Seven Types of Ambiguity, by Elliot Perlman

The maddening pain of unrequited love

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The Independent Culture

The critic William Empson was in his twenties when he wrote the seminal Seven Types of Ambiguity, in which he demonstrated that what we instinctively consider "poetic" depends on the presence of ambiguity. Its fame must have come to seem a curse, like being forced to spend the rest of your days yoked to the first person you fell in love with. Nor is this an empty simile: the nearest most of us come to the intensity of poetical experience is through love. And love itself - at least in the early stages of being "in love" - is marked by a tapestry of interwoven ambiguities.

The critic William Empson was in his twenties when he wrote the seminal Seven Types of Ambiguity, in which he demonstrated that what we instinctively consider "poetic" depends on the presence of ambiguity. Its fame must have come to seem a curse, like being forced to spend the rest of your days yoked to the first person you fell in love with. Nor is this an empty simile: the nearest most of us come to the intensity of poetical experience is through love. And love itself - at least in the early stages of being "in love" - is marked by a tapestry of interwoven ambiguities.

Those early stages are the playground of projection, the biggest ambiguity of all. Even if our feelings are real, the person with whom we are so maddeningly engaged may be the ghost of our own imagination. Generally, these ambiguities are resolved, and the lovers can either part or drift to the safe harbour of settled love. But unrequited love is so crippling a misperception, it deserves to be classed as an illness. Far worse, though, is when unrequited love, through madness or loss of hope, believes itself requited. This is the theme of the Australian writer Elliot Perlman's novel.

Seven Types of Ambiguity is, at its heart, the story of Simon, a clever young man who never makes it into the controlled resourcefulness of manhood. His affair with Anna expires, and she marries an oafish, brothel-haunting, car-boasting dealer.

Simon somehow believes he and Anna are still "together", that she still loves him. He stalks her then, briefly and harmlessly, kidnaps her son. Shopped to the police by Angelique, a prostitute (young, beautiful, clever, and the one who really does love him), he fetches up in chokey, amid fashionable cries of pederasty. It ends ambiguously, though unambiguously badly.

But this central plot, with its Empsonian fixings, is only the scaffolding on which a far more ambitious novel is constructed. Trying to second-guess a novelist's intentions is a quick route to hell. But I'd say that Perlman, who has the skills and instincts of a first-class novelist in what we might call the "romantic" genre, is anxious to demonstrate that he can handle wider social, and literary, themes. No need: the devices and desires of our hearts need not be sugared with literary theory or narrative legerdemain.

The opening chapter - a letter to Anna from Simon's psychoanalyst - is brilliantly achieved, and leaves the reader in no doubt that he or she is in safe hands. In this register of calm virtuosity, Perlman is at his best. He should relax into his true strengths, and to hell with the allusions and the theory - because the people who care about that are not those who will read this humane, puzzling and often empathetic work.

The reviewer's 'Lost Worlds' is published by Granta

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