Monday, November 7, 2011

Elliot Perlman on Isolation, Kidnapping and Despair

(This interview originally appeared in the Westchester Journal News in February 2005)

By Dylan Foley

In “Seven Types of Ambiguity” (Riverhead, $28), Australian writer Elliot Perlman has created an epic social novel that explores the obsessive love of Simon Heywood, a failed poet and teacher, for his college girlfriend Anna in 1990s Melbourne. For Simon, Melbourne and the rest of Western culture is an emotionally bankrupt and socially isolated world, where marriages disintegrate through adultery and contempt.

The novel is centered around Simon’s irrational act of kidnapping Anna’s young son to win back her love. Though the boy in not harmed, the consequences are disastrous for all involved. The story is told by seven narrators, including Simon, Anna’s husband Joe, Simon’s troubled psychiatrist, and Angela, Simon’s prostitute girlfriend who also sleeps with Joe. Perlman uses his large cast of characters to cut through Australian society, from its stockbrokers and teachers, to its unhappy housewives and brothel inmates.

“This novel seems to be a lightning rod for passionate emotions,” said Perlman in an interview from Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, where he lives. Viciously attacked in New York Magazine review earlier this month, then lionized by critic Daphne Merkin a few weeks later, the book has developed partisans and foes.

“Seven Types of Ambiguity” is an undeniably lush, sprawling work. In 650 pages, Perlman pulls out the barrenness of the modern world, where families are fragmented, material consumption is the new god and economic instability is the norm. By looking at Simon from seven angles, Perlman also explores the nature of idealism, ego and madness.

“Simon is a troubled man and an idealist,” said Perlman. “The things he wants for the world and himself are very admirable. The things that he brings about are less admirable. The question posed to the reader is how much idealism is healthy, and how much idealism is unhealthy to both the individual and those around him?”

In Australia, Perlman is an acclaimed writer, with the novel “Three Dollars” and the short-story collection “The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming” under his belt. With his dark, movie-star good looks, the 40-year-old Perlman is stopped by fans on the street in Melbourne. In New York, he is still an unknown writer.

With his breakout novel for the American market, Perlman presents the dark side of globalization, outsourcing and managed care in a Melbourne devoid of community, full of lonely people and unhappy couples.

“It could be any big city,” said Perlman. “Doesn’t (this isolation) ring true in your experience of the world? It rings true to my experience. There are couples who have small children, they buy pastry and go and visit other couples with small children. They sit and drink coffee and chat. It all looks pretty good. Imagine the house you are going to visit. Minutes before you get there, somebody is yelling at someone, ‘Would you turn the bloody heat off for the 10th time?’”

And the hosting couple’s financial prospects are grimmer than they look. “They’ve got a new flat-screen TV, their kid is friends with your kid, but it’s not all good,” said Perlman. “They are mortgaging their futures to pay for a lifestyle that will impress you on arrival. Depending on how well you know them, you’ll get a glimpse of that.”

Idealism in modern society, argues Perlman, has been trampled by economic self interest. “The point is made through Angela (the prostitute),” he said. “From the view of a free market economist, she is doing absolutely the right thing. She’s taking her physical assets, maximizing them for their economic potential and selling them to the highest bidder. If this attractive young woman worked at a diner, she’d be making minimum wage plus tips.”

Perlman, a practicing barrister back in Australia, had access to lawyers and judges for his literary research. To write about prostitutes, he had to go to the Melbourne brothels, were even talk is expensive.

“Prostitution is legal in Australia. It was relatively easy to get access to women through the prostitutes’ union,” he said. “I walked into a brothel with my two books and my business card. They didn’t trust me. After being initially reluctant to talk, the women were all desperate to talk. It was a situation of ‘Choose me, but not for sex.’

“The only private rooms were the bedrooms. Management said, ‘We don’t care what you do in the room, but you have to pay for it.’ I called my accountant and said, ‘To talk to these girls, it will cost $150 an hour. Can I take the deduction?’ She said to save my receipts.”

The epidemic of outsourcing has already wiped out many blue-collar jobs and is now afflicting white-collar workers, and Perlman sees this as largely responsible for the crushing depression plaguing much of Western society.

“There is much more insecurity in our economic life,” he said. “It is a crisis that doesn't get discussed, an epidemic of insecurity, both economic and emotional. At work, there isn’t a set of guys anymore that you see every morning, that you then wind up hanging out with for 10 or 15 years. If there is more pressure on you, it will tip into a crisis you may have avoided like alcoholism, marital problems or emotional breakdown.”

Writing a long social novel can be a risky proposition in these attention-deficient times, but Perlman is committed to his weighty themes that range from literary criticism and child snatching. “You have to write what you want to read,” he said. “I wrote a novel for a reader like me that reflects my concerns, my passions and despair over contemporary Western society as I see it.”

With “Seven Types of Ambiguity” already in its third printing, Perlman is trying to make a foothold in the American market where only a few of his countrymen, such as Thomas Keneally, Peter Carey and the critic Robert Hughes, have achieved literary fame.

“In Australia, the book has done very well,” Perlman said. “Here, we’ll have to see. There is a certain difficulty in cracking the American market as a writer from Australia. Americans don’t know much about Australia. They think, ‘Australia is kind of like us, but it isn’t us. Isn’t it like New Mexico or Arizona?’”

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