematic purpose, which, from my vantage point, was ultimately more intriguing and satisfying. Not that he achieved a perfect novel. Both he and Flynn chose their characters to represent or critique certain contemporary social issues, and the Aussie occasionally got carried away setting those up. Still, in the words of Samuel Beckett, "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." That's how I see it, too.

Reading anything good this summer?

I am. In fact some days I feel like I did in the years of my most constant reading, when a pile of books and magazines that had yet to be cracked produced the pleasurable satisfaction of knowing I had something good in the fridge for dinner. The opposite also applied.

The book I just finished, Seven Types of Ambiguity, by the Australian writer Elliot Perlman, was the perfect fix for my book addiction. I have always been a reader, but something about the spread out days of summer gives me permission to spend hours in my reading chair between two windows, one of them open, or on an outside chair, beneath a big straw hat, losing myself in a story someone has invented. I don't find light reading a necessity. Not for me. I have a good appetite and Perlman satisfied it with his ambitious and insightful novel about  seven characters who come together in what Kurt Vonnegut, in Cat's Cradle, called a karass. The story progresses through the points of view of seven different characters. Very skilled handling of structure, and I like the way he deals with important social issues through individual lives. It's something I aim to do in my own stories. The plot revolves around a big misunderstanding which snakes out to other misunderstandings. A satisfying end. A few reservations about the trueness of point of view in a couple of sections, but overall a Bravo! for this novel that held me through a week or so.

My books often come to me by way of friends, unless I am really drifting and looking for a title to attract me, or a review, or something on one of the many prize lists. Other times I am on a mission. When I was writing Presto! I re-read books by Dreiser, James Farrell, Sinclair Lewis and, most importantly to me, John Dos Passos as a way of immersing myself in the historical period I wanted to recreate. Lately my curiosity has been focussed on Quebec and so the first books of summer were the later novels of Anne Hébert, like A Suit of Light and Am I Disturbing You?, and then a re-read of her popular Kamouraska, which I first read decades ago. I had forgotten what a cutting edge stylist she is. There is a breathless, driven quality to her work, which isn't at all what I expected.

But the same friend who gave me Seven Types of Ambiguity, David Zieroth, a poet and longtime friend, with whom it has always been a great pleasure to talk about books, also gave me a handsome compact volume, Spain, Body and Soul by H.M. van den Brink. This Dutch novelist writes about the time he spent in Spain, alone and with his family, and recreates a lot of experiences through food. He even includes recipes. It's thoughtful, evocative and a mouth-watering read, but books that include recipes and yet declare that they are not cook books... I wonder. The recipes seem like padding. I didn't need the recipes as much as the writer seemed to. I have two more books from David and last night started Anne Enright's The Gathering, which promises to be another winner. I love the way my friend chooses books. He haunts used bookstores, browses for long periods of time, and when a title attracts him, he opens the book and reads page 32 to check out the writing. Readers like David are an obscure writer's hope: as long as you have a compelling title, and the writing on page 32 impresses him (and so probably also me), you've snagged a couple of readers, no matter the season.

Any recommendations?