Books: Fiction in brief

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The Tesseract by Alex Garland, Viking, pounds 9.99. Published two years ago, Alex Garland's debut novel, The Beach, came top in every random public transport test (as good a gauge as any of a writer tapping into some sort of zeitgeist): always available in airport lounges, forever spotted on tube trips and bus rides. It was a cerebral page-turner about paradise lost, about a Thai beach that - with all its vaguely counter-cultural cool - had more than a hint of lurking darkness.

The Tesseract, his second novel, reads rather like a surreal romp through Manila; it's split into three parts, each one touching the other two at the narrative edges. The effect is to witness the same events and characters, the shootings or funerals, from different angles, the shift in focus making incidental moments from one story the centre-piece of the next.

In the first, Sean - a hard-smoking Englishman - is holed up in a run- down hotel, nervously awaiting the arrival of Don Pepe and his cronies. His room is full of cigarette burns and bullet holes, and he spends his time squashing cockroaches. When there's a knock on the door, he lets off a round of bullets at his visitors. The slow-motion description, like many in the book, is beautifully done: "The suck of air from the opened door pulled another door shut, further down the corridor. Caught in the passing vacuum, the light bulb above the Filipinos began a single outwards swing. Their heads turned to trace the source of the unexpected slam. Sean, his gun already levelled, was unseen by any of them. Standing in the door-frame, as good as alone, a free agent in a split second."

The second story, much the most effective, concerns Rosa, now living in Manila but remembering an old lover from the provinces. A nuanced character study of rural Catholicism, she is both modest and romantic. Garland captures the guilt, as she sits in church blushing, "afraid that her thoughts had somehow been loud enough to be heard by the mourners in the surrounding pews". Rosa had had to escape to the capital to avoid a scandal, and, having returned for this, her father's funeral, her family's scars are reopened, some literally. Now a doctor, she hears the volley of Sean's shots in Manila, making her "think of a dry kindling stack, abruptly engulfed in flames."

The third is a rather cliched tale about an upper-class sociologist, Alfredo, paying street children to hear their dreams, their "conscious and unconscious narratives of breakdown and change". Vincente and Totoy run free, begging through dirty barrios, eventually turning up at the closing scene, where Sean, Rosa and the rest have assembled for the violent denouement.

The book is perfectly paced and put together, the languorous descriptions - capturing the "resolutely siesta atmosphere" - alternating with the action. But the plot as such is thin, and the Graham Greene comparison (prompted by J G Ballard on the cover) isn't valid: Garland inhabits the same hot and humid environs, but The Tesseract lacks the fatalistic overlay or grand design of Greene. Characters slip into Tagalog, but there's no real engagement with the country, its history or politics, so the capital ends up feeling like any other vaguely Hispanic city, complete with crime and slums and immigrants from the suburbs.

A tesseract, incidentally, is like a three-dimensional crucifix, which represents a four-dimensional "hypercube" unravelled. The title is presumably a metaphor for Garland's three tales, and the hidden stories they rather frustratingly can only hint at. "We can see the thing unravelled," Alfredo tells Vincente, "but not the thing itself."